Geographical Scales in Human Geography
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Identifying and analyzing varying geographical scales is paramount to the study of human geography. At the heart of the matter lies the assumption that human processes do not occur in isolation from one another but in fact directly impact on the whole. Therefore, issues and events that occur on one scale, for example at the rural level, impact and are impacted upon by events taking place at the urban, national and even global levels. It is essential therefore that the entire process be viewed as one unified developmental progression and not as single phenomena with independent repercussions. Such is the ultimate concern of this work. What follows below is analyses how of different scales of geographical study impact upon one another and therefore shape the manner in which we conceptualize human processes as a whole. The scales in question will be confined to four areas of geographical analysis: rural; social; political and consumption. It is by using such defined criteria that we able to better comprehend how human society functions. This above all is the primary benefit in employing such analytical techniques because in doing so we are able to encapsulate the whole; as apposed to merely assessing individual factors without understanding their wider context and implications.
Let us begin by looking at rural aspects in Britain. In terms of numbers, the rural population accounts for far less than their urban counterparts. The general movement of people from the countryside to the towns that was indicative of the period following the industrial revolution continued well into the latter twentieth century, and although in recent years there have been suggestions that it is reversing; urban dwellers still make up the vast bulk of the national population. Given this, it would be natural to assume that rural Britain would be of lesser interest to the study of human geography. Indeed, there was a time when urban studies enjoyed a relative preponderance in this regard, however in recent years the countryside has again returned as an exiting point of analysis. This is mainly due to the fact that rural areas have become the focus of broader geographical study and cultural developments. Cloke offers us three reasons to explain this progression. Firstly, the study of countryside landscapes provides us with a demonstration of power relations in addition to being “subjects of desire” and conservation. Secondly, the countryside is perfect for the study of how nature and space interact. Also, the manner in which human and non human forces exist and co exist can be examined in rural settings. Finally, the countryside can conceal the presence of “hidden others”. As Cloke explains; “issues of gender, sexuality, poverty and alternative lifestyles are important in this context”.
Furthermore, rural matters and concerns impact upon other geographical scales. A pertinent example of this was seen during the Countryside Alliance Liberty and Livelihood March in London when 400,000 protesters descended on the capital to voice their frustration at the “encroachment of urban bureaucracy” into their lives. The march was primarily concerned with government plans to ban fox hunting, however its wider connotations show the extent to which scales of analysis directly impact upon one another and as such, broaden our understanding.
The arena of politics, due to its very nature never acts in isolation. Political processes affect every form of human organization and therefore they are vital to our present discussion. There is little need to spend time assessing the impact of traditional politics; as this is largely obvious. Therefore, I will look at the issue of nationalism as a reference point for assessing one political impact in detail.
Nationalism is essentially the feeling of association and identification that a particular group of people feel to a particular nation. However, what is a nation? If we look at it one way we can say that a nation or country is nothing more than a geographical portion of land that a collection of people have taken a liking to. Now it is at this point that the issue of nationalism becomes pertinent to the human geographer. As Pyrs Gruffudd has asserted, it is territorial ideology that drives nationalism and therefore, this “leads on to a whole raft of cultural relationships through which a people make a land their land. Nation building is a process that usually takes centuries to complete however it is nonetheless always formed on a geographical identify. Nationalists of course conclude that they have a whole plethora of things in common that make them distinct from other nationalities. However, it is their geography that sets them apart more than anything else. Furthermore, historical undertones are invariably used to bolster nationalist sentiment; Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill are classic examples. However, it is geographical underpinnings that form the foundation of this historical conception. A nation’s history is inextricably linked to its geographical space, which remains constant throughout the ages and therefore forms the basis upon which everything else ultimately rests.
Social geographers play a vital role in our process of conceptualizing human behavior. Above all, human behavior and the societal forces that dictate it form a large part of our identity and therefore go a long way to explaining human outcomes and events. It has been the case for many years now that the study of social geography has overlapped with; some argue even supplanted traditional sociology. Little time will be invested on such discussions here, but many social aspects of geographical study are strikingly similar to the issues pertinent to the sociologist.
Social geography focuses its attention primarily on “social relations, groups and inequalities”. The link with traditional geography is made by assessing social events and developments with reference to geographical phenomena. For example, one may examine how the social forces of a particular area have impacted upon its geographical nature. Also, the social geographer is concerned with examining how social constructs operate through geographical contours. Social geography does not offer the kind of in-depth societal analysis that we would find emanating from the sociologist or the anthropologist. However, this branch of geographical discipline is pivotal because instead offering detailed explanations of current social forces it suggests how these forces initially came about. As a paradoxical consequence of this it is then possible to trace social development and evolution, and account for modern phenomena and characteristics. As with all geographical disciplines, social geography is reliant on space for its analysis, however, it is also the study of place that determines much of the understanding here. The environment in which we live often dictates the outlook we will adopt and also has huge ramifications on our life options and choices. Furthermore, in addition to the impact on the individual there are also consequences for social formation and progression in general. Geography can have an enormous impact on local communities, particularly with the manner in which they develop cohesion and communal outlook. Who we are is therefore determined in many ways by where we are.
Thus, the connotations that social geography has for other geographical areas and wider academic disciplines is considerable. In fact, as social foundations form the basis on which human existence essentially rests, we can conclude that the study of social geography, with its emphasis on the social implications of geographical factors is of paramount importance.
The final area to which I will offer explanation is geographical consumption. At first sight consumption may appear a boring and relatively unimportant topic of discussion. However, this is most certainly not the case as issues pertaining to consumption have many times impacted on a massive scale. For example, it is not uncommon to find references to consumption and desire in analyses focused on the Cold War. In fact, some commentators have suggested that increased desire to consume on the part of many in the Eastern block played a considerable role in communisms demise. Consumption is therefore one of the ways that human geography crosses the boundaries of academia by infiltrating not only (in the above example) politics; but also economics.
Nonetheless, the concentration on consumption is a relatively new addition to geographical study as previously; it was left to other academic areas to assess the impact of this most pertinent of issues. However, it is largely due to the importance of consumption in our every day lives that the subject has become a valid object of analysis for the human geographer. Furthermore, the extent to which consumption has impacted upon geography is also considerable and again has increased in recent years. A useful example that can amplify this development is to be found in the countryside. Traditionally, rural areas were considered to be bastions of production and not consumption. In the years before industrialization and large scale shipping altered food production and dispersal beyond all recognition, the countryside was a vital part of every nation’s survival. However, with the onset of global markets and multiple exports, the British countryside no longer acts as the nation’s primary larder. As such, it is consumption that has filled the economic gap.
The same of course can be said of Britain’s urban areas; once the home of the world most powerful productive machine. Since the onset of manufacturing demise in the mid to late twentieth century the factory and the mill have been replaced with the shopping centre and retail park. In addition, consumption contains a social facet. The cloths we wear and the car we drive all play a part in fostering our identity and as such, our social being. Therefore, the study of consumption provides the geographer with valued insight into human processes and also links together with other aspects of human study.
In conclusion, it is clear how the above issues not only direct the study of human processes and events; but also impact upon one another. In doing so they form a whole that when conceptualized as such; can offer us a detailed and wide ranging assessment of how human beings order and organize their lives.
Cloke, Paul et al (Ed). Introducing Human Geographies. London: Arnold, 1999,
Daniels, Peter. Human Geograhpy: Issues in the Twentieth Century. London: Pearson, 2001.
Duncun, John and Agnew, John. The Power of Place: Bringing together geograhical and sociological imaginations. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
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