Economic geography is a branch of human geography that studies economic concepts in relation to geography. Economics and geography are interlinked with each other and in order to make economic sense, i.e., profit, one must understand the respective geography. Applying economic concepts without regard for geography may ultimately lead to the deterioration of viable economic resources and degraded quality of life.
Geography is the study of the relationship between humans and their environment. It describes the Earth as our home, and our quest to understand our immediate surroundings and the world beyond has laid the foundation for this discipline. Geography was initially primarily descriptive and divided into two main branches: physical geography and human geography. In the late 19th century, economic geography emerged as a subfield of human geography.
Define economic geography
Economic geography is a branch of geography that studies the spatial distribution of economic activities, the relationships between economic activities and their locations, and the impacts of these activities on the environment. Economic geography is concerned with both the theoretical and practical aspects of economic activities, including the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services.
“involves consideration of the geographical and other factors which influence man’s productivity, but only in limited depths’ so far as they are connected with production and trade.”- Dudley Stamp
“Economic Geography is the study of the spatial variation on the earth’s surface of activities related to producing, exchanging and consuming goods and services. Whenever possible the goal is to develop generalisations and theories to account for these spatial variations.”- Hartshorne and Alexander
Economic Achievement Vs. Economic Welfare Approach
Economic welfare is the well-being of an individual or a group of people in terms of their material possessions, income, health, education, and other factors that contribute to a good quality of life. Economic achievement is the success of an individual or a group of people in achieving their economic goals, such as high levels of economic growth and productivity.
Economic geography is the study of the spatial distribution of economic activity and the relationship between economic activity and the environment. It can be divided into two main approaches: the economic welfare approach and the economic achievement approach.
The economic welfare approach focuses on the impact of economic activity on the well-being of people. It examines how economic factors such as income, employment, and access to resources affect people’s quality of life. The economic achievement approach focuses on the success of different countries and regions in achieving their economic goals. It examines factors such as economic growth, productivity, and international trade.
The economic welfare approach is more concerned with the social and environmental impacts of economic activity, while the economic achievement approach is more concerned with the efficiency and productivity of the economy.
Examples of the economic welfare approach:
- Studying the impact of poverty and inequality on people’s lives.
- Examining the relationship between economic growth and environmental degradation.
- Assessing the impact of globalization on workers and communities.
Examples of the economic achievement approach:
- Studying the factors that contribute to economic growth.
- Analyzing the impact of different economic policies on productivity and competitiveness.
- Assessing the role of international trade in promoting economic development.
The two approaches are complementary to each other. A comprehensive understanding of economic geography requires consideration of both the economic welfare and economic achievement approaches.
Economic geography can help to reduce and eliminate world societies’ disparity gaps by studying their economic resources, modern needs, and cultural heritages in the following ways:
- Identifying opportunities for economic development: Economic geography can help to identify regions and countries with the potential for economic development. This can be done by studying factors such as the availability of natural resources, the skills and education of the workforce, and the infrastructure in place. Once potential areas for development have been identified, economic geographers can work with policymakers and businesses to develop strategies to promote economic growth.
- Addressing regional disparities: Economic geography can also help to address regional disparities in economic development. This can be done by studying the factors that contribute to these disparities, such as access to education and healthcare, transportation infrastructure, and investment opportunities. Economic geographers can then work with policymakers to develop policies and programs to reduce regional disparities.
- Promoting sustainable development: Economic geography can also help to promote sustainable development. This can be done by studying the relationship between economic activity and the environment. Economic geographers can then work with policymakers and businesses to develop strategies that promote economic growth while also protecting the environment.
Here are some specific examples of how economic geography has been used to reduce and eliminate world societies’ disparity gaps:
- In China, economic geographers have helped to identify and develop regions that were previously poor and underdeveloped. This has helped to reduce poverty and inequality in China.
- In India, economic geographers have worked with policymakers to develop programs to improve access to education and healthcare in rural areas. This has helped to improve the lives of millions of people in India.
- In Africa, economic geographers are working with businesses and governments to develop sustainable agricultural practices. This is helping to improve food security and reduce poverty in Africa.
Economic geography is a powerful tool that can be used to address some of the world’s most pressing problems, including poverty, inequality, and environmental degradation. By studying the economic resources, modern needs, and cultural heritages of different societies, economic geographers can help to develop strategies that promote sustainable and inclusive economic development.
How did the discipline evolve?
When geography was studied as a standalone discipline it was largely concerned with describing and documenting the earth’s surface. Then gradually it was divided into physical and human geography and by the mid-nineteenth century, it was subdivided into many sub-branches, economic geography being one of them.
