Economic Geography


Economic Geography, a branch of geography, specifically human geography, involving the study of the ways in which patterns of economic activity and their relationship to the exploitation of natural resources vary across the surface of the Earth. Put simply, it is the geography of the ways in which people make a living, dealing with the spatial distribution of resources, and of the production and consumption of goods and services. Economic geography can be divided into four major, but interlinked, sub-fields: agricultural geography, development geography, industrial geography, and transport geography. Economic geographers in recent years have been primarily concerned with understanding uneven economic development, as revealed in patterns of economic activity across the globe, as well as the ways in which the structure of society can be related to economic activity, and the ways in which particular forms of economic development make use of natural resources and the environment.


As a specialism within geography, economic geography has its origins in late 19th-century commercial geography, which emphasized the spatial location of commodities and raw materials and related these locations to physical geography and the development of transport networks. Commercial geography played an important role in establishing and sustaining the economic relationships of colonialism. Many 19th-century explorers were sponsored by the geographical societies that had been founded during the early decades of the century in Berlin, Paris, and London. For example, the travels of David Livingstone were sponsored by the Royal Geographical Society in London. The aim of these societies and of most explorers was to discover not only “new” places, but also new sources of raw materials that would benefit Europe’s rapidly growing industries. Trade was initiated through the opening-up of areas, such as tropical Africa, that had plentiful raw materials which could be extracted by local labour and subsequently processed into manufactured goods in Europe.

The commercial geography that dominated until the mid-20th century was mostly factually based and took place within the broader framework of regional geography. It was concerned with the description and mapping of natural resources, or commodities, and their exploitation across the globe. Since the 1950s, however, this predominantly descriptive approach has given way to one focused more on economic theory. The impetus for this change was the so-called quantitative revolution, which affected the whole of geography, and especially human geography, during the late 1950s and 1960s. Many geographers rejected the past emphasis on description generally, and specifically the idea of the uniqueness of particular areas that was the focus of regional geography at the time. Instead, they began to look for ways of introducing a more scientific approach to the subject through the development of general theories that would explain the spatial structures of human occupation and use of the Earth. Initially, in the newly emerging economic geography, these theories were mainly derived from Neo-Classical economics, and assumed that the market system was a rational and efficient distributor of resources and wealth; the political, social, and cultural aspects and problems associated with resource and wealth distribution were ignored. The geographical models derived from Neo-Classical economics included many theories of industrial location, agricultural land-use patterns, settlement patterns, and transport networks. These theories assumed rational, profit-maximizing actions on the part of individuals, and used theories from geometry and the physical sciences to predict geographical patterns. Some earlier models were further developed at this time, including the model of agricultural land use developed in the 1820s by the German agriculturalist Johann Heinrich von Thünen; Alfred Weber’s industrial location model, developed at the beginning of the 20th century; and the settlement location models developed in the 1930s by the German geographer Walter Christaller and the German economist August Lösch, which provided the basis of central place theory.

These models did not, however, accurately reflect the complexities of the real world and economic geographers after the 1960s began to adopt theories that allowed them to focus on the social consequences of economic actions. The theories of Karl Marx, which suggested that the shape of society was closely tied to the organization of production, were particularly influential not just in economic geography, but in human geography generally, where they formed the basis of what came to be called radical geography. Marxist theories, which imply that the geography of production and the geography of society are inextricably linked, remain important to studies of the relationships between social structure and economic activity at a variety of geographical scales, from local to global. One important focus of study has been uneven development, that is the fact that both in the past and today certain regions are economically favoured at the expense of others. Such uneven development occurs on a number of geographical scales: for example, on a global scale, there is the concentration of wealth and technology, or economic development, in the highly industrialized economies of the West, at the expense of developing economies. Within the highly industrialized economies themselves, certain regions, such as south-eastern England, have developed economically far more rapidly than others. At even smaller scales there is the dominance of London within south-eastern England; and within London, the concentration of wealth in certain residential or industrial zones. It is these kinds of multi-layered, nested geographies that have concerned many economic geographers since the 1970s.


