Historical geography studies the geography of a region as it was in the past decades. The basic premises of historical geography do not exactly coincide with the framework of geography; rather, it exists side by side with the geography of modern times.
Historical geography encompasses both regional and general geography apart from all other branches.
So, social geography in reality has become a part of historical geography. Historical geography can, therefore, be considered as a separate branch of study complete in itself. Contemporary geography revolves around the existing areal differentiation of phenomena which will ultimately pass into the realm of historical geography in the near future.
C.T. Smith (1967) has mentioned the following concerns as those of historical geography:
(a) The role of geographical factor in history
(b) The evolution of cultural aspect of societies
(c) The reconstructed study of past geographies
(d) The study of changes in geographical features through chronological periods.
The modern trend of the study of historical geography dates back to the 1920s and 1930s when, after Darby, historical geography was established as a ‘self-conscious discipline’. Several geographers like East have studied the human geography of Europe in several historical periods. Ralph Brown analysed the geography of the USA at the time when it was settled by the Europeans. S.M. Ali in his The Geography of Puranas has endeavoured to construct the geography of ancient. India.
Whittlesey and East were convinced that the flow of historical events is better understood if we study the historical reconstruction of geography; others, however, view the domain of historical geography to be in the symbiotic man- environment relationship during the past ages.
This leads to the study of determinism and possibilism since each social group produces a particular trend of determinism; social, economic and technological determinisms occur simultaneously with geographical determinism.
The geographers belonging to the Berkeley school argue in favour of the reconstruction of changing cultural landscapes over the past ages. The study of cultural landscape has a striking similarity with genetic morphology because both are concerned with landscape evolution. For an effective reconstruction of the past, landscape features such as settlement distribution, habitation types and field patterns are considered to be the most valuable sources.
Historical geography can be divided into several sub-types, viz., agricultural geography, regional geography, industrial geography, urban geography and so on. Past reconstruction of geography is of paramount importance for establishing a bridge between the geographical studies of the past and the present.
Some geographers, Mackinder, for instance, consider the distinction between historical and contemporary geography as baseless, because, according to Mackinder, historical geography has been considered with the historical present. So, historical and contemporary geography are one and the same because whatever we study in geography at present will be a part of historical geography in due course of time.
The real challenge to historical geography came during the 1960s and early 1970s with the initiation of quantitative revolution. The descriptive empiricism of historical geography was discarded by the new perspectives, such as functionalism.
The historical geographers challenge the notion of quantification by invoking historical materialism and by throwing light on the humanistic aspect of idealism, which again confers on man the central role in geography. Meinig (1989) has expressed his concern that historical geography has become a ‘dangerously weak field’ of study due to a minuscule number of followers.
During recent decades, a close relationship has been established between historical and cultural geography in North America and Europe. In recent years, the most significant contribution of historical geography lies in the construction of a viable social theory within the discipline. The studies of academicians like Langton (1984) and Gregory (1988) suggest that geography and history are on a converging trend in the approach to regional geography.