The Five Themes of Geography (Explained for Students)

five themes of geography, explained below

The five themes of geography are location, place, region, movement, and human-environmental interaction.

The human-environmental interaction theme was originally called “relationships within places”, and movement was first known as “relationships between places”.

The five themes were first introduced in the 1984 Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools

The document suggested the themes as a way for teachers to structure geography content. Teachers, writers, and curriculum designers have since widely used the five themes model to teach geography in the United States (Natoli, 1994).

These themes can be thought of as tools that make the study of geography in school more effective (Gersmehl, 2014).

chrisA Note from Chris: Throughout the piece, I present prompts and pose questions. Teachers, if you assign this article for homework, I’d encourage you to assign the questions for homework to encourage active reading and help test comprehension. Then, discuss the five prompt questions in your next class.

The Five Themes of Geography

1. Location

According to Natoli (1994), the first theme of geography is location because it is vital for understanding world climatic patterns and cartography.

Location refers to the position of a site on the Earth’s surface and can be understood in absolute and relative terms:

  • Absolute location refers to a precise and unique description. The most common way to describe the location of a site is by reference to its latitude and longitude or address. For example, the absolute location of Washington D.C. can be described with the following coordinates: 38.9072° N, 77.0369° W.
  • Relative location describes one location by comparing it to another one. In other words, by situating one location in relation to another. For example, Washington D.C. is around 330 kilometers from New York City. 

Every point on Earth has a unique absolute location that can be represented by two coordinates (latitude and longitude).

Relative descriptions aren’t necessarily unique and any location can be described in a myriad of relative terms. 

This theme helps teachers demonstrate the importance of knowing where something is before examining it geographically. For example, the location of a site gives information about its climate, access to resources, access to routes, and so on. 

Descriptions of spatial relationships through concepts like distance, proximity, and direction fall under the theme of location.

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: What are the two ways to describe location in human geography, and how do they differ from each other?
 

2. Place

If the theme of location answers the question of where something is, the theme of place answers the question: what’s it like?

It considers how one place is different from others. The word place refers to an area defined by everything in it. The location of a place stays the same, but its characteristics are constantly changing. 

Place differs from location because the latter considers a position in space, while the former considers the characteristics and features of a site.

Places have two main types of characteristics: physical and human.

  • Physical characteristics include things like landforms, plant life, bodies of water, climate, soil, and animals.
  • Human characteristics, on the other hand, include things like language, architecture, religion, political systems, and so on. 

These characteristics make each place unique and provide valuable information about its nature.

According to Lukermann, there are six constituent values of places: location, ensemble (the integration of nature and culture), uniqueness, localized focusing power, emergence, and meaning (Lukermann, 2008).

The theme of place provides further information about a location. Descriptions through the use of defining characteristics of a given site fall under this theme.

In geography, understanding places is essential for making comparisons of landscape elements and generalizing the characteristics of areas. 

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: How do physical characteristics and human characteristics contribute to the theme of place?
 

3. Human-Environmental Interaction (Relationships within Places)

Human-environmental interaction, originally termed “relationships within places”, is a theme of geography that deals with how people and their environments interact (Alliance, 1990).

This theme differs from the preceding two by the fact that it is not as exclusively geographical.

When geographers study human-environmental interaction, both the negative and positive effects of such interactions are under investigation. There are three key concepts in this theme: dependency, adaptation, and modification.

  • Dependency refers to how we as humans depend on our environment for necessities like food, water, and shelter.
  • Adaptation refers to the idea that humans adapt to the environment. We have settled in almost every corner of the world and have adapted successfully to the changing natural settings. 
  • Modification refers to the way we change our environment. The human characteristics of places like architecture, city planning, and landscaping shape the given natural settings to suit our needs. 

The theme of human-environmental interaction explores how places evolve, develop, and gain “geographical recognition by the intricate interactions between people and their physical and cultural environments, although it also subsumes physical-physical relations as well as cultural-cultural interactions” (Natoli, 1994, p. 3). 

