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Political Geography

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Political Geography

Have you ever wondered why we draw so many lines on our planet? Not just 193 country borders, but literally millions of lines enclosing territories as small as a house lot and as large as the outlines of the world’s largest nations. Lines that extend under the ground, into the air, out to sea, and deep into the ocean. Lines that are marked by signs, fences, walls, or rivers; lines that are defended to the point of conflict, and after conflict, are redrawn. Lines that encircle and contain groups of people, while excluding others.

Political geography is the study of what those boundary lines and territories mean, and much more. Keep reading to learn about the scope, examples, and more.

Introduction to Political Geography

Political geography emphasizes humans' territorial natures. We claim and hold territory—as individuals and as societies—for reasons of security, need for natural resources, and fundamentally, as space in which to reside. We administer those territories according to rules that are written and enforced in different ways depending on what types of governments we have.

Political Geography, private property sign, StudySmarterFig. 1 - A common type of boundary marker

Geographers say that people organize space. This means we establish boundaries between different types of territories, define the rules of each territory (domestic politics and government), and define how we interact with people who aren’t members of our territories (geopolitics, international relations).

Political geography takes a critical approach to how we organize space and how this relates to the state and to the individual. It considers different types of territories that are fashioned by people of all ethnicities, races, genders, and cultures, and how these territories are governed and defended.

Scope of Political Geography

Political geography's scope is extremely broad. At the local scale, it might focus on the political concerns of a single community or neighborhood. At the global scale, it can analyze the geopolitics of large world regions or other global phenomena. It can also integrate scales, relating the broadest of global issues to the political geography of a single neighborhood.

Like all subfields of geography, political geography is related not just to its own concerns of territory, boundaries, state formation, electoral politics, and so forth, but also to questions of culture, economics, and the environment.

COVID-19: a pandemic studied by medical geographers. There are environmental, cultural, and economic components to the pandemic, and all of these have geographic dimensions. Is there also a political geographical component? Definitely! A political geographer might look at how different governments approached geographical components of the pandemic, like stopping its spread by limiting how people utilize space.

Development of Political Geography

Political geography as it has existed in Europe and North America has developed in two phases. The first phase extended from the height of imperialism in the late 1800s all the way until the 1970s. The second phase began in the 1970s and continues today.

Political Geography in the Service of Imperialism

Geographers have long been necessary to states for their essential work of gathering geographic data and making maps. Geography has been particularly useful in foreign relations and defense ministries of major governments, and one can find numerous descriptive geographical works that have helped countries conquer and administer other countries.

Four major figures—from the US, Germany, Russia, and the UK—exemplify the type of political geography that went beyond this dry fact-finding to weave elaborate theories about geopolitics and the relationships between the great powers in the waning years of imperialism.

1) Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), a German geographer who introduced the concept of lebensraum ("living space") in his Politische Geographie (1897).1 Though he was an important figure in the origins of modern human geography, cultural geography, and political geography, his geopolitical theory also influenced Nazism.

2) Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840-1914), a historian and Navy admiral who wrote The Influence of Sea-Power on History, 1660-1783,2 in which he argued for the preeminence of naval forces in the rise to power of empires. The US Navy and US geopolitical theory and practice were heavily influenced by this book.

3) Pyotr Kropotkin (1842-1921), a Russian prince who, as a geographer and an anarchist, completely disavowed the state and centralized government, calling it unnecessary. He argued instead for mutual aid3 like what he saw practiced in the small peasant communities across Russia that he visited.

4) Halford Mackinder (1861-1947), a British geographer who came up with the "Heartland Theory" in 1904.4 Playing off the long-time struggle between the Russian and British Empires known as the Great Game, Mackinder argued that the key to world dominance lay in control of the "Heartland," an area stretching from eastern Europe into what is now Ukraine and Russia, part of "Eurasia."

These voices provided different ways to think about the big picture, and their influence is still felt in the field of international relations and in the positions taken by governments.

