In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geographic Thought (US)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Resources
  • Biographies
  • Autobiographies and Memoirs
  • Institutional Histories
  • Textbooks
  • Edited Collections
  • Journals
  • Exploration and the History of Cartography
  • Late 18th Century and Early 19th Century
  • Mid- to Late 19th Century
  • 20th-Century Inceptions: 1900s–1910s
  • Environmentalism Challenged: 1920s
  • Regionalism: 1930s–1940s
  • Spatial Science: 1950s–1960s
  • Spatial Science Critiqued: 1970s–1980s
  • Marxism and Critical Philosophies
  • Humanistic Geographies
  • Feminist Geographies
  • Pluralism: 1990s–Early 21st Century

Geography Geographic Thought (US)
Kent Mathewson, Ashley Allen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0127


“Geographic thought” as commonly understood in the discipline of geography encompasses the development of geographic knowledge in particular places, times, and contexts. Accordingly, it has traditionally been—and continues to be—primarily approached from a historical perspective. Geographic thought in the United States has evolved through a series of well-recognized and charted phases, with evident regional groundings, and is clearly linked to larger socioeconomic conditions, political climates, and cultural expressions. Although geographic thought in the United States exhibits distinctive traits that set it apart from other national traditions, parallels can be pointed to elsewhere, particularly in the United Kingdom, where common language facilitated frequent exchanges and cross-fertilizations. Geographic thought in North America predates the formation of the United States of America, but colonial geography’s articulations were primarily outside the academy in practical activities such as survey, mapping, and resource inventory. Geographic thought in the colonial colleges was largely imported from their British counterparts. During the pre-professional national period from the American Revolution through the mid-19th century, the main arenas continued to be practical, with some implantations in the academy. Geographical compendia, gazetteers, atlases, and other empirical media found popular acceptance and readerships. In the mid- to late 19th century the government-sponsored Great Western US surveys helped establish physical geography’s relevance, and environmental-determinist doctrine helped put human geography in the popular mind as well as in school curricula. With the turn of the 20th century, geographic thought came to be formally established in college and university curricula, new societies and associations were founded, and professionals were produced. During the 1920s, US geographic thought underwent its first “paradigmatic shift”—from simplistic environmentalist and deductive physiographic programs to “possibilist” human and inductivist physical-geographic approaches. The 1930s and 1940s saw a celebration of chorology or regionalism. The post–World War II period of the 1950s and 1960s witnessed a sharp turn toward spatial analytical and “scientific” methods both in human and physical geography. In turn, the 1970s and 1980s spawned critiques of the “quantitative revolution,” initially in the form of politically radical new directions and a retooling of humanistic impulses. By the 1990s the twin critical currents of radicalism and humanism had ramified in multiple new theoretical and methodological directions. This pluralism pertains today, with the former orthodoxies and approaches being retrofitted; for example, spatial science as GIS (geographic information science), or the “new” cultural geography. At the same time, US geographic thought continues both to borrow from and to serve as a source of theoretical and methodological direction for other disciplines.

General Overviews

With Martin 2015, US geographic thought now has a comprehensive overview, though only for its first century of professional activity—from after the Civil War to the 1960s. Other works that offer service as general overviews provide partial coverage or help bring Geoffrey Martin’s magnum opus up to the present. Blouet 1981 collects twenty essays on US geography’s inceptions in American academia. Most of the essays concentrate on the periods from the late 19th century up to World War II. Topics include preacademic origins, the profession, scholars, and schools. Cox 2014 provides an interpretive, critical perspective on Anglo-American geographic thought in the 20th and 21st centuries. The author probes the impact of the spatial-quantitative revolution and geography’s engagement with other social sciences, particularly social theory. Livingstone 1992 offers a masterfully presented intellectual history of geography since the 15th century, through a series of key episodes against the background of the broader social and intellectual contexts of the times. The episodes include the age of reconnaissance, scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, Darwinism, imperialism, regionalism, and spatial quantification, with the last two emphasizing US geography. In his 1978 presidential address to the Association of American Geographers (AAG), Melvin Marcus (Marcus 1979) traces the development of physical geography in the 20th century. He sees a robust beginning, a weak middle period, and a late resurgence, drawing significantly from previous AAG presidential addresses for his analysis. Schulten 2001 traces US attitudes toward world geography from the end of 19th-century exploration to the explosion of geographic interest before the dawn of the Cold War. The author focuses on four influential institutions—maps and atlases, the National Geographic Society, the American university, and public schools. Wheeler and Brunn 2004 provides a collection of essays on geography in the US South. Among the topics in this eclectic selection are eleven departmental histories, along with six biographical sketches, and various pieces on the contributions and trends of southern geographers and geography.

  • Blouet, Brian W., ed. The Origins of Academic Geography in the United States. Papers presented at a conference held 26–27 April 1979 at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Hamden, CT: Archon, 1981.

    Comes from a compilation of papers originally presented at a conference sponsored by the International Geographical Union on the history of geographic thought at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln in 1979. Each paper treats a specific topic, dealing with “Preacademic Origins,” “The Profession,” “The Scholars,” “The Schools,” and “The Ideas.”

  • Cox, Kevin R. Making Human Geography. New York: Guilford, 2014.

    Provides an interpretive analysis of the development of human geography in the 20th century. Explains and illustrates each school of thought in relation to given research examples and discusses the making of new ideas in relation to human geography.

  • Livingstone, David N. The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1992.

    Provides an excellent intellectual history of geographical thought in the context of the time period in which it was conceived. Examines contested histories and the role of geography during the Renaissance, the scientific revolution, the Enlightenment, the Darwinian revolution, and 20th-century episodes such as the “Regionalising Ritual.”

  • Marcus, Melvin G. “Coming Full Circle: Physical Geography in the Twentieth Century.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 69.4 (1979): 521–532.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1979.tb01279.x

    Discusses the role of physical geography during the 20th century, and the tendency of physical geographers to adhere to “man-land” traditions. Gives a review of history of physical geography as well as explores geographical opportunities for the future. Discusses breadth versus depth in geography education.

  • Martin, Geoffrey J. American Geography and Geographers: Toward Geographical Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195336023.001.0001

    Authoritative study on the origin and formation of American geography. Uses primary sources found by research in over 150 national and international archives. Author is the official archivist of the Association of American Geographers, and he is a preeminent historian of modern geographic thought.

  • Schulten, Susan. The Geographical Imagination in America, 1880–1950. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.

    Examines the history of geographic interest and popularity in the United States. Focuses on maps and atlases, the National Geographic Society, the American university, and public schools.

  • Wheeler, James O., and Stanley D. Brunn, eds. The Role of the South in the Making of American Geography: Centennial of the AAG, 2004. Columbia, MD: Bellweather, 2004.

    Discusses the influence of the South and southern geographers in the development of American geography. Includes discussions on trends, departmental histories, biographies of southern geographers, personal stories, and memorials.

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