Technical geography is the branch of geography that involves using, studying, and creating tools to obtain, analyze, interpret, and understand spatial information.[1][2][3][4] The other two branches, human geography and physical geography, can usually apply the concepts and techniques of technical geography.[3][4] However, the methods and theory are distinct, and a technical geographer may be more concerned with the spatial, technological, and theoretical concepts than the nature of the data.[5][6] Thus, the spatial data types a technical geographer employs may vary widely, including human and physical geography topics, with the common thread being the techniques and philosophies employed.[7] While technical geography mostly works with quantitative data, the techniques and technology can make use of qualitative datasets, differentiating it from quantitative geography.[1] Within the branch of technical geography are the major and overlapping subbranches of geographic information science, geomatics, and geoinformatics.[5]


The term "technical geography" derives from the words "technical," meaning relating to a particular subject or activity and involving practical skills, and "geography," meaning the study of the physical features, climate, and human and economic activities of a region or the earth as a whole. The origin of technical geography as a term can be traced at least as far back as 1749 in the publication "Geography reformed: a new system of general geography, according to an accurate analysis of the science in four parts."[6] This publication by Edward Cave divided the publication into four parts, one of which was named "containing technical geography." Edward Caves' book focused on both globes and maps under the section on technical geography, including concepts of cartographic design, and projection.[6] In this book, they stated they chose to use the term "technical geography" rather than "practical geography" to clarify that the branch is distinct in theory and methods.[6] This publication defines technical geography with the following:

"The Description confider'd as to Form is of three Sorts; The first exhibits the Earth, by a Draught or Delineation; the second by Tables, or Regillers; and the third by Treties or Discourse. Hence Technical Geography may be divided into Representatory, Synoptical, and Explanatory."

— Edward Cave, [6]

Technical geography as a term is more than simply place name recollection and involves spatial relationships between points, and theory.[8] As a modern concept, the term is intrinsically linked to geography's quantitative revolution in the 1950s and 1960s.[1][9] It focuses on spatial statistics and visualizing spatial information, emphasizing quantitative data and the scientific method.[1][10][11] It re-emerges as a branch of geography in the 2000s, and, as such, is a much more novel term, and less established in the literature, than either human or physical.[1] While the term technical geography has been put forward as a distinct branch and umbrella for these wider concepts, however, the terms used to describe the study of spatial information as a distinct category vary. When subdividing the discipline within the literature, similar categories—such as "techniques of geographic analysis",[12] "geographic information and analysis",[13] "geographic information technology",[14] "geography methods and techniques",[15] and "quantitative geography"[16][17]—are used to describe the same, or similar, concepts as technical geography. It is closely associated with, and sometimes used interchangeably with, the subfield of geographic information science.[10][18] Many of these terms or phrases are "grammatically awkward" and do not link the discipline explicitly as a branch of geography.[13] Each one also varies slightly in definition and scope, with some focusing more on how the technology applies to human or physical geography than how it is distinct in focus. The term technical geography is used alongside physical geography and human geography by the UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems to divide geography into themes.[3][5][19] The benefit of this wording is that it is consistent with the other two branches and clearly places the discipline within geography. There are other existing models to subdivide the discipline of geography into categories and focuses, including the four traditions of geography, which may vary dramatically between publications.[20]




See also: History of geography

The term technical geography as a distinct concept in geography dates back as far as 1749 in the publication "Geography reformed: a new system of general geography, according to an accurate analysis of the science in four parts."[6] This book distinguishes the term as a subdivision within geography, focusing on cartography and cartographic theory.[6] While the date the term first entered the English lexicon may be difficult to ascertain, technical geography techniques date back to cartography, surveying, and remote sensing.