Critical Political Geography

After the 1960s, political geographers turned to Marxism, feminism, and other approaches that were critical of imperialism. Nowadays, a political geographer might be as likely to look at the territoriality of environmental groups as they would the ways that transgender youth control "safe spaces" in a US community. Now that there is no expectation that political geographers work in the "service of the state," one can find that just about any topic of interest in politics is being studied and debated by geographers as well.

Political Geography Map

A good place to begin your political geographical explorations is a world political map that shows country names, boundaries, and locations. It is a snapshot of the world as it exists right now—though, as you probably already figured out, that is negotiable, contested, and ever-changing. From the global level, you can "drill down" to a certain region, depending on what your interest is.

Hint: NEVER FORGET that every map you see is based on some sort of a projection, meaning it distorts three-dimensional space to fit onto the two-dimensional page. You might be seeing the right shape of a country, but the wrong size, for example. Also, and this is critically important, remember that maps are tools, and those tools are fashioned in a certain way depending on the goals of the mapmaker. In political geography, maps might even be used as propaganda, so you have to be careful in assuming that what you are seeing is completely factual.

Political Geography, 2020 UN world map, StudySmarterFig. 2 - 2020 world map showing all UN member states

Political Geography in AP Human Geography

Like all the AP Human Geography topics, political geography does not just involve learning dry facts about countries. However, it is very useful to know those facts, starting with basic map knowledge.

You can browse through and study our extensive catalog of explanations on political geography to learn about all facets of the subdiscipline.

Study tip: Political geography and cultural geography are quite closely related. In the AP Human Geography exam, you will very likely see cultural geography components in political geography questions and vice versa. This is because so much of human culture—think of religion and ethnicity, for example—becomes the basis for territoriality, boundary-drawing, conflict, and so on.

Political Geography Examples

The following are some political geography examples:

US-Mexico Border

There are few issues as fraught as the 1,954-mile border that separates the United States from Mexico. One fascinating aspect of this is both political and cultural and looks at how the border serves to unite communities on both sides in a broader border zone. Political geographers look at the tensions between cultural and even environmental concerns that bring together both sides and political issues that keep them divided. This connects to that important political geography subject, electoral geography, because issues related to how the US deals with its southern land border affect the outcome of elections all the way to the national level. We can also see how a border issue is related to population geography, which is concerned in part with different types of migrant flows.

Political Geography, US-Mexico border, StudySmarterFig. 3 - A small part of the border between Mexico and the US

South China Sea

This body of water bordered by seven countries in Southeast Asia is a geopolitical flashpoint where conflicts over fishing rights and access to drilling are part of a geopolitical saga pitting China against the West. The South China Sea covers access to an estimated 11 billion barrels of petroleum and almost 200 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas, reason enough for dispute when several of these countries' claims overlap each other.5 The reason, and an important focus in political geography, is the lack of clarity in definitions of water territory--where access ends and what type of access is allowed.

Political Georgaphy, 1947 map of South China Sea, StudySmarterFig. 4 - A 1947 map released by the Republic of China stakes China's claim to most of the South China Sea, enclosed by an 11-dash line

China's claim dates to a dashed line drawn on a 1947 map and includes most of the sea. China has been busy constructing artificial islands, each of which can have an Exclusive Economic Zone around it. This has put it in direct military conflict with the Philippines, for example, though no war has yet broken out in the region. This is because the US, Australia, the UK, and other Western allies treat the South China Sea as international waters and deploy substantial military forces there to safeguard it, creating major geopolitical tensions with China. They claim they are protecting one of the world's busiest trade routes, connecting Asia and Europe.

Ukraine

Political geographers going back to the days of Mackinder and before have been concerned about the resource-rich and geostrategic lands between Europe and Russia. Ukraine, the disputed Crimean Peninsula, and the Black Sea, have long been caught in a high-stakes tug-of-war between Russia and the West since the days of the "Great Game" when the British Empire and the Russian Empire disputed territory along a shatterbelt stretching across most of Asia and the fringes of Europe. Russia has always needed a warm-water port, so it has made it a political priority to control the Black Sea access via the chokepoint at Turkey's Bosporus and Dardanelles straits.

