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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  • Download 24 video lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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  • Download 24 audio lectures to your computer or mobile app
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 24 lectures on 4 DVDs
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE video streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 184-page printed course guidebook
  • Photos & illustrations
  • Maps
  • Suggested readings

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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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Reviews

Understanding Cultural and Human Geography is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 55.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Professor and Fascinating Subject The subject is timely and fascinating, and the professor makes it even more relevant. The graphics are also very worthwhile.
Date published: 2020-06-30
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Excellent instructor and engaging topics My wife bought this and we have watched it together. Not only are the topics interesting they have spurred conversation about them between us. Keep up the good work!
Date published: 2020-04-27
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Interesting in unexpected places I admit it; I am addicted to the Great Courses and their history offerings. I picked up Professor Robbins' class on a whim and found myself enjoying it. While it is not your typical history course, it does relate principles of culture and geography to history and civilizations, often bringing up details that a course on more specific areas of history might have overlooked. As such, it is a nice addition to the Great Courses collection. The course is easy to follow and the professor is sufficiently animated in his voice with no sense that he is merely reading from his notes. I selected the audio presentation and, though the first lesson did make some geographical references, the audio was easy to follow without any visuals.
Date published: 2020-04-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great course for understanding today's world I am over half way through and find this course extremely informative. The professor is outstanding and very dynamic. If you want to get a handle on how this world is rapidly changing I can think of no better course.
Date published: 2020-04-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Amazing professor I just love this course, super good and the professor is very knowledgeable.
Date published: 2020-01-26
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Easy to follow This is a far cry from the boring geography I had to sit through many years ago in school. It turns the subject into a living, relevant and incredibly interesting topic which leaves you wanting more. Several weeks after finishing the course I found myself using one of the ideas in a conversation I was having with a friend, much to his surprise- and mine! I strongly recommend it particularly if you have been put off in the past. It is idea changing in a very palatable way
Date published: 2020-01-26
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
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