In 1902, geodesy was suggested as a discipline supporting technical geography.[21] By 1917, technical geography was included among courses taught at some British schools, alongside mathematics, chemistry, and other natural sciences.[22] As techniques and concepts in technical geography advanced, geographers began to lament the lack of understanding and use of more advanced geographic concepts in society and law.[8] Specifically, this became an issue during The Michigan-Wisconsin Boundary Case in the Supreme Court of the United States, where the border was not defined with specific technical geographic concepts.[8]

During the quantitative revolution in geography of the 1950s and 1960s, technical geography began to differentiate into its own branch more clearly.[9][23] Before this, the techniques and methods of handling spatial information were primarily focused on supporting human or physical geography, rather than a subject of study itself. World War II, which saw the extensive use of cartography and air photos, revolutionized these techniques and brought a new focus on the benefits they offered.[24][25] In the years before the quantitative revolution, geography was generally fragmented and focused on descriptive approaches, and many United States universities were eliminating geography departments around the country. To address this, geographers began to debate the merits of more scientific and methods-based approaches to the discipline, and advocate for the benefits these methods had to other technical courses.[26][25][27][28][29][30] Some, such as influential cartographer George Jenks went as far as to suggest that cartography should be a separate academic discipline from geography entirely, even if only at a few academic institutions.[24] This approach was shunned by more traditional geographers, who viewed it as a deviation from how geographers had always viewed and interacted with maps.[31] While how best to approach the technical aspect of geography was heavily debated among geographers, geography departments at universities across the country began to teach a more scientific approach to geography.[32][33][34] The main claim for the quantitative revolution is that it led to a shift from a descriptive (idiographic) geography to an empirical law-making (nomothetic) geography.

Coinciding with the quantitative revolution was the emergence of early computers. The interdisciplinary nature of geography forces geographers to look at developments in other fields, and geographers tend to observe and adapt technological innovations from other disciplines rather than developing unique technologies to conduct geographic studies.[35] Computers were no exception. More than a decade after the first computers were developed, Waldo Tobler published the first paper detailing the use of computers in the map-making process titled "Automation and Cartography" in 1959.[36] While novel in terms of application, the process detailed by Tobler did not allow for storing or analyzing of geographic data. As computer technology progressed and better hardware became available, geographers rapidly adopted the technology to create maps.[37][35] In 1960, Roger Tomlinson created the first true geographic information system, which allowed for storing and analysis of spatial data within a computer.[38] These tools revolutionized the discipline of geography. In 1985, Mark Monmonier speculated that computer cartography facilitated by GIS would largely replace traditional pen and paper cartography.[35]

With the emergence of GIS, researchers rapidly began to explore methods to use the technology for a variety of geographic problems.[39] This led some geographers to declare the study of these methods their own science within geography.[39]

Along with computers and GIS, new spatial data sources emerged during the quantitative revolution. Remote sensing technology rapidly advanced during the Cold War.[40] As the technology became available to the general public, geographers were soon overwhelmed with large volumes of satellite and aerial images. New techniques were required to store, process, analyze, and use this new data source, birthing remote sensing scientists.[40]

In 1978 the United States military launched the first satellites that would enable the modern Global Positioning System, and the system's full capability was made available to the general public in 2000.[41] This facilitated a level of rapid acquisition of spatial coordinates that previously would have been prohibitively expensive. Geographers began studying methods and applications for this data.[1][42]

As these new technologies and methods are widely applicable to various disciplines, concern grew among geographers that these other non-geographers in other disciplines might become better at using them than geographers.[1] In 2016, Ionel Haidu stated:

"The risk is that non-geographers mastering these methods analyze the spatio-temporal data and information better than the geographers. That is why the need to deal with competition induced by other sciences claiming the geographic space as their subject of study and research becomes a serious challenge for geographers. Geographers need to test and adapt to the new methods, models and procedures and implement them in all fields and development trends of Geography. By these also, Technical Geography as a new line of research and professional training becomes a necessity."

