One approach to organizing information about the world is to divide it into regions, which are " broad geographic areas distinguished by similar features" (Merriam-Webster 2019). While this approach often requires creating arbitrary artificial borders where the boundaries are really ambiguous or debatable, is it still useful for a variety of applications in business, government and the military.
Geographic regions are commonly grouped into four different types (Getis et al. 2014, 14), and this tutorial will describe examples of some of these types of regions around the world.
- Administrative regions are "created by laws, treaties, or regulations" and are usually associated with government, military, or business control or operation.
- Formal regions (uniform regions) are areas that each have a common set of physical or social characteristics.
- Functional regions (nodal regions) are focused on a central point, with diminishing influence the further you go away from that central point.
- Vernacular regions (perceptual regions) are areas that are socially-defined by shared history and common identities. Accordingly, the boundaries of these regions are ambiguous and fluid (Wikipedia 2020).
UN Continental Regions and Subregions
The closest thing to a standard for world regions are the regions promulgated by the United Nations Statistics Division (2020), which divides the world into six continental regions and 17 sub-regions. The sub-regions and deeper intermediary regions are "drawn as to obtain greater homogeneity in sizes of population, demographic circumstances and accuracy of demographic statistics."
Continents are regions created by dividing the world into "large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separate by expanses of water" Dividing the world into continents is an ancient practice, although the seven-continent model that has been commonly taught in the US did not become largely fixed until the middle of the 20th century. The exact number and boundaries of continents fluctuates by time and usage, creating boundaries that are subjective and arbitrary. This makes these regions more vernacular than formal and more socially-constructed than environmentally-determined (Lewis and Wigen 1997, 21).
Adhering to a strict geophysical definition results in four separate continents.
Separating Africa and Eurasia along the contemporary political border between Egypt and Israel produces five separate continents.
Further separating Eurasia along the contemporary Russian and Turkish borders, separating the Americas along the southern Panamanian border, and assigning islands to physically or politically proximate major land masses results in a seven continents consistent with United Nations Statistics Division (2020) categories. However, given the departure from the formal physical definition of the term continent, this results in a map that is more of a social world regions map rather than a geophysical continents map.
World Regional Geography
The regional approach to geographic analysis of the world was especially popular in the late 19th and early 20th century, and is associated with geographers like Paul Vidal de la Blanche, Carl Sauer and Richard Hartschorne.
While regional analysis has largely been supplanted by other techniques in contemporary academic geography, classes in world regional geography remain common in higher education, albeit only in the United States (Rees and Legates 2013, 328).
This is a typical world region map used in a textbook by Finlayson (2019).
Regions of the world are commonly defined by economic ties and performance.
The World Bank was one of the Bretton Woods organizations established at the end of World War II to provide financial and technical assistance to developing countries around the world (World Bank 2020a). The World Bank organizes its operations into six different administrative regions.
The World Bank classifies countries into four different income levels. Countries of similar income levels tend to clump into de facto formal regions.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has its roots in the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) that was established in 1948 to run the US-financed Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe after World War II. The US and Canada joined in 1961 to form the OECD. The OECD provides a forum to "identify problems, discuss and analyse them, and promote policies to solve them" (OECD 2019).
Most OECD member countries are high-income countries, so a map of OECD vs non-OECD countries is in many ways a map of the Global North vs the Global South (Wikipedia 2019).
The United States Department of Defense " has 11 combatant commands, each with a geographic or functional mission that provides command and control of military forces in peace and war." Six of those commands are assigned missions associated with specific administrative geographic regions that reflect strategic objectives and the nature of US military activity around the world (US Department of Defense 2020).
The Department of Defense does not appear to publish a comprehensive map of combatant commands, so the country list was compiled based on maps and descriptions from the individual combatant command websites linked from the main Department of Defense (2020) website.
Challenges with Regions
The division of the world into regions has similar challenges to any other kind of attempt to categorize:
- Grouping diverse areas into a single region often masks significant differences between parts of a region
- The exact boundaries of regions are often contestible (open to dispute), and changing the boundaries can sometimes make significant changes in the analysis of those regions (the modifiable areal unit problem)
- Places are constantly changing, making regional boundaries obsolete as soon as they are drawn
- The regional approach has its roots in the imperialism of the era when it was popular. This can reflect a Eurocentric worldview that makes it difficult to see the world from other perspectives
- The regional approach tends to be ideographic focus on description and facts (what is where) at the expense of seeking explanatory theories or ideas (why is it there and why do we care)
- This focus on facts can reduce study using the regional approach to boring memorization - again reflective of the pedagogical practices from the era when regional geography was most popular
Despite these drawbacks, division of the world into regions is still a technique that can be useful in business, diplomacy and military activity. For example, the Japanese imaging and optical products corporation Canon organizes its marketing operations into four regions: Europe/Middle East/Africa, The Americas, Asia, and Japan
All maps above were created in R.
The R script is available here.
The CSV file containing country lists is available here.
The polygons were obtained using the wrld_simpl data from the open source maptools package in R. The data was originally made available on the mappinghacks.com website and the version used above was downloaded from https://github.com/nasa/World-Wind-Java/tree/master/WorldWind/testData/shapefiles.
All maps are transformed to the Robinson projection.
Finlayson, Caitlin. 2019. "World Regional Geography." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://worldgeo.pressbooks.com/chapter/chapter-1/.
Getis, Arthur, Mark Bjelland and Victoria Getis. 2014. Introduction to Geography, 14th edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
Lewis, Martin W. and Wigen, Kären E. 1997. "The Myth of Continents: a Critique of Metageography." Berkeley: University of California.
United Nations Statistics Division. 2020. "Geographic Regions." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://unstats.un.org/unsd/methodology/m49/.
Wikipedia. 2019. "North–South divide." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North%E2%80%93South_divide.
World Bank. 2018. "The World By Region." Accessed 19 January 2020. http://datatopics.worldbank.org/sdgatlas/the-world-by-region.html.
World Bank. 2020a. "What We Do." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://www.worldbank.org/en/about/what-we-do.
World Bank. 2020b. "World Bank Country and Lending Groups." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2019. "History." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://www.oecd.org/about/history/.
US Department of Defense. 2020. "Combatant Commands." Accessed 19 January 2020. https://www.defense.gov/Our-Story/Combatant-Commands/.