From geographic holism to geographic information system

Francis Harvey

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


Substantial changes in a core idea of geography, integration, have occurred since Alexander von Humboldt published Kosmos (1845-1862). These changes are part of a larger shift in Western civilization to mechanistic reasoning. This shift led to the strengthening of system-based analysis, central to the development of geographic information systems (GIS). The duality of holism and the systems approach has led to an apparent contradiction in geography. R. Hartshorne in The Nature of Geography described this contradiction, but as did Alfred Hettner and Emil Wisotzki before, moved to partial systems as the core concept of geographic integration. Hartshorne’s concept of vertical integration is the antecedent for the ubiquitous GIS layer model. The reduction of geographic relationships and processes to mechanistic components (layers) aids the systematic approach, but may lessen geographic understanding of a place’s interrelationships. Although the partiality of the system approach was already acknowledged by Finch and Hartshorne in the 1930s, the tension between holistic and system approaches in geography remains. Holism and system-based approaches are indeed complementary methods for developing geographic understanding. Using holistic approaches to understand geographic phenomena, before we teleologically (following a purpose) analyze phenomena as a system, extends GIS to include broader interrelationships of geography in specific locations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)77-85
Number of pages9
JournalProfessional Geographer
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 1 1997


  • Geographic integration
  • Geographic thought
  • Holism
  • Overlay


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