Chokepoints and shatterbelts: a chokepoint is a location where a flow of people and resources can be choked off; it often refers to narrow passages in the sea, mountain passes, bridges, and other places that be easily controlled by a single military outpost. Shatterbelts are regions of long-term political instability that lie between two large, stable, and mutually hostile states or empires.

To understand Ukraine, its internal conflicts, and its relationships with Russia and the West in the present day, it is necessary to understand the importance it has long had for Russia's geostrategic interests, some of which are mentioned above, as well as the irredentist nature of its ethnically Russian eastern part, the Donbas. It is also necessary to comprehend the US-led push for a Western-led "world order" that seeks to block the rise of potential competitors such as a strong and expansionist Russia. Mackinder-influenced texts like Zbigniew Brzezinski's The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives argue for this approach.

Political Geography - Key takeaways

  • Political geography is focused on understanding the ways that humans control space as territory, how they organize territories and establish boundaries, and how different territories relate to each other.
  • Political geography can be focused on a local concern, a global geopolitical issue, or how the two relate; it is often associated with cultural, economic, environmental, and population issues.
  • Famous 19th-century political geographers or people who wrote influential texts include Kropotkin, Ratzel, Mackinder, and Mahan.
  • Political geography worked in the service of imperialism up until the last 50 years, but now it is independent, critical, and focused on all sorts of issues ranging from the territoriality of minority groups to electoral geography.
  • Examples of political geographical concerns include the US-Mexico border, the South China Sea disputes, and the geopolitical situation involving Ukraine, Russia, and the West.

References

  1. Ratzel, F. 'Politische Geographie.' Munich, R. Oldenburg. 1897.
  2. Mahan, A. T. 'The Influence of Sea-Power on History, 1660-1783.' Gutenberg.org. 1890.
  3. Kropotkin, P. 'Mutual aid: A factor of evolution.' 1892.
  4. Mackinder, H. 'The geographical pivot of history.' The Geographical Journal 23:4, pp. 421-437. 1904.
  5. Center for Preventive Action. 'Territorial disputes in the South China Sea'. Council on Foreign Relations. 2022.
  6. Brzezinski, Z. 'The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives.' Basic Books. 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about Political Geography

Political geography's purpose is to understand the ways that people and governments control and dispute space, and particularly different types of territories and boundaries.

Political geography is the spatial dimensions of human governments--for example, electoral districts, international boundaries, and geopolitics.

Political geography is the study of the spatial dimensions of government, particularly boundaries and territories.

Political geography provides critical insight on the spatial dimensions of political issues, such as how boundaries and territories are created and maintained, and how conflicts arise.

Political science is a social science that studies government; political geography is a subfield of human geography that studies the spatial dimensions of politics and government.

Final Political Geography Quiz

Question

Which of the following people influenced Brzezinski's Grand Chessboard?

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Answer

Mackinder

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Question

Which of the following statements about the US-Mexico border is correct?

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Answer

The border divides but does not unite

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Which statement is true regarding current political geography?

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It is primarily critical of imperialism

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According to Mackinder, what area of the world was key to world dominance?

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Answer

The Heartland

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Which statement is correct?

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Answer

Kropotkin was an imperialist who believed in mutual aid between nations.

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Which of Ratzel's concepts was employed by the Nazis?

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Answer

Lebensraum (living space)

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Which of the following are concerns of Russia involving Ukraine?

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Answer

Irredentism, chokepoints, and a warm-water port

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Why does China build artificial islands in the South China Sea?

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Answer

To claim territory around them

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The original map that establishes China's claim to the South China Sea dates from

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Answer

1947

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Three major natural resources in the South China Sea are:

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Answer

Petroleum, natural gas, and fish

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Question

Which of the following is NOT a topic of interest to political geographers?

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Answer

How birds establish territories and boundaries

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For discussion: why do you think political geographers are concerned with outer space and virtual space (the Internet)?

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Answer

Though these aren't strictly physical territories created by humans on the Earth, they are extensions of human territoriality and boundary-drawing. As long as humans are involved and some issue of control of space is of concern, even if the space is metaphorical or non-terrestrial, it can fall under political geography.

