In the latter half of the nineteenth century Darwinism was all the rage. An increase in the interest of biology combined with old geographic ideas of the Greeks. German-trained geographers like Ellen Churchill Semple and others began to study groups of people and cultures through the framework of the environmental conditions. This became known as environmental determinism.
In short, these geographers believed people, cultures, civilizations, et al. could only develop as far as the environment would let them. Examples would be island people are isolationist because they live on an island or no advance culture could develop near the equator because it is too hot and when it is hot people do not work as much.
Environmental Determinism quickly got involved with Social Darwinism and racist ideals. It became a tool for those who supported imperialism ; the justification was that the natives were environmentally-capped and needed those from a better climate to care for them as best as possible.
Berkeley School Cultural Geography and Regional Geography
Around the 1920s there was a fundamental shift against environmental determinism. Two theories of thought more or less joined together and became the leading forces in geography.
The Berkeley School of Cultural Geography was based on the works of German geographers who believed that Culture (with a capital "C") was the highest unifying force of a group of people. Culture was everything from the arts, to beliefs, to customs, and more. Cultural geographers believed a person and people were capable of doing anything from making a desert bloom to adopting a new style of government; the only thing that imposed limitations on what was possible was the person or group's Culture.
Regional Geography was the lead in education at the time. Regional Geography what people think most often when they hear the word "geography." The study of countries and regions of the world is regional geography's domain.
However, over time regional geography was narrowed down in schools to become memorization of capitals and the three major export products. It was this that led to what Catholicgauze refers to as "The Really Bad Times."
Quantitative Geography (Or "Sadistics")
The end of World War II was a good time for geography. Regional Geography with a cultural emphasis helped win the war. Geographers were highly sought after by the government, universities, the private sector, and the opposite sex. It was an era of money, fast cars, and cute bunnies who sang to geographers as they left for work. In reality it was a time of crisis. Was geography a science or an art or something else?
Quantitative geographers promised to make geography a respected science. They proposed geography be done with numbers as well as maps. Means, correlation, t-values, and much more became known to geographers as they took statistics classes to understand what was going on in a spatial and numeric world.
The number crunchers had geography by the neck. To be considered a geographer one had to prove their data with numbers or be exiled. It looked like the establishment was victorious. Black suits with ties for everyone. Cold, square numbers held the throne of geography. However, the 1960s were coming...
David Harvey was one of the leaders of the quantitative junta which controlled geography. But in the late 1960s he discovered Karl Marx. Harvey rejected the quantitative revolution and embraced Marxist Geography. He saw geography as a tool to make the world "better" by imposing a Marxist viewpoint and goal on his studies. Everything became seen as a struggle between the has and has nots. The counter culture of the 1960s and 1970s help fuel the rise of Marxist Geography in departments in America and England.
The journal Antipode became a sort of Bible to Marxist and other "critical geographies."
At the same time Marxist Geography and its critical relatives were taking on the machine there were many other geographic ideas. Behavioral Geography sought to study human behavior by combining elements of psychology and statistics. Humanistic Geography sought to understand "the emotions" of geography and rejected statistics completely. Meanwhile regional geography laid abandon in academia. The Berkeley School of Cultural Geography dwindled in numbers and the term "cultural geography" became the domain of the critical geographers.
Sedevacantism can sum up geography today. There is no one leading idea which is guiding everything else. While the big tent is nice for those who were on the outs with the establishment, geography is certainly suffering. Recently the geography department split at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln over the long debate of human geography versus physical geography. In other universities geography is frequently grouped with geology, anthropology, or even political science. This gives geography the label of "whatever is left science."
The Future for Geography
What will become of geography? The future right now points to more technology like remote sensing and especially GIS. But the geography has been known to switch directions quickly before. Maybe the globalized world at war will led to the rise of regional geography with elements of cultural studies. Maybe the potential of climate change will cause physical/environmental geography to become more popular. What is known; however, is that multidisciplinary studies are becoming more frequent in academia. The big struggle hear is for geography to remain unique and not be absorbed into things like "environmental studies" or "international studies."