Understanding Cultural and Human Geography

Course No. 1761
Professor Paul Robbins, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
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Course No. 1761
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Course Overview

No one is an island. The community where you live, the food you eat, and the people you know are all part of a global chain of connections. Humans have transformed the planet over the past 10,000 years, and today, thanks to our transportation infrastructure, telecommunications, and a restless economy, the pace of globalization is accelerating. It is more important than ever to understand this chain of connections in order to tackle some of the biggest questions about human life on earth:

  • Is our current population growth sustainable?
  • How will we adapt to the changing climate?
  • Why are some nations rich and others poor?
  • What does globalization mean for local cultures?
  • What is the relationship between geography and the nation-state?

Tackle these questions and more in Understanding Cultural and Human Geography, a groundbreaking course that surveys the geographical context for human activity. Over the course of 24 eye-opening lectures, Professor Paul Robbins of the University of Wisconsin–Madison takes you on an interdisciplinary voyage across time and around the world to consider the dual nature of our relationship with “place.” You’ll see how our environment influences human life, and you’ll consider the way human life, in turn, influences the environment.

If you took a high school geography course, you likely spent your time memorizing countries and capitals, oceans and continents, rivers and mountain ranges. This is “descriptive geography,” a straightforward catalog of what the world looks like. But the field of geography is much more complex, much more dynamic, and much more human than a course emphasizing memorization would have you believe.

Understanding Cultural and Human Geography shows you the full range of the geographer’s purview. Beyond simple description, this course reveals the underlying structures that explain why the world is the way it is. You’ll see that geography is truly interdisciplinary, covering such a broad range of fields as:

  • Ecology
  • Anthropology
  • Sociology
  • History
  • Cultural Studies
  • Economics
  • Geopolitics

Professor Robbins introduces you to each of these discrete fields and the connections between them, so you come away with a comprehensive understanding of human activity on earth. Understanding global trends and connections—from environmental changes such as deforestation to the way money and labor slosh around the globe—will give you new insights into the story of human civilization and current events.

Study the Relationship Between Humans and the Environment

One key theme of this course is that “place” is a construct. People make (and constantly re-make) places in response to myriad circumstances, ranging from economic conditions to changes in the ecology around them. Indeed, humans have taken over the earth so completely that some geologists now refer to our era as the Anthropocene—the “human era.” But is this a good thing?

After introducing the concepts of “place” and “region,” Professor Robbins examines the many ways humans have affected—or been affected by—the environment. For example:

  • Human have transformed the land through deforestation and the building of roads and cities.
  • Thanks to a growing population, we have harvested much of the biosphere for commercial farming and energy production.
  • International travel and transportation has led to the spread of disease and introduced invasive species to new lands.
  • Pollutants from the Industrial Revolution have altered our climate.

While it is tempting to despair over humanity’s takeover of the planet, Professor Robbins shows how the picture is complex, and that there is reason for optimism. Much of the human impact on the earth is not an inexorable march of destruction without any means of revitalization. In the case of deforestation, for instance, trends such as urbanization combined with governmental policies and the boom in forest industries suggest forests won’t be going extinct any time soon.

Immerse Yourself in the Global Economy

In addition to the study of particular environments, cultural geography seeks to find connections around the world. For instance, what does the outbreak of disease in one location have to do with the global price of gold? What does the international agriculture system have to do with the suburban American lawn? Why are Chinese investors buying land in Africa?

From India to Istanbul to the American Midwest, Professor Robbins takes you on an exciting journey across disciplines to show you the effects of the “great acceleration”—the rapid pace of globalization and cultural change. In this journey, you will:

  • look at the structure of our economic system, from the capture and processing of raw materials to commercial sales and data management;
  • see how the Columbian Exchange changed the world economy after 1492;
  • review the geography of wealth and poverty, including indices for measuring standard of living;
  • consider how our modern transportation system nullified the barriers of distance, as well as the effects this development had on labor and migration; and
  • unpack the trend toward urbanization and reflect on what this trend means for the future.

Beyond examining the financial impact of the “great acceleration,” you’ll discover the cultural implications of a world economy. For example, as cultures become more and more homogenized, thousands of languages are disappearing. Professor Robbins explores the wellspring of culture and delves into the complex relationship between culture and place.

Consider the Political Implications of Geography

The course ends with a unit on geopolitics, the study of geography and political power. You’ll visit several hotbeds of geopolitical activity—including Afghanistan, Ukraine, North Korea, India and Pakistan, and the Balkans—to explore the thorny issues of geography, ethnicity, and statehood.

