Professionalization: Geography as a Discipline

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Professionalization: Geography as a Discipline


Second Age of Expansion. The works of geographers and the creation of academic positions for geography were spurred by nationalism and imperialism. Cartographers knew the basic outline of the continents and oceans by the beginning of the industrial era. The period between 1750 and 1914 was known as a “second age of expansion” when surveying the properties of flora, fauna, and the known land was emphasized.

Professional Geographers. The Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt was a prime example of this emphasis as he surveyed the Andes and Mexico before returning to Berlin to enjoy political and intellectual influence in the Prussian royal court. It was also during this period that the first university geography professorship was created in the German states at Berlin for Karl Ritter in 1820. After unification, German geography really advanced, and in the 1880s several more university chairs were created in the new empire. One chair went to Friedrich Ratzel at Leipzig in 1886, the father of German geopolitics. He argued that the state was an organism that needed lebensraum (living space). His ideas were enunciated by Karl Haushofer during the Nazi regime in the 1930s.

Atlas. Many atlases stressing national history also proliferated during this era as the new states were portrayed to indicate their wealth and prestige. The Prussian General Staff had created the first atlas for Prussia in 1828. Karl Spruner created the first comprehensive historical atlas of Europe in 1846 that emphasized German history, especially their military victories. August Meitzen created another atlas for Prussia in 1869. However, no truly national atlases were created in Europe before World War I, with the exception of Finland. For Germany the reason given by Alois Mayr, a modern geographer, is that the nation was considered larger than the actual physical state. Only in the 1990s after reunification was the first German national atlas published. In France the first major atlas was published in 1894 by Paul Vidal de la Blache and emphasized the uniqueness of the provinces of the grand nation. He became the father of French geography from his professorship at the Sorbonne (University of Paris) after 1898.

Mackinder. In Britain the first famous geographer was Halford Mackinder, who held the first chair in geography at Oxford in 1887 and created the first geography department there in 1899. Mackinder is known for his depiction in 1904 of the northern Eurasian heartland as the “geographical pivot of history.” Mackinder argued that control of eastern Europe is critical for dominating Eurasia, and that a superpower, either Germany or Russia, could emerge there to threaten British hegemony.


Jeremy Black, Maps and History: Constructing Images of the Past (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).

“The First German National Atlas,” Rheinischer Merkor (11 April 2002):10.

David Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).

D. W. Meinig, “A Macrogeography of Western Imperialism,” in Settlement and Encounter, edited by Fay Gale and Graham Lawton (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1969).

Mark Monmonier, “The Rise of the National Atlas,” Cartographica 3(1994): 1-15.

Hugh Seton-Watson, Nations and States: An Inquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics of Nationalism (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1977).

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Professionalization: Geography as a Discipline

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Professionalization: Geography as a Discipline