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Six Essential Elements of Geography

Brianna Cowling, David Wood
  • Author
    Brianna Cowling

    Brianna graduated from Henderson State University in 2016 with a B.S. in Psychology and Biology. She has been a secondary science teacher for 5 years and has written curriculum and science lessons for other companies. She is a Certified Google Level 1 Educator and is part of the Edulastic Innovator Team and her campus Leadership Team.

  • Instructor
    David Wood

    David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Learn about the six essential elements of geography. Study examples of these elements, such as the world in spatial terms, human systems, and uses of geography. Updated: 12/20/2021

What is Geography?

Geography is defined as the study of the physical features of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, including how humans affect them, and the ways they affect humans. Physical geography focuses on Earth's physical features such as volcanoes and mountains. It also investigates Earth's natural elements like the atmosphere and climate. Human geography focuses on how humans interact with the physical features and natural elements of Earth. Humans have a great effect on shaping geography, but geography also affects humans and their actions as well.

What Are the Six Essential Elements of Geography?

A geographer is a scientist who studies geography. Geographers have identified six essential elements of geography.

  • The World in Spatial Terms
  • Places and Regions
  • Physical Systems
  • Human Systems
  • Environment and Society
  • Uses of Geography

These essential elements help geographers classify Earth's phenomena and characteristics as they relate to geography.

What Is Geography?

Geography isn't just maps; geography includes science-y topics like the formation of rivers, volcanoes, and earthquakes, and human geography like choosing locations for businesses, local conflicts, and environmental issues. It's an extremely wide-ranging subject. So, if it covers this much stuff, what is the definition of geography?

Geography is the study of the physical features of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, including how humans affect them, and the ways they affect humans. The subject can be broken down into six essential elements:

  1. The world in spatial terms
  2. Places and regions
  3. Physical systems
  4. Human systems
  5. Environment and society
  6. Uses of geography

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Six Essential Elements of Geography

As mentioned previously, there are six essential elements of geography: the world in spatial terms, places and regions, physical systems, human systems, environment and society, and uses of geography. This section will analyze each element and its components.

The World in Spatial Terms

The world in spatial terms has to do with how the world is organized and how this organization affects those who live on Earth. Geographers use maps to study the world in spatial terms. Maps enable geographers to determine the proximity between various locations on Earth. Relative location is a location in reference to another place. Relative location does not give an exact address or area, but describes a location based on some reference point. Relative location change depending on the reference point being used, but absolute location does not change. Absolute location is an exact location. Latitude and longitude are one way of providing an absolute location. Latitude is the distance either north or south of the equator, which runs horizontally across the Earth. Longitude is the distance east or west of the prime meridian, which runs vertically through the Earth.


Latitude and longitude are one way of describing absolute location.

Latitude and longitude


Places and Regions

Places and regions describe particular locations and specific characteristics that make the region unique. These characteristics include climate, cultural norms, languages spoken, and important landmarks. For example, to describe Morocco, a person might mention the dry climate, that the primary religion is Islam, and that the primary language spoken is Darija. It could also be noted that the region includes landmarks such as the Sahara Desert and mountainous areas.

Physical Systems

Physical systems include the study of the physical processes that shape Earth's landscape. Physical systems are natural phenomenon and weather events such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, hurricanes, and glaciers. Glaciers play a critical role in shaping landscape through a process known as erosion. Erosion is the removal of rock. As glaciers travel, their sharp edges drag against land and remove rock. Over time, this process can drastically change the shape of the land. Each area of Earth contains different physical systems that impact the area.


A glacier shapes the landscape of Earth.

Glacier


Six Essential Elements of Geography

The world in spatial terms covers the location of things in the world. While geography isn't just about maps, it does consider the location of places and how that impacts the topic. Geography includes the concepts of absolute and relative location. Absolute location is a location that never changes, like your longitude and latitude, whereas relative location is your location relative to another location, like living between the catholic church and the supermarket.

Places and regions might sound similar, but is more related to the features of a particular place or region. For example, what are the physical and human features of the place being studied, and what are the natural and cultural features of the region? What's the climate like? What about language, religions, government? For example, if you were studying Morocco, you might note that it has a dry climate due to being on the edge of the Sahara desert, that it contains mountains in the East, that the primary religion is Islam, and the primary language is Darija (Moroccan Arabic).

Physical systems is concerned with the natural features and processes of the place you're studying. This includes potential for earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the plants and animals of the area. Areas like California are prone to earthquakes; the Caribbean is a hot spot of hurricane activity; and glaciers can be found in Canada. Different places have different physical systems to consider.

Human systems is about studying how humans affect the landscape. This includes how humans move around, how ideas and beliefs spread, how goods and services move, how we affect each other, and how we build things and change the landscape. For example, you might study how a small town turned into a giant city: perhaps the steel industry attracted new people to the area during the industrial revolution. That would also lead to goods and services entering and leaving the area. These kinds of things can completely change an area.

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Video Transcript

What Is Geography?

Geography isn't just maps; geography includes science-y topics like the formation of rivers, volcanoes, and earthquakes, and human geography like choosing locations for businesses, local conflicts, and environmental issues. It's an extremely wide-ranging subject. So, if it covers this much stuff, what is the definition of geography?

Geography is the study of the physical features of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, including how humans affect them, and the ways they affect humans. The subject can be broken down into six essential elements:

  1. The world in spatial terms
  2. Places and regions
  3. Physical systems
  4. Human systems
  5. Environment and society
  6. Uses of geography

Six Essential Elements of Geography

The world in spatial terms covers the location of things in the world. While geography isn't just about maps, it does consider the location of places and how that impacts the topic. Geography includes the concepts of absolute and relative location. Absolute location is a location that never changes, like your longitude and latitude, whereas relative location is your location relative to another location, like living between the catholic church and the supermarket.

Places and regions might sound similar, but is more related to the features of a particular place or region. For example, what are the physical and human features of the place being studied, and what are the natural and cultural features of the region? What's the climate like? What about language, religions, government? For example, if you were studying Morocco, you might note that it has a dry climate due to being on the edge of the Sahara desert, that it contains mountains in the East, that the primary religion is Islam, and the primary language is Darija (Moroccan Arabic).

Physical systems is concerned with the natural features and processes of the place you're studying. This includes potential for earthquakes, volcanoes, glaciers, hurricanes, tornadoes, and the plants and animals of the area. Areas like California are prone to earthquakes; the Caribbean is a hot spot of hurricane activity; and glaciers can be found in Canada. Different places have different physical systems to consider.

Human systems is about studying how humans affect the landscape. This includes how humans move around, how ideas and beliefs spread, how goods and services move, how we affect each other, and how we build things and change the landscape. For example, you might study how a small town turned into a giant city: perhaps the steel industry attracted new people to the area during the industrial revolution. That would also lead to goods and services entering and leaving the area. These kinds of things can completely change an area.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are spatial terms in human geography?

Spatial terms in geography include relative and absolute location. Relative location is a location in reference to another location, while absolute location is an exact location.

What does it mean for geographers to look at the world in spatial terms?

Analyzing the world in spatial terms means to determine relative and absolute locations of objects. This enables them to create proximal relationships between two locations.

In which of the six essential elements of geography would you study instances of cooperation?

In the Environment and Society essential element, one would study instances of cooperation. This category analyzes how human cooperation impacts the Earth's landscape.

What are the six essential elements of geography and what do they mean?

The six essential elements of geography are The World in Spatial Terms, Places and Regions, Physical Systems, Human Systems, Environment and Society, and Uses of Geography. The essential elements help geographers classify Earth's phenomenon and characteristics.

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