This theme also includes the study of Earth as an environmental system that interacts with technology and the study of the conflicts between economic or technological development and environmental protection. 

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: What are the three key concepts in the theme of human-environmental interaction, and how do they relate to each other?
 

4. Movement (Relationships between Places)

The theme of movement addresses the question of how and why places are connected.

Movement, originally termed “relationships between places”, referred to the travel of people, goods, and ideas from one place to another.

This conception of movement is sometimes criticized for being too narrow. Some scholars now define movement to include economic, sociological, and informational interactions as well as environmental movements (Natoli, 1994, p. 3).

For example, the movement of continents, weather patterns, and ocean currents are just as much an object of this theme of geography as are the westward expansion of the United States and immigration. An individual’s travel from one place to another is also considered an example of movement. 

The inclusion and omission of physical geography from the theme of movement continues to be a matter of debate.

Bednarz, Tchakerian, and Giardino suggest that becoming familiar with several fundamental concepts of physical geography (system, boundary, driving force, resisting force, threshold, and equilibrium) is essential for understanding movement (Bednarz et al., 1993). 

Places may be connected through movement in many ways: through methods of transportation, everyday movement, economic factors that influence movement, water cycles, tectonic plates, global interdependence, and other types of human interaction.

The most concrete examples of how places have interconnected relationships are things like transportation routes. 

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: In the theme of movement, explain how places can be connected beyond just the transportation of people, goods, and ideas.
 

5. Region

A region can be defined as an area that displays unifying characteristics given some criteria. The theme of regions studies how areas are similar to one another and how they differ.

Regions can be divided into different categories, including: formal, functional, physical, human, and vernacular.

  • Formal regions have official boundaries and include cities, countries, and states.
  • Functional regions have apparent connections.
  • Physical regions have a unifying physical geography (for example, the Rocky Mountains).
  • Human regions have some unifying cultural, economic, social, or political characteristics (for example, the Northeast Corridor from Washington D.C.).
  • Vernacular regions have no formal boundaries but exist as concepts (for example, the Middle East). 

See here for more types of regions.

Different regions can be analyzed through their physical and human characteristics.

Here we can use the same definitions as we did in the theme of place above, where physical characteristics include landforms, plant life, bodies of water, climate, animal life, etc., and human characteristics include but are not limited to architecture, culture, language, religion, and politics.

So a region may exhibit unity in its physical or human characteristics (or both).

Most of the time geographers find it useful to incorporate both physical and human characteristics into their descriptions.

For example, while the major topic of human geography is the study of political, cultural, social, and economic aspects of areas, it is nearly impossible to conduct a rigorous study of an area without referring to the physical landscape on which human activities take place.

It is, therefore, unsurprising that one must study human-environmental interaction along with the other themes of geography. 

chrisComprehension Checkpoint: Can you write down one example for each of the five types of regions?
 

Conclusion

The five themes of geography are location, place, human-environmental interaction (relationships within places), movement (relationships between places), and region. These were introduced in the 1980s to help teachers organize geography classes. They continue to be used in the United States and the influence of this approach can be seen in most geography textbooks. 

References

Alliance, M. G. (1990). Global Geography: Activities for Teaching the Five Themes of Geography, Grades 3-9. Social Science Education Consortium.

Bednarz, R. S., Tchakerian, V. P., & Giardino, J. R. (1993). Incorporating Physical Geography into the Guideline’s Movement Theme. Journal of Geography, 92(1), 35–40. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221349308979124

Gersmehl, P. (2014). Teaching Geography, Third Edition. Guilford Publications.

Guidelines for Geographic Education: Elementary and Secondary Schools. (1984). The Council.

Lukermann, F. (2008). Geography as a Formal Intellectual Discipline and the Way in Which It Contributes to Human Knowledge. The Canadian Geographer / Le Géographe Canadien, 8, 167–172. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1541-0064.1964.tb00605.x

Natoli, S. J. (1994). Guidelines for Geographic Education and the Fundamental Themes in Geography. Journal of Geography, 93(1), 2–6. https://doi.org/10.1080/00221349408979676

Chris
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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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