You’ll also study several geopolitical theories, including Great Britain’s 19th-century “heartland theory” of international dominance and the United States’ Domino Theory of communism in Southeast Asia. Finally, you’ll look at the relationship between economics and geopolitics in the context of international agreements such as the European Union, as well as the pros and cons of international governance.

Think Like a Geographer

If you open any newspaper, the headlines demonstrate the world is always changing. The beauty of Understanding Cultural and Human Geography is that Professor Robbins provides you a methodology for understanding human life on earth. Whether thinking about environmental policies, cultural homogenization, economic circumstances, or geopolitical tension, there are no easy answers.

Beyond the excitement of traveling the globe, geography is an active field—a field that has the potential to completely change the way you view the world. You’ll learn to trace a chain of explanations from an event on one side of the earth to a seemingly unrelated cause on the other side. When you complete this course, you’ll have all the tools you need to look beyond the headlines and analyze world events in a whole new way.

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24 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Writing the World: The Mapmakers Craft
    We’re all familiar with maps, but we seldom think about the stories they tell. Consciously or not, cartographers make choices, and these choices are informed by particular cultures and political situations. Start your foray into cultural and human geography by unpacking what maps can tell us about the world of their creators. x
  • 2
    The Problem with Geographical Determinism
    Learn some of the arguments for and against geographic determinism. After introducing basic concepts such as “place,” “region,” and “adaptation,” Professor Robbins reflects on some of the ways in which geographic context influences people—and the way people influence the geography around them. x
  • 3
    Anthropocene: The Age of Human Impact
    Humans have taken over the world. Our ecological impact has been so great that we may have created an entirely new geological epoch. Investigate some of the ways our species has affected the world around us, from changing the climate to remaking the land, and see what responsibilities we have toward the earth and our fellow humans. x
  • 4
    Climate Change and Civilization
    Survey the history of the earth’s climate from antiquity to the present, and examine the evidence that recent human activity is accelerating climate change. If this period is profoundly different from previous periods of change, find out what challenges we will soon face and what opportunities technology and innovation afford us. x
  • 5
    Global Land Change
    Step into the field of “land change science,” an important subfield of geography that looks at the ways human activity has transformed the global land surface. See what factors have led to deforestation around the world and throughout history, as well as signs that we may be at a turning point where our forests and other environments will rebound. x
  • 6
    The End of Global Population Growth
    Many fear what may happen if our population continues to grow exponentially. Think geographically about the problem and see what local conditions and patterns tell us about the world at large. Gain insight from demographic trends, including education, urbanization, and economic growth, that suggest the danger may be less than anticipated. x
  • 7
    The Agricultural Puzzle
    Shift your attention from population to food production. After reviewing the tools and measurements of farming systems, take a look at the transition from local subsistence to global production models. Then, consider the way new technologies and efficiencies will affect the sustainability of our agricultural system. x
  • 8
    Disease Geography
    From cholera in 19th-century London to the West Nile Virus today, chart the outbreak of some of the world’s most virulent diseases. A little detective work shows that pandemics are spatial. What does this mean now that we live in such an inter-connected world? How likely is a global pandemic? And how would we respond to future outbreaks? x
  • 9
    Political Ecology
    Discover a fascinating method for putting the relationship between humans and the environment in context. Political ecology unpacks chains of explanation, traces the flow of economic value, and examines structural constraints that help us understand myriad political and environmental problems. x
  • 10
    Economic Geography: Globalization Origins
    Go back to the years before Columbus discovered the Americas, when global trade was a new phenomenon. Here Professor Robbins introduces several key concepts of economic geography and shows the critical role of “place” in capitalism. He then surveys the economy of trade in the 14th and 15th centuries. x
  • 11
    The Columbian Exchange