Stages of its development
The Early Period
In 1862 ‘Geographyic des Welthandels’ (Geography of World Trade) by Karl Andree et.al. (a German Geographer) was published. Even though this book talked about trade and commerce it laid the foundation of economic geography. Later after 2 decades Gotz, a German scholar initiated the separation of economic geography from commercial geography. He defined economic geography as…
Gotz’s ideas reflected the prevailing views of his time, which is why they gained considerable attention and acceptance. The phrase “scientific investigation of nature…” was inherently deterministic. Geographers of that era believed that nature had a dominant influence on human activities. Gotz’s perspective on economic geography proposed an analysis of how the geographical environment impacted human actions, introducing a new dimension to the field. This notion highlighted that economic geography should not be merely a compilation of commercial statistics but rather an exploration of the distinct characteristics of various regions.
However, despite its innovative approach, this perspective remained confined to the borders of Germany and did not gain widespread global influence. Until World War I, geographers like Chislom in Britain and Smith in America favoured commercial geography over economic geography as their preferred focus of study.
During the inter-war period, economic geography and commercial geography diverged due to changes in international trade caused by World War I (1914-1918). Industrial powers sought alternative sources of raw materials, leading to the rise of economic geography, as presented by Gotz, which focused on agricultural production and the influence of the natural environment.
Possibilist economic geography: After 1920, possibilism gained prominence, challenging determinism. Proponents like Le Fevre and Blache emphasized the importance of human choice alongside the natural environment. This idea also influenced economic geography, giving more significance to human involvement in production and leading to a qualitative change in its definition.
Post WW II: Following World War II, economic geography experienced further transformation, acquiring a new dimension. Scholars like C.F. Jones stressed that economic geography analyzes regions’ productivity and explains why certain areas excel in producing and exporting specific goods. The focus shifted to scientifically analyzing production capacities, considering both physical and human elements.
Modern economic geography: The foundation of modern economic geography was established after 1925, with an increased emphasis on the scientific analysis of regions’ production capabilities. Baker’s study of North American agricultural regions served as a basis for understanding similar characteristics in other continents. However, until World War II, primary production continued to be the primary focus in economic geography.
Post-War Period: Geographers traditionally viewed geography as the study of the interactions between humans and their environment, incorporating both physical and human elements. However, some geographers found this definition limiting, as other subjects also studied environmental relationships, such as botany, economics, and sociology.
In 1925, Hettner and Carl Sauer introduced a new definition of geography as the study of “real differentiation,” which gained widespread acceptance, particularly when Richard Hartshorne supported and popularized the idea in 1939. R.E. Murphy and C.F. Jones further emphasized that economic geography deals with the variations in how people make a living across different regions.
During the post-war period, the world experienced significant economic growth and technological advancements in industrial production. However, this progress also led to various environmental challenges, such as deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution, and ozone depletion. Economic disparities between developed and developing countries widened, despite increased production. The rise in poverty raised concerns about the rationality of economic development.
In response, geographers began to advocate for a more balanced approach, prioritizing the proper distribution of national income and the conservation of resources over increased production. Economic geography underwent a transformation, shifting its focus from resource utilization to resource conservation, from production to distribution, and from mere economic development to sustainable development.
Approaches to the study of economic geography
Approaches to Economic Geography can be categorized into three main groups:
Regional Approach: This approach focuses on analyzing areas with common geo-economic characteristics, resource bases, and economic development. It provides a comprehensive understanding of different parts within a larger unit and their interrelationships.
Commodity or Topical Approach: This systematic approach examines the world distribution patterns of commodities, industries, or human occupations, tracing their development and progression.
Principles Approach: Based on fundamental truths, this approach explores the principles governing economic geography, such as genomic relationship, optimum location, regional specialization, and genomic succession.
Positivism: This scientific approach employs empirical evidence, hypothesis testing, and GIS technology to interpret economic geography issues.
Structuralism: Proposing that the visible world does not directly reveal its causes, this approach focuses on developing theories to comprehend economic structures.
Humanism: A critique of positivism and structuralism, humanism emphasizes the human aspect, objecting to the view of people as mere responders to spatial and structural forces.
System Analysis: This methodology examines complex wholes by understanding the interrelated elements of a system, helping to grasp the overall picture of the world economy as interconnected parts and sub-systems.
Behavioural Approach: Incorporating behavioural science, economic geographers study the landscape’s results of economically-oriented behaviour, decision-making processes, and consumer behaviour.
Institutional Approach: This approach, emphasized by Ron Martin, considers the role of social institutions in shaping economic activity. It highlights that economic behaviour is not solely based on individual motives but is influenced by broader social, economic, and political structures.
These various approaches contribute to a comprehensive understanding of economic geography, from the study of regions and commodities to the analysis of human behaviour and institutional influences.