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Comparison of Physical Geography Research Approaches

Info: 2259 words (9 pages) Essay
Published: 17th Mar 2021 in Geography

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Geography is a subject that covers a wide variety of content, from the fundamental philosophy of research such as exploring questions about the nature of reality (ontology) and how we decide to get to grips with understanding what really exists (epistemology) (Brown 2004). On the other hand, geographers study the physical environment of the planet and its atmosphere, and how increased human activity has affected these (Clifford 2010). Geography is also a principle that uses a vast array of research methods in order to test a hypothesis (Montello 2013). The main reason the discipline of geography uses research methods is to provide a base for researchers to build on, beginning with an initial idea, progressing to methodology and finally introducing several regularly used methods in analysis and data collection (Nola 2006). The framework for research for both physical and human geographers is very similar and has four stages; ontology and epistemology, paradigms, research methodology and research methods (Montello 2013). In this essay I am going to critically explore the strengths and weaknesses of two research approaches used in the discipline of physical geography which are laboratory experiment and field-based research. 

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Laboratory Experiment: 

The most common method of analysis in science is an experiment (Nola 2006). The main characteristics of a scientific experiment are control over independent and dependent variables, precise measurement and working with a hypothesis. Having control over the different variables in an experiment helps to mitigate the number of possible causes that could determine the observations (Clifford 2010). During experiments the independent variable or the cause is altered and the dependent variable or the effect is being tested or measured. A laboratory is used to eliminate all reality that isn’t the variables that are being tested in the experiment (Montello 2013). However, laboratory tests depend up on a clear recognition of the phenomenon to be researched. Frequently this means transferring experiences of changes ‘in the field’. Whilst undertaking laboratory experiments the question arises of whether the reality being reflected in the laboratory is the exact same reality that was detected out in the field.  

There are many advantages to using laboratory experiments in order to test a hypothesis such as the level of accuracy and precision that the researcher will obtain from the data they collect (Clifford 2010). Laboratory experiments enable the specific effects of the many different variables in the experiment to be carefully measured (Clifford 2010). Subsequently this makes it feasible to make a connection between the reality of the cause and effect association between different variables (Brown 2004). Also, the controlled circumstances of laboratory experiments enable the researchers to seclude variables more thoroughly than with any other research method such as in the field (Montello 2013). In turn this allows scientists to specifically measure the definite consequence which one or all the independent variables have on the dependent variable (Nola 2006).  

Controlled circumstances in experiments also enable the scientists to eradicate the effects of extraneous variables (Clifford 2010). These variables are inadmissible variables which are not contributing or helpful to the researcher in fact they can hinder the data and results of the experiment (Clifford 2010). If you were trying to measure what the pH of different water samples are, keeping all the water samples in the lab means you could ensure that none of the samples were getting contaminated or mixed up therefore mitigating the effects of if the samples weren't kept in such controlled conditions (Gerber 2011). Also, the controlled environment of laboratory experiments means it is simple to clone the precise environmental conditions of the authentic experiment which in turn means it is easy for the scientist to mirror the exact phases, making precise replication easier (Montello 2013). However, this is not automatically the same situation in a field experiment, where there is much more opportunity for extraneous variables to obstruct the research system in an array of ways with repeat experiments (Gerber 2011). There are also practical advantages of using laboratory experiments, once the experiment has been set up in the laboratory scientists can then use it whenever they please and utilize it every day (Nola 2006). Laboratories can eliminate any travelling to the field as it becomes the researchers microworld however they need to be careful that the laboratory conditions match the condition's in reality.  

Laboratory experiments also have disadvantages associated with them, some if not all experiments lack validity in some sort of way. The problem of validity is often referred to ecological validity (Montello 2013). The artificial setting of the laboratory can lead to ecological validity for example a researcher who examines the escalation of a plant colony in a laboratory setting may get the complete wrong impression of this phenomenon because the environment of the laboratory falls short when it comes to mimicking the exact atmospheric conditions that would typically be found out in the field (Montello 2013).  

Field Based Experiment: 

Field-based experiments are a type of qualitive research approach that use experimental design that transpire to those of an authentic environment (Montello 2013). Similar to laboratory experiments researchers explore how the control of a minimum of one independent variable result changes to a shift in a dependent variable however the difference is that it is conducted in the conditions of the most natural environment possible; the field (Clifford 2010). Field based experiments allow researchers to collect their own primary data it also provides students with an opportunity to learn away from the classroom and practice skills that enable them to learn through direct experience and involvement (Gerber 2011). Field based experiment trips can be as simple as a walk around a playing field or can stretch to being thousands of miles away on top of a glacier there is really no limit (Nola 2006).  