    Experience the economic transition of the Columbian Exchange, which began with the famous voyages of 1492. After reviewing the environmental impact of merging Old World and New World ecologies, you’ll explore the rise of gold and plantation economies, as well as the “core-periphery” system of trade that emerged in the colonial era. x
  • 12
    Uneven Development and Global Poverty
    Turn from the history of economic activity and development to the field of “national income accounting.” You’ll map the distribution of global wealth using such measures as gross domestic product, the human development index, the corruption perception index, and the geography of debt. Find out why uneven economic development persists. x
  • 13
    The New Global Economy
    In recent decades, transportation and information technology have fundamentally changed the flow of goods around the world. Now that our transportation system has minimized the role of “space,” the global economy has shifted east to China. See what this means for business today—and where the future of the economy is heading. x
  • 14
    Restless Humanity: The Migration Conundrum
    People migrate from place to place for a number of reasons. Whether pursuing opportunity or escaping turmoil, people respond to global politics and the economy. In this lecture, you’ll explore the remarkable scale of human mobility and learn what structural conditions change the rate and direction of migration. x
  • 15
    Urbanization: The Rise of New World Cities
    Revisit the question of population in this survey of urbanization. Look at the history of cities and find out what is driving our current state of rapid urbanization. Consider the ecological costs and economic and environmental opportunities of a global city-dwelling population. x
  • 16
    Geography of Language
    Tour the global distribution of language families. Although our world has a remarkable diversity of languages, a small handful—including Mandarin, English, Spanish, Arabic, and others—have come to dominate the world. What does the decline and loss of so many languages mean for our global culture? x
  • 17
    Understanding Cultural Geography
    Tackle one of the most fundamental questions about culture: why does it vary at all? After exploring culture as a system of shared meanings and practices, consider the origins of culture and its relationship with place. Then reflect on the interactions, and in some cases consolidation or erasure, of cultures around the world. x
  • 18
    The Importance of Place
    Thanks to global communications, economic growth, migration, and urbanization, distinctive “places” appear to be vanishing. Re-examine the concept of place and consider the ways people make places. In the economic and environmental landscape of the 20th and 21st centuries, local cultures may be changing, but they are not going away. x
  • 19
    Cultural Commodification
    In today’s world, it’s difficult to separate culture from the global economy. As local cultures become commodities in the form of art, tourism, fashion, and other industries, this changes the way culture is produced and consumed. Reflect on the challenges and opportunities inherent in cultural commodification. x
  • 20
    Culture, Power, and the Politics of Meaning
    Because culture is a system of shared meaning, cultural concepts—including history—are invented constructs. Meanings can change, which means some elements of culture are inseparable from politics. This lecture explores that connection by looking at the politics of women’s veils in Turkey and France. x
  • 21
    The Geopolitical Imagination
    From Afghanistan in the 19th century to the Ukraine today, tackle the global configuration of powers. Take a close look at several geopolitical theories and apply them to some of the 21st century’s key trouble spots. The competing interests in the world of statecraft are a messy but captivating business. x
  • 22
    Regionalism and the Rise of New States
    Continue your study of geopolitics with a look at the nation-state. Using the cases of Kosovo, South Sudan, and East Timor, this lecture shows how political geographies emerge and asks questions about the distinction between national identity and state territory. See what challenges accompany the creation of new states. x
  • 23
    Supranationalism: Taking on Big Problems
    Solving international challenges is a bit like playing whack-a-mole: if one state cracks down on a problem, such as locusts, the problem often simply moves to a neighboring state. Close your study of geopolitics with a consideration of supranational organizations such as the European Union. Learn about the possibilities and obstacles to international governance. x
  • 24
    Future Geographies
    Visit five places around the world, each a distinct window into a possible future for humanity on this planet. You’ll discover that even though the pace of globalization is accelerating, the future nonetheless will be filled with remarkable geographic diversity—even if that diversity is different from the geography we have today. x

