In this article, You are going to read System Analysis in Human Geography for Geography Optional UPSC IAS exam.

System Analysis in Human Geography

System: complex whole; A system is a group of interacting or interrelated entities that form a unified whole.

System has been defined differently by different scientists.

In the words of James, a system may be defined as “a whole (a person, a state, a culture, a business) which functions as whole because of the interdependence of its parts”.

If we accept this definition, then it can fairly be said that geographers have been using forms of system concepts since the dawn of the subject. However, till the outbreak of the Second World War no technique had been developed to enable geographers to analyze complex systems.

Geography deals with complex relationships of living and non-living organisms in an ecosystem. System analysis provides a framework for describing the whole complex and structure of the activity. It is, therefore, peculiarly suited to geographic analysis since geography deals with complex multivariate situations.

The concept (system analysis) was borrowed from Botanical Science (Von Bertalanffy). In geography, it was introduced by Chorley (in his book: System analysis in Geography).

It was because of this advantage that Berry and Chorley suggested system analysis and general system theory as the basic tools for geographic understanding. In the opinion of Chorley (1962), there is great significance in system analysis in geographical studies.

The main advantages of system analysis are:

  1. there is need to study systems rather than isolated phenomena;
  2. there is need to identify the basic principles governing systems;
  3. there is value in arguing from analogies with subject matter; and
  4. there is need for general principles to cover various systems.

General System Theory

The concept of general system theory was developed by biologists in the 1920s. It was Ludwig von Bertalanffy who declared that unless we studied an individual organism as a system of multifarious associated parts we would not really understand the laws which govern the life of that organism. After some time he realised that this idea could be applied to other non-biological systems, and that
these systems had many common characteristics over a range of sciences. It was possible to develop a general system theory which gave the same analytical framework and procedure to all sciences.

A general system is a higher-order generalization of a multiplicity of systems which individual sciences have recognised. This is a way of unifying the sciences. This led to interdisciplinary approach in research. In other words, the general system theory is a theory of general models.

According to Mesarevic’s definition, the general system theory is concerned not merely with isomorphism and analogy in system analysis, but with setting up some general theory for which characteristics of various systems can be deduced. It is thus concerned with the deductive unification of system analytic concept.

The general system theory provides a framework for relating individual systems and types of systems within a unified hierarchical structure. Such a structure is useful in that it allows us to understand better the relationships that exist between various types of systems; to state categorically the conditions under
which one system approximates another, and to identify types of systems that may be useful to us even though we have not yet identified real system to match them.

The general system theory can be understood in the light of a new concept of mathematics and physics. This concept is known as ‘cybernetics’ (from the Greek kybernete—helsman). Cybernetics may be defined as the study of regulating and self-regulating mechanisms in nature and technology. A regulatory system follows a programme, a prescribed course of action which produces a predetermined operation. In nature, there is a very large number of self-regulating mechanisms, such as the automatic regulation of body temperature. These self-regulating mechanisms follow certain common laws and these can be described mathematically in the same way. Whilst regulation is very precise in nature, in human societies it is defective.

Cybernetics places emphasis on the interaction between components rather than making sharp distinctions between cause and effect. Between two components, causal mechanism may work both ways. An impulse which starts in one part of the system will work its way back to its origin after being transformed through a range of partial processes in other parts of the system. This cybernetic theory enables us to understand the operation of the general system theory.

The abstract character of a system is emphasised when we realize that a system, if it is to be analyzed, must be ‘closed’. An open system interacts and interconnects with the surrounding systems, and therefore, becomes difficult to analyze. All real systems (such as landscapes) are open systems. When we analyze a system we can only consider a finite number of elements within the system and the reciprocal relations between them.

The elements and connections which we are not able to consider in such an analysis must be disregarded completely. We have to assume that they do not affect the system. In the analysis of a region, we can of course take into account individual influences and single elements which are not geographically located
within the predetermined area or region. The abstract system remains closed all the same because we enclose these elements and relationships in our conceptual model. The system is not synonymous with the model we have made for it, represented by the elements and connections we have chosen to enclose or consider.

In other words, we can only study a system after we have determined its boundaries. This presents no mathematical problem since the boundaries draw themselves insofar as some lying outside it, although it is not all that easy to choose those elements, in practical geographical research. As an example, Harvey
describes a firm which functions within an economy on the basis of a particular set of economic circumstances. When we analyze the internal relations and elements within the firm as a closed system, we must regard these circumstances as unchangeable. To extend the boundaries of the system so as to include the changing social and political relationship in the society of which the firm is a part may well alter the result of the analysis. So, even in this simple case, the drawing of boundaries creates problems.

By identifying the set of elements that we believe best describe the real system in order to model a real situation. For example, in a large industrial company engaged in several branches of activity, the head office and each of the branch offices form its constituent elements.

Mathematically expressed, the system consists:

A= (a1, a2, a3… an)
To this expression should be added an element a0 which represents the environment of the system within which the firm operates. We can then infer a new set of elements:

B = (a0, a1, a2…an)

This includes all the elements in the system plus an extra element which represents the environment. We can then investigate the connections between these elements. Analyzing the company we can see whether there are any connections between the branches, and, if so, between which branches. We can observe whether the contacts go both ways and what the contact model implies.