There are some advantages that field experiments offer over laboratory experiments, firstly field-based experiments offer better ecological validity, this is a huge advantage over lab experiments as they are taking place in the casually occurring settings which enables the researcher to gain more realistic results and data compared to if the same experiment was done in the laboratory (Montello 2013). If a scientist was measuring the rate of evapotranspiration on a plant in the field, they would gain a truer insight into the variables that affect this compared to inside a lab (Gerber 2011). Also, field experiments allow researchers to take on larger scale settings as the environment of the field has no real set boundaries, in theory they can be done on a whole farm or plant nursery if that’s what the researchers intend to do (Pitman 2005). Another advantage of field experiment is that it gives researchers the opportunity to collect physical measurements out in the field environments where the phenomena that intrigues them is situated in (Montello 2013). More often than not these measurements are taken directly out in the field with the results recorded down on paper or a computer program which gives the researcher an authentic feel of reality. This ability to link data with the real environment from which the data was taken allows the researcher to explore the different relationships between dependent and independent variables (Montello 2013).  

On the contrary field experiments do have their disadvantages. It is extremely difficult to control variables as meticulously than when you are in the laboratory which means there is minimal regulation over extraneous variables that may cause skewed results or even a bias (Nola 2006). This makes it challenging for other scientists to clone the experiment in precisely the same way and therefore confirm relations between data sets or hypotheses (Clifford 2010).  

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Compare and contrast: 

There is a clear division between laboratory and field experiment environments for managing research studies. On one hand, a laboratory is explicitly made for a highly controlled environment that is usually situated inside of a building therefore protected from the elements (Brown 2004). This allows researchers to have almost complete control over all the variables at hand when working on the studies of their specifically chosen phenomenon to engage research in (Montello 2013). Both human and physical geographers accumulate and test data in laboratories, conditions such as humidity, pH and temperature can be completely controlled. On the other hand, in the field context settings are substantially ‘naturalistic’, which means that scientists can research data collection locales that are the exact conditions and places where phenomena of interest go on as they naturally do (Montello 2013). Given that a lot of geographers like to work outdoors due to the nature of the discipline data compilation is more frequent out in the field than the lab (Montello 2013).  

An example of exploring the nature of variables in the filed as compared to the laboratory is research into soil composition. Random or controlled observations can be made in the field as to the potential for different observation areas to sustain the growth of a particular type of plant species (Gerber 20. As part of these observations multiple variables could be recorded such as drainage the presence of other flora and fauna as well as climatic conditions. A random or controlled set of soils samples taken to the laboratory would enable the isolation and identification of key factors such as the samples pH value (Clifford 2010). Although such isolation of a dependent variable is essential to understanding the growth rate of a plant species it does not reflect the total nature of the environment in which the species grows. Another example would be the analysis of how managing river habitats supports the growth of varying species of fish. A laboratory-based approach to this issue could have identified the quality of the water at different hatchery points but this would have missed the additional factors that are highlighted in the Scottish Environment Protection Agency’s report Managing River Habitats for Fisheries (SEPA 2004). Field observations that underlie some of the other factors that affect the spawning and growth of fish within Scottish rivers would have identified the use of rock formations to reduce the flow of rivers; bank stablisation, channel sedimentary composition and the channel vegetation (SEPA 2004). 

The issue of laboratory vs field experimental frameworks has many implications for the validity of causal conclusions we make about how our investigative data can be applied to different environments or measures (Gerber 2011). The point of this is that laboratory vs field experiments are predominantly separate from one another. There are two other approaches to research that a scientist can undertake such as field experiment or study and laboratory experiment or study.  Each is slightly different in their own way (Montello 2013).   


The choice of approach to enquiry depends on the physical environment you are trying to analyze and the number of dependent and independent variables. Laboratory based research enables the isolation of variables that can clearly identify cause and effect. Being in the lab these can be replicated and controlled to an extent that is not possible in the field (Clifford 2010). However, field-based research would not be able to control variables to such a degree. On the other hand, field research observations would be able to identify all of the factors that influence the physical environment. There is an argument that the use of both of these methods in the correct circumstances could lead to an accurate portrayal of all factors that influence a casual change therefore could be seen as mutually complimentary method of research rather than separate approaches to research. 


  • Brown, J.D., 2004. Knowledge, uncertainty and physical geography: towards the development of methodologies for questioning belief. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 29, 367–381.
  • Clifford, N., French, S. and Valentine, G., 2010. Key Methods in Geography, 2nd Edition. Sage.
  • Gerber, A., Green, D. 2011. Field experiments and Natural experiments. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199604456.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780199604456-e-050
  • Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA). 2004. Managing river habitats for fisheries. Retrieved from https://www.sepa.org.uk/media/151323/managing_river_habitats_fisheries.pdf
  • Montello, D., Sutton, P., 2013. An introduction to scientific research methods in geography and environmental science.
  • Nola, R. 2006. Theories of scientific method: An introduction.
  • Pitman, A.J., 2005. On the role of geography in earth systems science. Geoforum 36, 137–148


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