The academic subject of geography has had a mixture of fortunes throughout its history. The ancient Greeks saw geographical knowledge as one of the leading forms of scholarship, and the birth of modern geography placed it at the forefront of expanding Western empires in the 18th and 19th centuries. However, geographers were also at the forefront of ideas in a darker phase of history in the 20th century and caught up in ideologies leading to the First and Second World Wars. In the latter part of the 20th century, the subject also lost status. After the Second World War, some questioned the coherence of a subject that spanned the natural science of physical geography and the social science of human geography. Harvard University actually closed its geography department in 1948, more or less for just this reason. Moreover, in the English-speaking world, the later 20th century saw geography lampooned in popular culture as backward-looking, all about the names of capital cities, rivers and drawing maps. By the 1970s, comedians on television and film gained laughs from stereotypes of ‘geography teachers’, perhaps based on caricatures of teachers boring students with facts about far-flung places. In British culture, BBC comedies such as The Goodies and later Blackadder (now endlessly repeated on cable

channels worldwide) portrayed geography teachers as objects of ridicule. In North America, portrayals have tended more often to be of a dull subject that just wasn’t cool. However, in the 21st century, geography as a whole, and human

geography as a part of that, has enjoyed a far-reaching rejuvenation. In the last 30 years, the subject has enjoyed renewed interest and popularity, and influential people beyond the academic world have once again started to echo the 17th century philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) in proclaiming geography to be one of the most useful and important of subjects. Rather than being perceived as a weakness, being both a natural and social science is once again increasingly seen as a strength. There are several reasons for this renewal. In part it is to do with a significant evolution of what human geographers study and how they now go about theorizing the social world. It is also to do with how the world has changed, most notably as we live in a world that in the early 21st century in one way or another is increasingly globalized. At the time of writing this book, the current president of the Royal Geographical Society in London is in fact the former Monty Python comedian, now famed global traveller, Michael Palin. It is perhaps symbolic of the reversal in the subject’s fortunes that such a high-profile figure should invest energy in championing the subject of geography. Undoubtedly, this reversal in geography’s fortunes reflects a wider recognition that many of the current and ‘big’ challenges that face the world today are well addressed by the subject: globalization, climate change, sustainability, economic development or poverty reduction. Yet it is also about a reinvigoration of the theoretical ideas in the half of the discipline that this book deals with: human geography. In that respect – dealing with half rather than a whole subject –

this book is unique in The Basics series. To understand geography in its entirety, you may well want to invest in the companion volume Physical Geography: The Basics. But human and physical geography are also inextricably linked through geography’s long interest in the relation between the social and natural worlds and the ways that many issues – most notably that of our environment – require knowledge and understanding of both. So what is human geography, and what is all about? Human

geography is concerned with all aspects of human society on Earth,

but in particular adopts a spatial approach. If any one distinguishing feature marks the subject out from other social science subjects, it is this concern to think spatially about the social world. In that respect, human geographers share an interest in an enormous range of topics that are also the concern of other social science disciplines. What makes their perspective different, however, is what many thinkers in the subject call a ‘geographical imagination’. Human geographers think about how things exists in space, how features of the social world change across spaces and the difference that places make to the nature of human existence. They are also concerned with the unevenness of human existence in space and between different places. This rests on a basic philosophical viewpoint that everything that happens in human life occurs in a certain space and time. Geographers often use the clever epithet that all social life, one way or another, ‘takes place’. That is, everything in human life has to happen somewhere, and that somewhere (along with its relations to a lot of somewhere elses) matters a lot in terms of what actually happens. Human geography is therefore all about understanding why the

spatial nature of ‘social things’ matter. Differences between places shape how the nature of how things develop. Economic geographers, for example, have long argued that certain industries develop in certain cities or regions for reasons related to the specific nature of those places as well as to their position in relation to other places. In previous centuries, iron and steel industries grew up in Western Europe in places that were close to natural deposits of iron ore and in proximity to fuels for smelting like coal. By the 20th century, being close to these raw materials was no longer important but industries persisted in those places because by then a suitably skilled workforce were living in them and other related activities like shipbuilding had started near by. Examples would be north-east England in the UK, or the northern coast of Germany around the Rhine. In the 21st century, however, cheap labour and the demand for steel in developing countries in Asia and elsewhere have increasingly led to the relocation of these industries to new regions of the world such as the southern provinces of China and South Korea. Likewise, political geographers see the development of certain

governments and political institutions in a country as inseparable from the past development of societies in those particular parts of the world. Bolivian politics is very different from Thai politics for a

whole myriad of reasons related to the very different locations of these nation-states on the planet’s surface, and to the long history and relationships with other places these societies have had. In today’s world, where there has been much debate about the globalization of human life on Earth, the patterns of relationships across spaces and places that human geographers have sought to analyse have become increasingly complicated. Equally cultural geographers have long associated the nature of different cultures with – in one way or another – people living in certain places and in certain ways over long periods of time, although in modern times globalization has made this much more complex and difficult. So human geography then is a very broad subject in terms of topics

of analysis but one characterized by a very distinctive emphasis on the nature and significance of space and location. In writing this book I want to try to convince you that it is one of the most useful subjects anyone can study, and that it offers a unique and very powerful approach for understanding the big issues that face everyone on planet Earth in the 21st century. Not to play down the specific strengths of other subjects, human geographers certainly see the world differently from, say, sociologists, economists or political scientists. The philosophical concern with space provides an overall concern with issues that are often dealt with separately in other subjects. This holistic approach to understanding the social world is often seen as a major distinguishing strength. The reason is fairly straightforward: the social world is a complicated and messy thing that requires an understanding of many different aspects in order to see the whole. And you can only get so far in theorizing the world by focusing on one aspect in isolation to the exclusion of others. Economists may focus on markets, political scientists on institutions or sociologists on practices, but human geographers try to look at the relationships between all of these in order to understand what happens in the world. Human geography today is therefore a diverse subject far from the caricatures of geography teachers from earlier decades boring students with factual lists of peoples, places and countries. Hopefully if you are reading this book, your experience of geography in general, and human geography more particularly, is rather different from these caricatures. They exist because it is true that 40 or 50 years ago, the subject of geography was taught rather differently in English-speaking countries, but it is also true that the subject has

itself changed quite radically. Before we consider how this has come about, and the sheer diversity of both topics and theoretical ideas in human geography today, it is important to understand the major goals of this book and how it is organized.