18 June 2016
The world is a complex place. A way of organizing information about this complex place is to divide the world into geographic Regions: broad geographic areas distinguished by similar features. This approach 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, the regional approach still has value for understanding the world and is still used in business, government and the military.
What is Geography?
For most people, the word geography brings back memories of high school social studies classes where you were required to memorize the names of states or major world capitols. At best, geography is associated with 19th century European explorers traipsing through Africa looking for the source of rivers or major deposits of gold.
The word geography has its etymological roots in the Greek word geographein, which literally means to write about (graphein) or describe the earth's (geo) surface. Getis et al (2004), among others, assert the word was first used by Eratosthenes (ca. 276 BC - 195 BC), although the word also reflects the prehistoric activity of map making (cartography).
There are three definitions of the word geography that will be useful for understanding how regions can be used to understand the world...
Geography as Three Questions
Geographer Charles Gritzner (2002) came up with a terse, commonly-cited definition of geography as a discipline that asks three questions: What is Where, Why is it There, and Why Do We Care?
What is where is what we commonly think of as geography from elementary school, and this is still a major part of geography. The method of communicating what is where data most closely associated with geography is Maps. Much of the vast amount of digital data that humanity is constantly generating has a spatial component that can be analyzed with Geographic Information Systems. Regions are usually defined by what is where.
However, knowledge about where something is can be less interesting and useful than understanding why is it there. This leads to questions of history, politics, economics, etc. Regions are the product of complex social or environmental processes, and are constantly changing.
Ultimately knowledge about location (what is where) or processes (why is it there) leads to questions about why do we care. This leads to (often-difficult and unanswerable) questions values, morals, philosophy and social justice.
Geography as an Academic Discipline
A discipline is a field of study, and academic geography (geography studied and researched in universities) is commonly divided into three broad subdisciplines: Human, Physical and GIS.
Human Geography studies human activities and often overlaps with other social sciences like sociology, anthropology, economics, etc.
Physical Geography studies the biophysical environment and often overlaps with other natural sciences like geology, archaeology, climatology, etc.
Geographic Information Systems (GIS) involves the use of information technology to capture, process, store, analyze and communicate geospatial information. GIS commonly overlaps with computer science, statistics, informatics, etc.
Although most geographers specialize in one of these three areas, work in these areas overlaps. Human and physical geographers both study the interactions between humans and the broader non-human environment. Physical and human geographers often use GIS in their work.
Regions can be defined by human characteristics (such as political boundaries), physical characteristics (such as climate regions) or a combination of the two (such as climate change). GIS can be used for simple tasks like mapping regions to complex statistical analysis of economic interactions between regions.
Geography as Interdisciplinary Study
Geography is what geographers do.
One of the advantages of geography as a small, and poorly-defined discipline is that geographic analysis and research can draw from a number of disciplines and tie that information together in ways that people specifically focused on one type of phenomena may miss. Geographers commonly work across disciplines in ways that can sometimes be indistinguishable from those disciplines.
Types of Regions
Authors like Geits et al (2014) commonly refer to four different types of regions:
- Formal Regions (uniform regions) is an area with a single characteristic or limited set of characteristics. For example, the Corn Belt specifies an area based on the predominant farming crop. The Middle East is a group of countries that have similar political, economic and historic relationship to The West
- Administrative Regions are regions defined by political or legal boundaries, and which often have some kind of government associated with that region. Countries and states are notable examples. Many authors, such as Rubenstein (2013), consider administrative regions to be just another kind of formal region
- Functional Regions (nodal regions) are focused on a central point, with diminishing influence the further you go away from that central point. For example, the Denver Metropolitan Area has a single administrative region at its core (the City of Denver) but includes a number of surrounding administrative regions (such as Aurora and Arvada) that have strong economic ties to the core city
- Vernacular Regions (perceptual regions) exist primarily in the imagination of different people and do not have clear, formal boundaries. For example, the American Deep South is often defined as the seven states of the old Confederate States of America (an obsolete administrative boundary), but can have other borders depending on who you talk to
Regions and Scale
Scale is the size or geographical extent of area being studied. Scale can also refer to the "distinctive relative size, extent, or degree" of a phenomenon. The first definition refers to HOW phenomena are studied while the second (which is can also be referred to as scope) describes the phenomena itself.
