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Using a social inquiry approach in geography

A social inquiry approach can lead students to develop deeper conceptual understandings. This approach can be used when planning part of a programme based around an issue or to set up a research inquiry.

Students can examine issues, ideas and themes by:

  • asking questions, gathering information and background ideas, and examine relevant current issues. Students need to gain knowledge in order to develop their conceptual understanding. Making links between the theory and relevant current issues will connect the learning to the students making it more relevant to them. In geography this would mean making use of what is happening at the time, using examples such as the closure and movement of manufacturing industries from New Zealand to places like Thailand.
  • exploring and analysing people’s values and perspectives - in geography this can help us understand decisions about, responses to, and interactions with environments.  For example, an understanding of Māori cultural perspectives will involve understanding values such as kaitiakitanga and mana whenua.  These values shape how Māori may perceive and use the natural landscape.  Learn more about exploring values and perspectives
  • considering the ways in which people make decisions and participate in social action - examining the implications and consequences of people’s actions in relation to a particular issue. For example, in geography this could be related to a planned urban development such as a local subdivision or transport developments such as the proposal for light rail in Christchurch.
  • reflecting on and evaluating the understandings they have developed and the responses that may be required – students ask how the learning is significant for them. For example, by having an understanding of how the process of planning and decision making works they are better able to understand how they can participate in this now and/or in the future.

Exploring values and perspectives through social inquiry

Exploring values and perspectives is a key aspect of applying a social inquiry approach in geography. It is closely linked to considering decisions about, responses to, and interactions with environments and relies on a rigorous geographic understanding of environments and issues.

In geography we use perceptions, viewpoints, values, and perspectives to distinguish between ways in which people and groups ‘see’ the world.

Perceptions and viewpoints

The way in which people view and interpret environments (perceptions) or what they think about geographic issues (viewpoints), are usually the result of their background, experiences or involvement with environments or issues. People’s perceptions and viewpoints can, and often do, change over time.

For example, people may have very different viewpoints about the reconstruction of Christchurch. This might relate to the effects on themselves or others, specific places and environments, or planning processes.


Values are deeply held beliefs about what is important and desirable in relation to environments or geographic issues. Understanding values can help explain why people have certain perceptions or hold particular viewpoints. There are different kinds of values, such as moral, social, cultural, aesthetic, and environmental. 

For example, a variety of values might inform people’s statements about Christchurch’s future: a desire for social cohesion, economic growth, ecological values, spiritual values, cultural values, and so on.


Perspectives are bodies of thought, theories, or worldviews that shape people’s values. Understanding different perspectives gives students the capacity to critique and challenge these taken-for-granted ways of understanding the world. 

For example, people’s longer-term responses to the effects of the Canterbury earthquakes may be shaped by different perspectives. From a scientific perspective, they might be concerned with how seismic data could be used to better predict future events, and reduce vulnerability. Someone coming from a social justice perspective might ask: what kinds of political, social, and economic inequalities made some people more vulnerable than others? How could these be addressed?

‘Geographic perspectives’ also refers to how knowledge is organised and understood differently in the discipline, and the varying lenses that may be used when undertaking geographic research. These theoretical perspectives have labels such as ‘gender geography’ ‘feminist geography’, ‘new cultural geography’, ‘post-modern geography’, ‘socially critical approaches’, and ‘Kaupapa Māori Geography’ – but these are not the only ones. 

Glossary of Māori concepts

National Geographic - Geographic Perspective content guide for educators

"The geographic perspective is a lens one may use to analyze virtually any topic that has a spatial distribution, that is, anything that can be mapped. Geography offers a unique way to understand anything that is distributed across space, including the ever-changing relationship between humans and the environment, and thus make predictions and even propose solutions to current problems ...

"Geographers employ both a spatial perspective and an ecological perspective that enable them to ask questions about how humans interact with their physical surroundings ...

"Geography uses an interdisciplinary and generic spatial perspective that may be broadly applied to anything distributed across Earth space. The geographer is therefore free to examine all relevant information in order to make an informed prediction or decision."

Download the National Geographic - Geographic Perspective content guide for educators (PDF 586KB)

Social inquiry planning template

Find and adapt the social inquiry planning template and an interactive planner on the Social Sciences Online website.

Further information on using a social inquiry approach can be found in the Ministry of Education’s Building Conceptual Understandings in the Social Sciences (BCUSS). ‘Approaches to Social Inquiry’ resource. An electronic version is available on the Social Sciences Online website.

Last updated February 21, 2013