Anthropogenic geography, also called human geography or anthropogeography, is the science devoted to the analysis of the distribution, location and spatial organization of human events. This science is composed of a synchronic aspect, i.e., the analysis of human organizational designs present in the world at a given time, and a diachronic aspect, i.e., the analysis of the processes over time that led to the formation of these arrangements.
This branch includes the cultural, economic, social and political aspects of geography. Privileging the search for subjective elements in the human-territory relationship, it often makes use of disciplines such as the social sciences (especially sociology, economics, and psychology), or communicative forms such as literature and artistic expressions, especially in regional or national contexts.
Human geography today is a multifaceted and ambitious discipline. One could try to define it with a lapidary formula by saying that it studies man on Earth, man and Earth or the spatial dimension of societies, but we would thus miss part of its content; it is preferable then to describe in detail its current methods.
Human geography first of all studies the distribution of humans on Earth and the way they live. They derive from nature what is indispensable to them for nourishment, for the production of tools and equipment, for the construction of shelters and homes. By their actions they profoundly alter the ecological pyramids in which they fit: they sometimes succeed in drawing only on renewable resources, allowing the indefinite regeneration of the system they use, but in other cases they irreversibly disrupt it, giving rise to landforms, soils and plant species very different from those that existed before.
Human geography then dwells on how societies function and how distance and remoteness variously affect their activities. The social body resembles a machine: for it to function well, its parts must articulate with each other efficiently. Central positions foster contacts and relationships, while the periphery presents interest only in the resources at its disposal. The social machine does not develop in a homogeneous space, but in very different environments, and certain places favor specific configurations.
Human geography does not stop at this mechanical view of the spatial organization of societies. Humans question the meaning to be given to their passage on Earth and attribute various meanings to the world and nature: certain places are sacred to them and others profane, here they have the feeling of being in front of authentic landscapes while elsewhere everything seems artifact. They love what is original and often reject what is mundane; their dreams and aspirations influence their decisions and end up being reflected in the arrangements of the environment they make.Human geography thus has three sides. The first studies the place of humans in ecosystems; the second analyzes the logic by which countless human decisions end up producing a certain spatial arrangement, a regional organization; and the third is concerned with the way humans conceive of the world, ascribe meaning to it, and consequently modify it. The three articulations of human geography are not independent of each other, but use different kinds of tools. The optics are naturalistic when it comes to seeing how humans fit into the natural pyramids, dominate them and modify them. Instead, the procedures resemble those of sociology, economics and political science when it comes to understanding the mechanisms that arise from the interaction between individuals and their quest for prestige, power and wealth. To assess instead the reactions of humans to the natural environment, it is useful to make use of psychology, but the most valuable suggestions come from humanities studies, philosophy, the history of ideas and the study of ideologies and collective representations. Human geography therefore approaches the hermeneutic sciences.Although barely a century old, human geography is a complex discipline. To understand its current aspects and the aspiration of its devotees to associate such diverse points of view, it is appropriate to observe how reflection within it has developed.It will then become clear how the set of current interests arose from the effort to overcome approaches that remained too partial and one-sided for a long time.
Geography is one of the oldest scientific disciplines cultivated by mankind: its initiator was probably Herodotus, but its program was defined mainly in the Hellenistic age. The name given to this science clearly expresses its purpose: to describe the Earth, and for this purpose to know first and foremost how to locate places. Geography presents the world: it shows the regional articulations of the planet, highlights the affinities that emerge between one country and another, researches their causes, and also emphasizes what gives each place its unmistakable appearance. Location geography, which is essential for grasping spatial configurations and assessing the effects of latitude, longitude and continentality, is treated by Ptolemy, while Strabo’s work is remarkable for its descriptions. In all this man is not absent: peoples are enumerated, their customs are described, and what in nature and orography is conducive to their activities is pointed out; however, the emphasis is more on the land than on the inhabitants.Until the 18th century, geography continued to devote itself primarily to the description of the Earth and location. The study of society retains limited importance for it. After 1750 there is a change, related to the decisive advances in topographic surveying and the exact determination of longitudes: location problems become purely technical and are no longer the focus of the discipline. The description of the Earth becomes more precise, thanks to developments in the natural sciences: zoology, botany and geology make it possible to name animals, plants and rocks and to identify their specific characters. Research in agronomy leads to similar results regarding agricultural landscapes.
The most important change, however, comes from outside: with Herder, German thought critiques the idea of progress, fundamental to the Enlightenment, but without renouncing it. Peoples evolve, but each with different rhythms and following their own paths; the becoming of each is inscribed in the territory in which it is settled and which conditions its development. The philosophies of nature that flourished at the time show that the understanding of history passes through geography and that the fate of social groups is inseparable from the environment in which they live. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, with Karl Ritter and Alexander von Humboldt, the place of man in geography is expanded, and its purposes are broadened: to the description of the Earth (often it is specified: to the representation of its regional differentiations) is added the aspiration to make intelligible the evolutionary process of each people as a function of its environment.
However, one cannot yet speak of human geography: for the transformation of the discipline to be complete will require the impact of Darwinism, according to which the evolution of living things depends on the selective pressure of the environment. Studies of plants and animals henceforth imply two distinct outlets: the analysis of the living environment, to which ecology (so christened by Ernst Haeckel in 1866) is devoted, and that of the influences that the environment itself exerts on living things. Friedrich Ratzel, who was trained as a zoologist and thoroughly familiar with the various aspects of Darwinian thought and evolutionism, published a two-volume Anthropogeographie (1882 and 1891), which marked the entry of human geography into the realm of science. A few years later, between 1898 and 1900, the French began to use the expression ‘human geography’-preferring it to ‘anthropogeography,’ which was judged too pedantic-and conceived the new discipline, in evolutionary terms, as a branch of biogeography: there is a human geography just as there is a botanical geography.
The purpose of the new discipline is thus, in the Darwinian view, to study the way human societies are shaped by the environment in their components, their functioning and their evolution, so as to establish laws to explain the fate of humans and societies. But this ambition must soon be given up: man is a cultural animal, and he learns to consolidate his dominance over the natural world more by enriching his culture than by adapting to the environment in which he is settled. One cannot understand the future of societies if one ignores their capacity for invention and assimilation from other civilizations and if one neglects exchange and migration. Although Ratzel’s original aspirations were imbued with Darwinism, in his Anthropogeographie he insists as much on circulation and history as on the direct action of the environment. French geographers go further in this cautious reaction to the excesses of ecologism, and Paul Vidal de la Blache enunciates the theory of possibilism: nature proposes, but it is man who disposes. Ideas about human geography thus change significantly, although the discipline retains its ecological foundation and emphasizes the relationship between humans and their environment.