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Relative & Absolute Location in Geography | Comparison & Examples

Sasha Blakeley, David Wood
  • Author
    Sasha Blakeley

    Sasha Blakeley has a Bachelor's in English Literature from McGill University and a TEFL certification. She has been teaching English in Canada and Taiwan for seven years.

  • 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 what relative location and absolute location are in geography. See the different ways you can determine relative location and absolute location. Updated: 04/06/2021

Location in Geography

Geography is the study of Earth and of how humans interact with and live on our planet. Understanding how to describe location is therefore very important to the study of geography. So what is a location, exactly? A location is a place or region anywhere in the world. Geographers have different ways of describing locations: a location can be relative or absolute. Understanding the difference between these two terms can make the study of geography easier and more relevant.

Location Types in Geography

When people think of geography they tend to think about maps, countries, and learning capital cities. But this isn't all that geography is about. Geography is a subject that looks at the physical features of the Earth and its atmosphere: it studies the impact of nature on those physical features, how humans impact the Earth's physical features, and the way those physical features impact humans.

While geography might not be all about maps and places, location is still a major part of geography. Every topic studied in geography is examined with reference to location. For example, if you're studying how local businesses will be affected by building a new highway, part of your study might look at the location of the highway relative to those businesses. If you're exploring how mountains are growing in an area due to the collision of tectonic plates, you might consider the location of those plates and the location of the mountains being formed. Location is connected to both physical geography and human geography.

There are two ways to describe locations in geography: relative locations and absolute locations. This lesson describes these different types of location and the difference between the two.

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What Is Relative Location?

What is relative location in geography? Consider a street sign on the highway that says that New York City is 100 miles away. Drivers can understand from this sign where the city is relative to their own position. This example provides a good relative location definition: a description of the location of a place in relation to something else.

Different kinds of relationships can be used when describing relative location, including the distance between two places. There are 100 miles between that point on the highway and New York City, but many more miles between New York City and London; New York's position is different relative to different places. Travel time can also be a way of measuring relative location. One might say that the mall is a 10-minute drive or that school is 30 minutes away on foot.

Relative Location Examples

Each relative location example will depend on where a person or another location is. Examples of relative location in geography include:

  • Frederick lives in a town that is west of the Mississippi River. His brother lives in a town to the east of the river. The relative location of the river differs based on the locations of the brothers, though the river itself remains in one place.
  • Baltimore, Maryland, is an 11-hour drive from Chicago, Illinois, but less than two hours' drive from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Its location is different relative to those two cities.
  • The dog shelter is on the same block as the post office: this might be how people in a town provide directions to the dog shelter in a way that most people will understand.

The relative location of the Mississippi River might be different compared to the locations of two towns.
The relative location of the Mississippi River

Explaining the route of a road trip or giving directions are some examples of times when using relative location can be useful. People who navigate a city visually rather than opting to use technology or maps may appreciate relative descriptions of where to go.

What Is Absolute Location?

Relative location is how locations are talked about much of the time, so what is absolute location? Absolute location is a way of describing where something is without basing it off of its relationship to other locations. Absolute location is useful for things like geographic surveys and for describing locations that are remote and have fewer relationships to other places. This absolute location definition means that any place on Earth can be described independently of the locations of other things and places if the correct tools are available.

Relative Location

Relative location is the position of a place as compared to another landmark. For example, you may look at the position of one city relative to another or the position of a bowling alley relative to the center of town. Let's say you're driving down the highway to spend a day at the beach, and you want to know how far it is to that beach. When a sign comes up telling you it's 30 miles away, that is a relative location. Similarly, when you say that you live on the West Coast of the United States, that location is relative to this particular body of land (i.e. the United States).

Absolute Location

Absolute location describes the position of a place in a way that never changes, no matter your location. The location is identified by specific coordinates.

The most common coordinate system is longitude and latitude, which describes a specific place on the Earth's surface. It doesn't matter whether you are currently in New York City or Timbuktu, the longitude and latitude of London will always be the same. Longitude is the position of a place on the Earth east to west, measured in degrees. You can measure location on the Earth in degrees because the Earth is roughly spherical. Longitude is measured from a vertical line that goes through Greenwich, in the United Kingdom. West of that line is measured in degrees west, and east of that line is measured in degrees east. The opposite side of the world is 180° west or 180° east, while Greenwich itself is 0°. Latitude is the position of a place on the Earth north to south, measured in degrees. The equator is 0°, and other positions are measured in degrees north or degrees south. The North Pole is 90° north, and the South Pole is 90° south. Together, a latitude and longitude can describe any position on the Earth's surface.

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Video Transcript

Location Types in Geography

When people think of geography they tend to think about maps, countries, and learning capital cities. But this isn't all that geography is about. Geography is a subject that looks at the physical features of the Earth and its atmosphere: it studies the impact of nature on those physical features, how humans impact the Earth's physical features, and the way those physical features impact humans.

While geography might not be all about maps and places, location is still a major part of geography. Every topic studied in geography is examined with reference to location. For example, if you're studying how local businesses will be affected by building a new highway, part of your study might look at the location of the highway relative to those businesses. If you're exploring how mountains are growing in an area due to the collision of tectonic plates, you might consider the location of those plates and the location of the mountains being formed. Location is connected to both physical geography and human geography.

There are two ways to describe locations in geography: relative locations and absolute locations. This lesson describes these different types of location and the difference between the two.

Relative Location

Relative location is the position of a place as compared to another landmark. For example, you may look at the position of one city relative to another or the position of a bowling alley relative to the center of town. Let's say you're driving down the highway to spend a day at the beach, and you want to know how far it is to that beach. When a sign comes up telling you it's 30 miles away, that is a relative location. Similarly, when you say that you live on the West Coast of the United States, that location is relative to this particular body of land (i.e. the United States).

Absolute Location

Absolute location describes the position of a place in a way that never changes, no matter your location. The location is identified by specific coordinates.

The most common coordinate system is longitude and latitude, which describes a specific place on the Earth's surface. It doesn't matter whether you are currently in New York City or Timbuktu, the longitude and latitude of London will always be the same. Longitude is the position of a place on the Earth east to west, measured in degrees. You can measure location on the Earth in degrees because the Earth is roughly spherical. Longitude is measured from a vertical line that goes through Greenwich, in the United Kingdom. West of that line is measured in degrees west, and east of that line is measured in degrees east. The opposite side of the world is 180° west or 180° east, while Greenwich itself is 0°. Latitude is the position of a place on the Earth north to south, measured in degrees. The equator is 0°, and other positions are measured in degrees north or degrees south. The North Pole is 90° north, and the South Pole is 90° south. Together, a latitude and longitude can describe any position on the Earth's surface.

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