Thus, a system consists of:

(i) A set of elements identified with some variable attributes of objects.
(ii) A set of relationships between these attributes of objects and the environment.

Merits of Abstract Construal of a Systems:

The abstract construal of a system has a number of important advantages, which are given below:

  1. Any geographical region (landscape) has a number of phenomena. System analysis attempts to reduce this complexity to a simpler form, in which it may be more easily comprehended and which models can be constructed.
  2. It allows, for example, the development of an abstract theory system that is not tied down to any one particular system or set of systems.
  3. This theory provides us with a good deal of information about the possible structures, behaviors, states, and so on, that might conceivably occur.
  4. It provides us with the necessary technical apparatus for dealing with interactions within complex structures.
  5. System theory is associated with an abstract mathematical language, which, rather like geometry and probability theory, can be used to discuss empirically problems.

Structure of a System:

A definition of ‘system’ has been given in the foregoing paras. Given the definition of a system, it is possible to elaborate on its ‘structure’.

A system is composed essentially of three components:

  • a set of elements;
  • a set of links; and
  • a set of links between the system and its environment.

The system may be open or closed,  for examples:

  • Open system: Earth, ocean, forest, atmosphere,  etc
  • Closed system: (It hardly exists) Culture of Andaman & Nicobar tribes

System change through time, for example:

  • Earlier, the system was dominant by the environment and animals
  • Nowadays, the system was dominant by human

Types of system

An open system is defined as a “system in exchange of matter with its environment, presenting import and export, building-up and breaking-down of its material components.” An open system allows the exchange of matter and energy.

Closed systems are held to be isolated from their environment. There is no exchange of matter or energy

Morphological systems are the network of structural relationships or cross-correlations between the constituent parts of systems.

Cascading systems explains path followed by throughputs of energy or mass.

Process-Response systems have a linkage of at least one morphological and one cascading system. Understanding in simple terms we say that morphological structure is related to the process that is energized by cascading systems.

Control systems are process-response systems where key components are controlled by some intelligence where geographical units are concerned.

Types of system

Elements of a System:

Elements are the basic aspects of every system, structure, function, development. From the mathematical point of view, an element is a primitive term that has no definition, as the concept of point in geometry. Nevertheless, the structure of a system is the sum of the elements and the connections between them. Function concerns the flows (exchange relationships) which occupy the connections. The development presents changes in both structure and function which may take place over time.

Elements of a System

The definition of an element depends on the scale at which we conceive of the system. For example, the international monetary system may be conceptualized as containing countries as elements; an economy may be thought of as being made up of firms and organizations; organizations themselves may be thought of as system made up of departments; a department may be viewed as a system made of individual people; each person may be regarded as a biological system; and so on. Similarly, a car may be an element in the traffic system, but may also be regarded as constituting a system. It is clear from these examples that the definition of an element depends on the scale at which we conceive of the system.

The upper diagram shows System A and System B interacting as units, with smaller system interactions going on within each system. The lower diagram shows Systems A and B interacting at lower levels.

After it has been decided which scale to use, another problem in system-building is how to identify the elements. Identification is particularly difficult when we are dealing with phenomena that have continuous distribution, e.g., when precipitation forms an element in a system. Identification is easiest with elements that are clearly separated, such as farms. But, from the point of view of mathematical systems theory, an element is a variable.

It follows, therefore, that in seeking a translation of the mathematical element in geographical context we must construe the element as an attribute of some defined individual rather than as the individual itself.

Links or Relationships:

The second component of system links (relationships). The links in a system which connect the different elements in it have been shown in Figure-

links in a system

These (types of relationships) are as follows:

  1. Series relation.
  2. Parallel relation.
  3. Feedback relation.
  4. Simple compound relation.
  5. Complex compound relation

1. Simple Series relation – Where one element affects the other without getting affected itself.
Eg. – Irrigation to high agricultural productivity.

2. Parallel relation – Where the elements are affected by each other like relationship between Precipitation, vegetation, and climate.

3. Feedback relation – feedback is one in which elements get affected by their own functions.

It can be (a) Positive feedback and (b) Negative feedback

Eg. – leguminous plants & Soil: (+ve feedback)
Eucalyptus: (-ve feedback)

4. Simple compound relationship – It has both series and parallel relationship.

  • Eg. – Solar System
    • Light energy has a series relationship with plants
    • Gravitation in parallel

5. Complex compound relationship

  • Simple series relation + Parallel relation + feedback relation.
  • Most common type – any biological system or geographical system is actually found as complex compound system.
  • Eg. – Human Body, Metro cities

Behaviour of a System

The behavior of a system means interrelationships of the elements, their reciprocal effect on each other. The behavior has to do, therefore, with flows, stimuli, and responses, inputs and outputs, and the like. We can examine both the internal behavior of a system and its transactions with the environment. A study of the former amounts to a study of functional laws that connect behavior in various parts of the system. Consider a system that has one or more of its elements related to the aspect of the environment. Suppose the environment undergoes a change. Then, at least one element in the system is affected.