For example, in the study of the geography of energy:
- Global Scale: What is the total amount of petroleum produced, stored and consumed worldwide?
- World Region Scale: How are the trends in energy use different between Southeast Asia and North America?
- National Scale: What are the historical differences in car ownership between the United States and France?
- National Region Scale: What political and environmental factors affect the differences in renewable energy adoption between the deep south and the northeast?
- Local Scale: What are the negative environmental impacts of oil drilling in the Niger Delta?
- Individual Scale: What are the negative environmental impacts of fracking on individual farmers.
Scales are embedded (or nested) and never completely independent. Regions can often be thought of as falling into a hierarchy of scales. Regions are made up of sub-regions, and are sub-regions of larger regions. Activities at the local level combine to have national and global effects, and policy choices made by national leaders trickle down to have effects at the local level. For example, overfishing in European waters has caused European fishermen to also overfish unregulated waters off the coast of Somalia, which has damaged the livelihoods of Somali fishermen and pushed them to turn to piracy to survive.
A similar common phenomena is scale jumping, where causes and effects can be analyzed at different scales. For example: airport expansion can have positive effects on a regional economy, but the negative effects of aircraft noise are felt locally in neighborhoods around the expanded airports.
Challenges with Regions
The division of the world in to 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
Continents are divisions of the world's land masses into four to seven regions.Where did these divisions come from
While the boundaries of Antarctica and Australia are physical oceans and, therefore, clear, the boundaries between the Americas, and between Europe, Asia, and Africa are fuzzy and more political than physical. Even though continents have a physical basis, in some ways they can be thought of as vernacular rather than formal regions.
World Bank Economic RegionsContiguity
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In 25 words or less, give the three definitions of the word Geography that we will use in this class.
Give an example of classification (not from the text) along with at least one example from that classification scheme where there is ambiguity or contestation over that classification
Give an example of a Formal region other than one given in the reading. Describe the Scale of the region and give another type of region that the region can be nested in or that is nested by your example.
Give an example of a Functional region other than one given in the reading. Describe the Scale of the region and give another type of region that the region can be nested in or that is nested by your example.
Give an example of a Vernacular region other than one given in the reading. Describe the Scale of the region and give another type of region that the region can be nested in or that is nested by your example.
Give at least three different types of regions for one of your analysis countries. You can use the regions given in the reading, or some other regional classification. For each of the region types, indicate whether (or not) there is any contestation over which specific region your country belongs in. If it is contested, briefly indicate why it is contested.
Give at least three different types regions for your other analysis country. You can use the regions given in the reading, or some other regional classification. For each of the region types, indicate whether (or not) there is any contestation over which specific region your country belongs in. If it is contested, briefly indicate why it is contested.
de Blij, H.J., Alexander B. Murphy, and Erin H. Fouberg. 2007. Human Geography: People, Place and Culture, eighth edition. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Getis, Arthur, Judith Getis, and Jerome D. Fellmann. 2004 Introduction to Geography, ninth edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
Getis, Arthur, Mark Bjelland and Victoria Getis. 2014. Introduction to Geography, 14th edition. New York: McGraw Hill.
Gritzner, Charles F. 2002. What is where, why there, and why care? Journal of Geography 101 (1), 38-40. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00221340208978465.
Joint Committee on Geographic Education. 1984. Guidelines for geographic education: Elementary and secondary schools. Washington, DC and Macomb, IL: Association of American Geographers and National Council for Geographic Education.
Knox, Paul L. and Sallie A. Marston. 2004. Places and Regions in Global Context: Human Geography, third edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Natolia, Salvatore J. 1994. Guidelines for geographic education and the fundamental themes in geography. Journal of Geography 93 (1), 2-6.
Rubenstein, James M. 2005. An Introduction to Human Geography: The Cultural Landscape, eighth edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.
Rubenstein, James M. 2013. Contemporary Human Geography, second edition. Boston: Pearson.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. 1977. Space and Place: The Persepective of Experience. University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.