Systems – the framework for physical geography?
Systems analysis came to the fore in physical geography in the 1960s and found formal expression in the classic textbook of Chorley and Kennedy (1971). The introduction of systems analysis into physical geography was not without its critics, but the new approach rapidly became one of the cornerstones of thinking about the physical environment. The continued success of systems analysis is probably best illustrated by a perusal of any set of modern textbooks on introductory physical geography. Often the titles of such texts use ‘systems’ as an explicit indication of their approach. Almost invariably the contents pages divide the subject matter into specifi c environmental systems, each of which is considered in turn: for example, the atmospheric system, the lithospheric system and the biosphere, and occasionally there is a chapter attempting to integrate the disparate systems at the end of the text. Systems analysis, if judged by column inches of text in undergraduate books and even research papers, has become the overarching framework for understanding in physical geography. With such success, it is important to understand what systems analysis is. Systems analysis has also moulded thinking about the physical environment. Entities and relations are viewed in a specifi c framework and studied according to expected modes of system behaviour. An understanding of the constraints on thinking imposed by systems analysis is essential to ensure that the limitations of the systems analysis framework do not become a barrier to comprehension of the physical environment.