Economic geographers, like other human geographers, make use of a wide variety of data, as well as various methods of analysis, such as statistical models. Data sources include material produced by governments and multinational organizations, like the International Monetary Fund or the United Nations, such as agricultural and industrial output, and unemployment figures, land-use surveys, trade statistics, infant mortality rates, and debt-service ratios. They also include maps, aerial photographs, and satellite images, as well as information gained from fieldwork surveys and interviews. An increasingly important data source and analytical tool for all human geographers are geographical information systems (GIS; see Cartography: Geographical Information Systems). These are special-purpose databases in which all the information is linked to a spatial reference system, and which integrate various kinds of data such as aerial and satellite images; census material; information about land use, such as the location of industrial and residential zones, forests, wetlands, recreational areas, and agricultural land; soil maps; rainfall distribution statistics; and transport statistics. GIS can be used to analyse, for example, the impact on the environment of particular kinds of economic activity, or the spatial distribution of particular industries or populations (white collar, blue collar, for example), within urban areas.


Economic relationships are not static and the geography of the world economy is constantly changing. In recent years the restructuring of industry has led to the globalization of production processes. Traditional heavy industries are increasingly being relocated to the less developed countries (LDCs), with high-tech and service industries being favoured in the economically developed countries, including the so-called Tiger Economies of the Pacific Rim. However, although LDCs are now manufacturing goods, rather than being merely sources of raw materials, they rarely have control over this process, which is largely in the hands of multinational corporations. These have relocated to LDCs to benefit from advances in communication and transport networks, fewer restrictions in terms of planning and pollution controls, and cheaper labour costs. The LDCs in which new industrial plants locate do not always benefit greatly from their presence. Often the plants have few connections with the local economy, while profits are in many cases expatriated rather than invested locally. The role of multinationals can also be controversial, such as their involvement in South Africa during the apartheid era, or the present involvement of Shell oil company in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria. The resiting of heavy industries has also caused environmental and pollution problems in many developing countries, the Bhopal chemical plant disaster of 1984 being an extreme example. These various issues are a major focus of concern for contemporary economic geographers.

At a regional scale, economic geographers have always been concerned to analyse the importance of the concentration of particular industries and land uses in certain regions. In the past, such studies focused on the connections between a natural resource, such as coal, iron ore, or water, and the industries that grew up around it. However, developments in communications and transport since the 1950s have meant that industries no longer need to be tied to a particular locality. However, while the globalization of the world economy and the decentralization of industry from metropolitan centres has tended to downplay the regional scale, the regional focus has, in fact, generated much recent interest. Economic geography still exhibits a regional pattern and the character of regions is frequently an important locational consideration for firms, especially as it concerns the supply of certain types of labour. Examples include the concentration of high-tech industries along the M4 motorway corridor in southern England, and in Silicon Valley in the west-coast area of the United States.

The economies of the highly industrialized countries have become largely consumer based, and increasing attention is now being given by economic geographers to patterns of consumption as well as production. Recent studies, for example, have focused on the geography of retailing and the provision of services. This work is influenced by the recent resurgence of cultural geography, which examines the spatial patterns of human culture through a variety of media, such as architecture, painting, newspapers, television, and fashion. A central theme of these studies is the many connections between consumption patterns and their effects on the identity of places or localities.

Another recent theme has been the sustainability of particular economic activities. “Sustainability” refers to economic development that, through the careful exploitation of natural resources, meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (see Sustainable Development). Economic geographers have, for example, traced the occurrence of negative aspects of economic development, such as pollution, soil degradation, and desertification, and have evaluated their effects on the well-being of society and made recommendations for future appropriate developments.

Over the past 20 years, economic geography in all its forms has become more critical and varied, and more concerned with detailing the uneven distribution of wealth and well-being. The recent developments described above concern a range of geographical scales, patterns, and processes that are much more complicated and subtle than the early Neo-Classical models. A broad shift in concern can be identified from the geography of resource exploitation to the geography of human welfare in all parts of the world.

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