Five Geography Themes in the United States

by Grace Riley

    Studying the whole world -- which is the essence of geography -- is an imposing task that becomes much more approachable when our knowledge of the world is categorized into distinct concepts. In 1984, the National Council for Geographic Education and the Association of American Geographers designed the five themes of geography to facilitate geography education. In subsequent years, National Geography Standards became the basis for curricula, but the five themes remain part of the foundation of geography education.

    There are two types of location: absolute and relative. Absolute location is precise, fixed and unchangeable, such as longitude and latitude or a street address. An absolute location is independent of the surrounding geography and remains the same even when other geographic qualities change. For example, when Tennessee seceded from the Union in 1861, the longitude and latitude of Memphis remained 35 degrees, 15 minutes north latitude and 90 degrees, 4 minutes west longitude. Conversely, a relative location is dependent on the surrounding geography and, in some cases, could change or cease to be true over time. For instance, in 1861, Memphis was located on the banks of the Mississippi River about 120 miles south of the Union-Confederate border. Both of those locations are relative because they are based on Memphis’ distance from other locations. While Memphis’ relative location on the shores of the Mississippi remains true as of 2013, the city’s relative location 120 miles south of the Union-Confederate border ceased to be true in 1865 when the Union and Confederacy rejoined to become one nation again.

    Though location and place sound similar, they describe completely different attributes. “Location” identifies where something is, while “place” identifies qualities of a location. You can articulate place by describing physical, natural, human or cultural features. For example, Memphis is a humid city on the banks of the Mississippi River, and most of the city’s residents speak English. The city’s position on the banks of the Mississippi River is its location, its high humidity describes its natural place, and the predominance of English among its citizens describes its place in cultural terms.

    Humans and the environments in which they live constantly impact each other. The glittering skyline of a metropolis or cultivated rows of apple trees in an orchard are examples of humans impacting their environments because they had to change the environment to create those landscapes. The ability of the apple trees to thrive in their location, due to rich soil, or the consequences of a flood filling the streets of the metropolis are examples of how the environment can impact humans. The interaction between humans and their environments can be positive or negative. While pollution is a negative way that humans interact with their environments, picking up trash to remove pollution is a positive way that they affect their surroundings.

    There are three primary components of movement: origin, path and destination. An immigrant arriving at Ellis Island, a family driving to the Grand Canyon, a rock slide, a river emptying into an ocean and a shipment of goods all are examples of movement. In the context of studying geography, describing movement may be an important quality of the person or thing that moves, or it may be an important quality that connects two locations. For example, if a turn-of-the-century immigrant traveled from Ireland to Ellis Island, the immigrant's act of movement would be critical to understanding his own geographic location. Additionally, his movement also would describe a transatlantic immigration route that links two places: Ireland and Ellis Island.

    A region is a physical area that is united by a specific physical, natural, human or cultural characteristic. A region may include areas that share the same physical feature, such as the states that comprise the East Coast of the United States. Cultural regions are born of a shared cultural trait that most, if not all, of the people in the region possess, such as the U.S. South. The South has semiformal, debated physical boundaries, but it is defined by a specific set of cultural attributes, including a regional dialect and cuisine.

    About the Author

    Grace Riley has been a writer and photographer since 2005, with work appearing in magazines and newspapers such as the "Arkansas Democrat-Gazette." She has also worked as a school teacher and in public relations and polling analysis for political campaigns. Riley holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in American studies, political science and history, all from the University of Arkansas.

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