The effect of these affected elements is transmitted throughout the system until all connected elements in the system are affected. This constitutes a simple stimulus-response or input-output system without feedback to the environment:

behaviour is described by the equations

The behavior is described by the equations (deterministic or possibilistic) to connect the input with the output.

Geographical System

A system where one or more of the functionally important variables are spatial may be described as a geographical system. Geographers are primarily interested in studying systems whose most important functional variables are spatial circumstances, such as location, distance, extent, sprawl, density per areal unit, etc.

In the last few decades, the system approach has drawn the attention of geographers. Chorley attempted to formulate thinking in geomorphology in terms of an open system; Leopold and Langbein used entropy and steady-state in the study of fluvial systems, and Berry attempted to provide a basis for the study of “cities as systems within systems of cities” by the use of two concepts of organization and information in spatial form.

In geography, static or adaptive systems can be easily constructed. It is difficult to make a geographical system dynamic, for that we must combine time and space in the same model. Space may be expressed in two dimensions by cartographical abstraction. We may be able to present a satisfactory explanation for such a system but it is very difficult to handle and analyze it.

Some of these problems can be solved by developing geographical models that may be classified as ‘controlled systems’ (discussed above). Controlled systems are particularly useful in planning situations when the objective is known and the input in the economic geographic system has been defined. In most of the cases, we can control some of the inputs, but others are either impossible or too expensive to manipulate. For example, if we wish to maximize agricultural production, we may be in a position to control the input of artificial fertilizers, but we cannot control the climate.

Partially controlled systems are therefore of great interest. Our increased knowledge of environmental conditions leads us to appreciate the extent of the need for the development of planning and control systems. Many of the scientists engaged in research into possible future conditions fear that the positive
feedback mechanism in the form of technological development and control which have led to an exponential increase in population, industrial production, etc., will, in the long run, result in a dramatic crisis of pollution, hunger, and shortage of resources. One of the causes of such a crisis would be the long-term suppression of natural negative feedback mechanisms.

System analysis may provide a useful systematization of our models, theories of structured ideas, but it is not necessary to refer to system analysis and its mathematical implications when we are doing practical research. For instance, a world map of iron ore production and trade may be described in systematic
terms: the elements are the producing and consuming centers, the links or relations are the trading lines, the amount of iron transported along different lines depicts the function, and maps showing these situations at specific time intervals would describe the development of the system. Moreover, the system
approach was technically much more demanding, and perhaps for that reason attracted fewer active researchers.

Both system analysis and general system theory have been criticized on the ground that they are intrinsically associated with positivism, i.e., these do not take into consideration the normative values (aesthetic values, beliefs, attitudes, desires, hopes, and fears), and thus do not give a real picture of a geographical personality.

The development of geographical research has been discussed in the foregoing paras. It has passed through three different phases of development. The development of science covers three broad stages: (i) descriptive, (ii) analytical, and (iii) predictive. The description is the first step and the simplest; it is concerned with the description and mapping of phenomena. Geography from antiquity to the middle of the 18th century was in this phase. The analytical stage moves a step further by looking for an explanation and seeking the laws which lie behind what has been observed.

The period of Alexander von Humboldt falls in this phase. It was during this period that the analysis of the spatial distribution of phenomena started. The third stage in the development of science is the predictive stage. By the time the predictive stage has been reached the laws have been studied so thoroughly that we can use models to predict occurrences. This stage was partly reached with the advent of geomorphology and climatology in the closing decades of the 19th century.

But, the real upheaval in the field of human geography is a post-Second World War phenomenon. Many locational theories have been formulated which are predictive in nature, and thus we can say that geography has entered the third stage of its development. Geographers are trying to develop models for
controlled systems which may be used to guide development in the future. It is clear from the above discussion that geographers are now moving into the predictive stage.

Merits and Demerits of System Analysis

Merits –

  • Theorization and Model building has been supported by system analysis, so it provided a systematic analysis of the discipline.
  • Geography became structured science.
  • From descriptive geog. to objective
  • For rational interpretation, description, and understanding the true nature, system analysis was used.

Demerits –

  • It made geog. as spatial science or space geometry where measurement of space collection of data & surveys became important.
  • Geog. learning became mechanistic and confined to certain objectives.
  • System analysis was based on generalization & positivism which suggest that reality is one that is cognizable. Thus unseen variables were discarded.
  • Thus unseen variables were discarded.

In System analysis, Humanism and welfare approach was rejected because it is impossible to quantify human emotions and his decisions making process.

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Thank you


Very helpful, very informative. Thank you.


Good content


thank you so much LR


Thank you so much … I have no word to Say thanks … Very impressive initiative for those who don’t join paid classes

Mrs. Sabitri Kumari Sharma

Very meaningfull for my study . Thank you

Md Salauddin

You are amazing

Rajat Sharma

I think you are underrated!🤣🤣

Last edited 3 months ago by Rajat Sharma

It’s amazing. 1st time i felt that I can deal with human geography.. Esp perspective and models etc.