Geography Settlement Geography
Timothy Anderson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0120


The classification of settlement geography as a separate subfield in the discipline has become less clear over time, its foci and objectives increasingly debated even among its own practitioners. At the broadest level, it can be defined as the branch of human geography concerned with the description and analysis of cultural landscapes produced through the human occupation of distinctive regions and locales. From the later decades of the 19th century until the early 1970s, settlement geography occupied a rather well-defined niche within the field and a number of its scholars rose to preeminence in the discipline, much of their attention focused on rural places and the search for historical and social meaning embodied in material culture complexes associated with the settlement of such places. German, French, and British scholarship emphasized the spatial organization and morphology of rural villages and other settlement features such as dwellings, fields, and parcels, including the historical origins and development of these forms and features; Indian settlement geography research during this period addressed similar themes. North American settlement geographers focused much of their effort during this era on describing and delimiting patterns in the rural landscape, emphasizing in-depth analysis of the built environment in order to uncover larger “cultural” processes (such as cultural diffusion) at work in the production of these landscapes. The qualitative revolution of the late 1960s and the postmodern/humanistic “cultural turn” of the 1980s has produced newer generations of geographers who pose different questions about the nature of settlements and their cultural landscapes, especially questions relating to issues of race, gender, and power. This newer scholarship de-emphasizes the rural and the folk and instead focuses much of its attention on the social production of space, especially in urban settings. A dominant theme in such research is the analysis of the morphology and nature of settlements as it relates to issues of planning and the social geography of both rural and urban environments employing newer spatial technologies such as GIS, as well as post-structural methodologies and formulations. Accordingly, studies falling under the umbrella of what might be called settlement geography today engage a wide variety of subject matter and employ a variety of research methodologies; this sets contemporary settlement geography apart from more “traditional” rural settlement geographies that dominate so much of the subfield’s earlier literature. Given this traditional-contemporary dichotomy and the breadth of the field, especially since the “cultural turn,” this bibliography focuses primarily on the themes (historical, cultural, and rural) with which “traditional” settlement geography was concerned and the expansive literature associated with this period.

General Overviews

The majority of comprehensive introductions to the field appeared in the 1960s, the peak output years for “conventional” rural settlement geography scholarship. This is hardly surprising, given the late-20th-century paradigm shift in human geography and the resulting decline in the number of such studies. Although now dated, they nevertheless remain useful overviews with regard to research foci and methodologies. Kohn 1954 provides the broadest overview of the nature and substance of the field during a time when it was acknowledged as a vibrant subfield in the discipline. Schwarz 1966 is technically a textbook, but its early chapters provide the most comprehensive historiography of the vast German-language settlement geography literature. Likewise, although a textbook, the first two chapters of Mandal 2001 offer the best summary of the substantial settlement geography scholarship produced by Indian researchers. The internal debate among American scholars with regard to the proper subject matter with which settlement geography should be concerned is illustrated in the exchange between Kirk Stone and Terry Jordan (see Stone 1965, and Jordan 1966).

  • Jordan, Terry G. “On the Nature of Settlement Geography.” Professional Geographer 18.1 (1966): 26–28.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.1966.00026.x

    A critique of the core foci and goals with which settlement geography ought to be concerned as suggested by Stone 1965. Borrowing heavily from themes antecedent in European (especially German) scholarship, the author argues that the study of the “form of the cultural landscape” (p. 27), centered on the empirical analysis of the built environment, distinguishes settlement geography from other branches of the discipline.

  • Kohn, Clyde F. “Settlement Geography.” In American Geography: Inventory and Prospect. Edited by Preston E. James and Clarence F. Jones, 124–141. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1954.

    Although now dated, this is still a useful and rather comprehensive summary of the field’s subject matter and central themes. Provides a thorough review of American scholarship in the field up to the time of its writing.

  • Mandal, R. B. Introduction to Rural Settlement. New Delhi: Concept, 2001.

    This book is relatively unknown to western scholars, but its first two chapters provide perhaps the most recent and complete overview of the scope, foci, and principles of rural settlement geography that exists in English today. Most examples of major themes are drawn from Indian and Asian cultural landscapes.

  • Schwarz, Gabriele. Allgemeine Siedlungsgeographie. Berlin: Walter De Gruyter, 1966.

    A classic treatise from one of the field’s preeminent German scholars of the 20th century. Encyclopedic in scope and meticulous in its attention to detail, it ranks as one of the most complete assessments ever written of the world’s settlement landscapes. Organized with respect to rural, “partly urban, partly rural,” and urban landscapes, the focus of attention is the morphological and functional character of human settlements.

  • Sharma, R. C. “An Appraisal of Settlement Geography with Reference to India.” Professional Geographer 21.3 (1969): 158–162.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.1969.00158.x

    A comprehensive accounting of the contributions of Indian scholars to the field, emphasizing major research themes and concentrations. At the same time, provides a fine, general assessment of the state of the field at the time it was written.

  • Stone, Kirk H. “The Development of a Focus for the Geography of Settlement.” Economic Geography 41.4 (1965): 346–355.

    DOI: 10.2307/141945

    An early effort to formally define the subfield by one of its most prolific practitioners. Somewhat controversial due to the author’s suggestion that settlement geography ought to be rather narrowly defined as the description and analysis of structures that are erected in the process of occupying an area; but it is nevertheless useful if only for its extensive literature review of the subject.

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