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Question

What factor does NOT contribute to state collapse?

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Answer

Effective governance

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What is NOT a criticism of the concept of "failed state"?

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Failed states often become the targets of Western intervention

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The following is NOT an example of a failed state

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Finland

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(True or False) States fail due to centripetal forces

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False, they fail due to centrifugal forces

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Which is the true statement about Iraq?

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Iraq has maintained its territorial integrity

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Which of the following was NOT a feature of the Former Yugoslavia in the 1990s?

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civil war

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Which of the following is not associated with Somalia's failed state categorization?

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A strong central government controlled by warlords

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An example of irredentism is

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Ethnic Russians inside Ukraine

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Which is the true statement?

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Latin Americans almost never seek secession or state collapse

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Define demilitarized zone. 

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A demilitarized zone is an area where military activity is officially forbidden.

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Explain the function of a demilitarized zone. 

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DMZs are meant to prevent or stop military conflict.

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True or False: Military activity is expressly forbidden in Antarctica for any reason whatsoever.

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False! Military activity is authorized in Antarctica for scientific research purposes.

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Following World War II, the military administration of the Korean Peninsula was managed by which two countries?

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The United States and the Soviet Union

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Which Korean politician attempted to establish the People's Republic of Korea?

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Answer

Lyuh Woon-hyung

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By what year were there functionally two separate Korean nations? 

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1948

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The Democratic People's Republic of Korea is colloquially referred to as _______. The Republic of Korea is colloquially referred to as ________.

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North Korea; South Korea

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What agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone?

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The Korean Armistice Agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone. 

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Where, approximately, is the Korean Demilitarized Zone located?

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The Korean DMZ cuts through the Korean peninsula roughly in line with the 38th parallel. 

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The Korean DMZ is _______ miles long and _______ miles wide.

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Answer

160; 2.5

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Which of the following animals is NOT found in the Korean DMZ?

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Answer

Mouflon

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Which of the following is a common nickname for the DMZ in Cyprus?

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Answer

The Green Line

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True or False: Outer space is a DMZ. 

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Answer

True! 

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True or False: DMZs MUST be political boundaries.

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False! DMZs can be entire islands, continents, or even individual historic sites.

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Tourists can access this portion of the Korean DMZ.

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The Civilian Control Zone

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After which war was the United Nations founded?

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World War 2

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What was the predecessor to the United Nations?

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The League of Nations

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Was the League of Nations successful? Why or why not?

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The League of Nations was largely unsuccessful because of the lack of participation from all nations and the inability to prevent the Second World War.

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True or false: the General Assembly consists of only a portion of the 193 member states

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False, the General Assembly consists of all member states who receive an equal vote.

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Should the UN be described as a "world government?"

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No, because it does not supersede national sovereignty.

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What power do the permanent five members of the Security Council have?

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The power to veto any resolutions passed by the Security Council.

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Which of the following are powers of the UN Security Council?

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Enact sanctions

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True or false: The International Court of Justice can prosecute people for war crimes

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False, that is the role of the International Criminal Court

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Does the ICJ adjudicate disputes between countries?

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Answer

Yes, the ICJ seeks to resolve and hear cases that involve two nation-states.

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Why is the UN sometimes criticized for being ineffective?

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The UN has little actual power to enforce its resolutions, so it is criticized as just being a hollow institution.

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What have been some successes of the UN?

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Successes of the UN include the deployment of peacekeepers to prevent conflicts from worsening, and improving standards of living worldwide, especially for children.

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Question

Rank the following five reservations in terms of area, from largest to smallest: a) Cherokee, b) Choctaw, c) Chickasaw, d) Navajo, e) Uintah Ouray.

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Answer

D, B, C, A, E

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Pick the correct statement

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There are 574 Federally recognized tribal entities and 326 reservations

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Why do you think the number of reservations and the number of tribes does not match?

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Answer

-Some tribes do not have reservations

-Some reservations are inhabited by more than one tribe

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