These days, geography is about a lot more than state capitals and annual rainfall.
It's also about offshore banking, crime analysis, labor markets and Middle East politics. At least, those are the many topics addressed by the Assn. of American Geographers, which is holding its annual meeting this week in Los Angeles.
"It's very broad. Geography goes back to when people didn't know a lot about the Earth and needed to map it. Then geography broke off from that," said Barry Solomon, an associate professor at Michigan Technological University.
Manoela Borges, a teacher's assistant at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said it's hard to explain to students who aren't geography majors why they're studying capitalism and welfare systems.
"They say, 'This is not geography.' Well, it is," Borges said. "It's really multidisciplinary."
Definitions vary, but they do cover a wide range. "It's why things happen where they happen," one conference participant said. "It is 'What is where?' and 'Why?' and 'What about?'" another said.
Geography also crosses over into politics, some attendees said. The word "geography" was barely mentioned in Indiana State University professor Mohameden Ould-Mey's lecture Wednesday during a session titled "The Middle East Today." His topic was the more political subject of Zionism.
"Israel has two options: Allow Palestinians to be citizens and vote in elections like South Africans, or continue to be Zionists and remain exclusively Jewish," he said.
Though some questioned his point of view, few disputed that the debate was centered in geography. As the discipline matures, attendees said, simple facts of place and space don't satisfy the geographer's curiosity; they must be subjected to analysis.
"The Israel-Palestine conflict is classic geography," said Zoltan Grossman, a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. "It's based in place."
The 98th annual meeting, caught even the attention of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, its associate dean, sent a letter to the association expressing disappointment with papers delivered that he thought were anti-Israel.
"In this particular environment that we're dealing with--while the holy land is burning--this is irresponsible and arrogant," Cooper said. "What this has to do with geography, I'm not sure."
Ould-Mey said the Arab-Israeli conflict is "the most important geographic topic because it involves the whole world."
Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.