— Ionel Haidu, [1]

Technical geography as a concept emerges to correct the historical trend in geography of adapting rather than developing new methods, technologies, and techniques for conducting geographic research by encouraging trained geographers to pursue this line of inquiry.[1][35] While the use of the term "technical geography" itself has been debated since at least the 1700s, concepts within technical geography are often separated from the rest of geography when organizing and categorizing subfields in the discipline.[6] Terms such as "techniques of geographic analysis",[12] "geographic information technology",[14] are used synonymously with the term within textbooks. In 2006, the peer-reviewed journal Geographia Technica was established to serve as an outlet for research employing quantitative methods within geography.[43][2] While a small journal by comparison, all publications within it fall under, and presumably endorse the technical geography term.

As technology such as GIS began to dominate geography departments, the need to develop new curriculum to teach the fundamental concepts became apparent. In response to this, the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science was established, and in 2006 published Geographic Information Science and Technology Body of Knowledge (GISTBoK).[44] The GISTBoK is designed to inform curriculum teaching GIS and other geospatial technologies.[44] While the book does not mention technical geography specifically, it serves as a landmark for the rapid growth of methods associated with technical geography in academic institutions. Today, while GIS&T is a common descriptor for clusters of courses involving concepts described in the GISTBoK, several geography departments use the term technical geography to describe clusters of courses offered that fall under the GIS&T umbrella, including University of Maryland and South Dakota State University.[45][46][47]

In 2009, UNESCO Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems employed the term technical geography to organize their literature related to geography, establishing a three-branch model of technical, human, and physical geography.[3][4][5][19] The categorization of technical geography as a branch is expanded upon by Ionel Haidu in his 2016 paper.[1]

Laws of geography

Waldo Tobler in front of the Newberry Library. Chicago, November 2007
Waldo Tobler in front of the Newberry Library. Chicago, November 2007

The concept of laws in geography is a product of the quantitative revolution and their emergence is highly influential in technical geography.[1] In general, like the concept of technical geography, some geographers argue against the idea that laws in geography are necessary or even valid.[48][49][50] These criticisms have been addressed by Tobler and others.[49][50] The discipline of geography is unlikely to settle the matter anytime soon. Several laws have been proposed, and Tobler's first law of geography is the most widely accepted in geography. The first law of geography, and its relation to spatial autocorrelation, is highly influential in the development of technical geography.[1] Some have argued that geographic laws do not need to be numbered. The existence of a first invites a second, and many have proposed themselves as that. It has also been proposed that Tobler's first law of geography should be moved to the second and replaced with another.[39] A few of the proposed laws of geography are below:

Controversy and criticism

Ontological criticism

Subdividing any discipline is a difficult matter, and geography is no exception.[4] Geography is very fragmented as a discipline, with a history spanning cultures and thousands of years.[53] There are other competing terms within the discipline, often used interchangeably with technical geography and each other to subdivide the discipline, including "techniques of geographic analysis",[54] "geographic information technology",[55] geographic information science, geoinformatics, and information geography.[56] Each term has slightly differing definitions and scopes, and the best word choice has been debated in the literature since at least the 1700s when Cave defended the use of technical geography over practical geography.[6] Ultimately, the word choice is semantical, but the decision to use different terms for the same concept is one of many contributing factors to the term technical geography having less supporting literature then human or physical geography.

More controversially, others deny the idea that the thought and techniques of geography constitute a new branch. This argument asserts that geography must be applied and, therefore, must focus on some subset of human or physical geography. They also argue that there is not enough well-established peer-reviewed literature to back the term as a new branch.

Critical geography

Main article: Critical geography

In response to the ideas and philosophies advanced during the quantitative revolution, critical geography emerged and advanced many criticisms of the methods and ideas of technical geographers.[10][31] Other geographers have criticized that geography has moved away from the abstract, unquantifiable aspects of place that are essential to the understanding of geography.[57]

Some have brought allegations that technical geography has introduced gender bias into geography departments as the discipline is disproportionately practiced by men and seen by some as more masculine.[10][58]


Influential geographers

See also: List of geographers

See also


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