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  • 184-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Paul Robbins

About Your Professor

Paul Robbins, Ph.D.
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Professor Paul Robbins is the Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He has a bachelor’s degree in Anthropology from UW–Madison, and a master’s degree and a doctorate in Geography from Clark University. An award-winning professor, he previously led the School of Geography and Development at The University of Arizona, and he has also taught at The Ohio...
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Understanding Cultural and Human Geography is rated 4.2 out of 5 by 49.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from very interesting Well presented. It opened up a new way of thinking for me. One of the most interesting courses i’ve Gotten
Date published: 2019-04-20
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Poor presentation I was looking forward to this course, but the lecturer's tone is brittle and perfunctory. I do sympathize, being a professor myself and not having the best delivery, but I stopped listening after 2 lectures.
Date published: 2019-01-06
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A View Of Our World In The Eyes Of A Geographer Professor Robbins takes us on a tour of our world in terms of human history, economics, language, diversity, global and regional conflict, attitudes and standards, balkinization and regionalization to help us gain an appreciation of the drivers of change. I gained a great deal of respect for the role of the Geographer in our modern times. A very useful and informative course for anyone trying to understand what is going on, and more importantly WHY, around our home.
Date published: 2018-04-29
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Title Misleading The first course of many I decided was not worth completing. Probably because the title and description is a bit misleading. I would title the course Holistic Social ology and remove the word Geography. Geography was used as a pretext on many issues for a discussion of his topics of interest. If people in two different locations had different beliefs, that was call Cultural Geography, therefor just about anything could be discussed because of "Geography". That's not to say the some of this can be interesting, just not what was looking for.
Date published: 2017-10-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I finished this course in May of this year. It was interesting and informative. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Date published: 2017-07-24
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Politically Correct, Trendy Course The professor is friendly, articulate and as smooth as any network newscaster. If you are 13 to 15 years old and afraid of global warming or trees being mistreated, this is for you. I f you are a leftist, progressive, or environmentalist of any age, you will be enthralled with this politically correct, simple vocabulary, fashionable course and you don't even have to enroll at a state university or junior college. By the time you complete the lectures, you will be all set to embark on your protest march and show how much you care for Gaia.
Date published: 2017-01-07
Rated 1 out of 5 by from Not too good At one point, the professor actually physically swoons while listening to some Indian music. But more importantly, geography has a major role in understanding geopolitics and how states have acted toward one another over history, including warfare. The professor is dismissive of this aspect of geography, saying perhaps it's just a matter of how people think about it. This, at a time of geopolitical threats growing on Russia's border with Ukraine - a region through which it has been invaded several times with huge entailing loses of life and property. And, at a time when China is laying claim to huge portions of the seas and fortifying those claims. And, at a time when N. Korea is becoming is becoming increasingly dangerous while China does little to rein it in, because of its role as a buffer state to China. In my opinion, the course verges on mis-education.
Date published: 2016-10-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Worldly Geography: Mapping Nature & Human Factors Environmental, economic, cultural, and political geographies and cartography when sketched descriptively and explained scientifically raise thematic issues that demand our theoretical and practical attention (species survival & quality of life). Understanding Cultural and Human Geography by Professor Paul Robbins is such a response to the short and long term RECIPROCAL PATTERNS that analyzes the natural, social, and life-affirming / pathological processes on both the global environment and human existence. By mapping ecological processes and geographic transformations, by analyzing the dynamism of spacial determinism and human adaptations, the researched data confronts the BIG QUESTION concerning the mutual relationship between the earth's history and the human factor and its collective impact -- the Anthropocene . Three CAUTIONS need to be kept in mind concern mapping, determinism, and the Anthropocene epoch. MAPPING is both a mathematical and cultural projection that can explain with degrees of accuracy and distort for various reasons. DETERMINISM is not so much as seeing man in nature but as a coming out of nature where adaptation within nature's living space is the product of both body and consciousness, and therefore existential choice is active in the relationship. The ANTHROPOCENE epoch lets us reason consciously and imagine metaphorically the accelerated global exchanges impacting the earth's geography while simultaneously transforming one-way determinism into a metaphor of ALTERNATIVE-ISM -- understanding the epoch as both cause and consequence of GLOBALIZATION -- natural and human. Due the the complexity of natural operating forces and social factors acting regionally and globally, there is an INTERDISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVE to the lectures which revolve around four major areas of concern generating controversial questions, topics, and issues that demand solutions. (1) The discipline of ENVIRONMENTAL GEOGRAPHY addresses: climatology, sea levels, climate change, deforestation and land change, global population growth and demographic transitions, the agricultural Green Revolution and genetically modified organisms, spacial epidemiology and disease pattern mappings, and the political ecology of cause and effect analysis to awaken our understanding concerning the relations between environments and humanity, and document the philosophical and political implications confronting the species. (2) The study of ECONOMIC GEOGRAPHY addresses the Columbian Exchange as the essential origin of the Anthropocene epoch of worldwide exchange and its impact (goods, crops, peoples, diseases, etc). Discussed areas concern: mercantile and competitive capitalism, plantation and colonial systems, the Industrial Revolution, trans-national corporations and its concentrated wealth and centralized powers generating core-peripheral relations of exchanges still operative today in places, the incessant and rapid movements of capital investments and technologies (money & credit) conditioning uneven economic developments due to debt interest re-payments to the core for loans, global poverty and human push-pull migrations, urbanization and city infrastructure pressures, threats of unique language traditions and globalization pressures to consolidate them. Transitioning to (3) CULTURAL and (4) POLITICAL GEOGRAPHIES surveys the risks and contributions among local-regional-global exchanges and its impact on environments, political boundaries, and cultural practices in an age of growing uncertainties and rapid social changes. From local and regional traditions to concentrated geopolitical powers, challenges arise concerning: the ambiguity of authority and power among nation states and variable reaches of international institutions, tensions on unique historical traditions to commodity standardization of cultural heritages including its very language, the violent ruptures of treasured cultural understandings with clashes over the meaning-fullness of sacred and secular rituals generating wars of proxy over official interpretation and acceptance, and geopolitical worldviews and regional alignments that enlighten and prejudice the issues confronting the geographies and mappings of nationhood, statehood, supra-nationalism, and the future of global existence itself. In summary, let me close in the spirit of the professor's own written words, "In Anthropocene geographies, therefore, there is an ethical injunction reminiscent of warnings from pottery stores around the world: You break it, you own it". *** Very Highly Recommended to All Conscious Beings ***
Date published: 2016-09-26
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