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Function of Political Boundaries

Function of Political Boundaries

If you've ever driven anywhere in the United States, you may have seen a sign next to the road saying something along the lines of, "Now entering Washington County." Believe it or not, you crossed a political boundary!

Political boundaries help us figure out who's in charge of what. Let's explore the purpose, function, and importance of political boundaries.

Political Boundaries Definition

Political boundaries indicate what political entity has sovereignty (governing power and authority) over a physical location.

A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities.

Political boundaries can be internal or international. An internal political boundary divides the authority of regional political entities; these entities are collectively accountable to a central government. International political boundaries divide countries.

The political boundary between Forsyth County and Davidson County is an internal political boundary within the state of North Carolina. The political boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina is an internal political boundary within the country of the United States. The political boundary between the United States and Mexico is an international political boundary between two countries.

Many of our world's political boundaries are negotiated: two or more political entities have come to an agreement about where their borders should be drawn. However, some political boundaries are not willingly agreed upon and are therefore imposed through the use or threat of violence.

In Western culture, our modern concepts of sovereignty, statehood, and well-defined political boundaries can be at least partially attributed to the two peace treaties that ended the European Thirty Years' War in 1648. These treaties are together known as "the Peace of Westphalia." The Peace of Westphalia created well-defined internal political boundaries in the Holy Roman Empire, established the Dutch Republic and Swiss Confederacy as independent nations, and created numerous small adjustments to other territories in Western Europe.

Purpose of Political Boundaries

A political boundary's purpose is to establish who's "in charge" of an area. The driving factor behind the creation of a political boundary may be economic, cultural, national, or some combination of all three.

Economic Control

Economic factors include taxation and the preference for different economic systems. But perhaps most importantly, a political boundary allows governments and corporations to maintain exclusive access to the economic resources within the boundary. This includes farmland, fossil fuels, precious metals, lumber, fresh water, and even human labor.

National Self-Determination

National boundaries are politically-influenced and prioritize a group's right to political self-determination. These groups may revolve around a particular ethnicity or be rooted in a political ideology, creating a shared sense of identity. In geography, these groups are often called nations, which is not always necessarily synonymous with the more legalistic terms of country and state.

Many, if not most, of the international boundaries we see in Europe and Asia reflect the historic "homeland" of distinct ethnic groups. This is also true for some internal boundaries.

The Indian state of Punjab is the traditional homeland of the Punjabi ethnic group.

Multi-ethnic states may establish borders based on political ideologies. This was especially common during the Cold War, when several Eastern European borders were redrawn in deference to a common commitment (or, in many cases, subjugation) to Marxist-Leninist socialism.

Cultural Preferences

Cultural and national reasons may overlap, but cultural boundaries are less motivated by political power than they are ways of life. These lifestyle preferences may be rooted in traditional hunting or farming practices, an ethnic identity, or a religious identity, and boundaries may reflect the space a group needs to express its culture.

Creation Through Policy

Some political boundaries are created through the policy of a foreign or international political entity. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, establishes maritime political boundaries with the consent of over 160 signatories.

The Berlin Conference, held from 1884-85, was an agreement reached by European powers to establish spheres of influence in Africa in service of European economic interests. This ultimately led to the Scramble for Africa, during which European powers largely established the borders that remain in place today. No Africans were invited to the Berlin Conference, and so they had no say in how the political boundaries of their countries were eventually drawn.

Function of Political Boundaries, Purpose of Political Boundaries, Berlin Conference, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An 1884 conference in Berlin, Germany eventually led to the Scramble for Africa.

Demilitarized zones, like the one between North Korea and South Korea, are boundaries that can be put in place to stop military conflict by creating a buffer zone between two belligerents.


As you might imagine, all of the above factors can be a source of conflict. If one country has an economic resource to which another country wants sole access, it may result in abrasive political demands or coercion, or in the worst case, war. Similarly, an ethnic, political, or religious group may feel that its needs are not being met by a country's government, or that policy-created borders are unjust, and may resort to armed rebellion or terrorism in an attempt to get political boundaries redrawn.

Primary Function of International Political Boundaries

We've already mentioned that political boundaries help us recognize who's in charge of what area. This notion of sovereign authority has historically been fundamental to the organization of human civilization. But our international political boundaries also serve as a means to prevent external conflict. A foreign military or citizen cannot simply walk across a border, take what they want, and not expect to be accountable to the sovereign authority of the area. The idea behind an enforced border is that a sovereign political entity has the right to have some say over who can enter its territory and for what purpose.

In this way, ideally, international boundaries encourage political dialogue and economic cooperation, while allowing a country to maintain its internal national or cultural interests as it sees fit.

As the world has become more globalized (with immigration, rather than military invasion, as a central political boundary issue), some individuals have begun to reject political boundaries as antiquated and are in favor of "open borders." Suggested open border policies vary wildly. Some proponents have suggested easing or eliminating immigration laws and replacing them with expeditious residency approvals to encourage a wider pool of labor and a more blended global community. Since 2014, Estonia has been exploring this concept through "e-Residency," an idea that links citizenship to a digital identity rather than a physical location. Others have suggested getting rid of the very notion of a country altogether.

Contested Political Boundaries

Sometimes the borders themselves create conflict. Countries that share political boundaries may claim ownership over a region along their borders, often because these border regions have some economic or cultural significance to both sides.

Function of Political Boundaries, Primary Function of Political Boundaries, Contested Political Boundaries, China India Border, StudySmarterFig. 2 - India and China have several contested areas along their border.

When political entities cannot agree on a border (either through negotiation or imposition), that border is said to be contested. Contested borders can provoke the use of military force.

De Facto and De Jure Political Boundaries

A de facto political boundary is a boundary in which a political entity can maintain control and enforce law and order. A de jure political boundary is a boundary that is legally recognized by foreign political entities.

Ideally, de facto and de jure political boundaries line up, but that is not always the case. For example, the de jure political boundary of the Federal Republic of Somalia is not congruent with the territory that the Federal Republic of Somalia actually has under its control; the northwest portion of the country is under the de facto control of an unrecognized state called Somaliland.

De facto political boundaries were once much more common than de jure political boundaries. For example, the Comanche exercised control over a large portion of North America during the 19th century, but their borders were never formally defined or legally demarcated.

Importance of Political Boundaries

How do political boundaries impact you as an individual?

It starts at the lowest level of political power. If you live in the United States, the political boundaries that make up your town, city, or county will determine which local elections you will be allowed to participate in; which police precinct or fire department will attend to you in the event of an emergency; which local post office will deliver your mail; how much you will need to pay in sales tax; and where you (or your children) will be able to attend public school.

The political boundaries that define the United States as a country—and your existence in it—determine similar factors, but on a larger scale. You have no say in who gets to become the president of Argentina, for example, if you are politically bound to the US. International political boundaries determine which national or federal political system you can participate in; which military will defend you in a war; which government will respond in the event of a natural disaster; which laws you have to follow; what national or federal taxes you have to pay; and which economy you participate in.

Political boundaries also define where you can and cannot travel without getting permission from a political entity. For example, people living in the United States or the European Union may cross internal borders freely, but have to receive permission to cross international borders.

In other words, these political boundaries, created through economic, nationalistic, or cultural forces, will help determine almost every superficial civic aspect of your life. They will determine which political entities you are accountable to, and which polities entities are, in turn, accountable to you.

Political Boundaries Examples

Political boundaries are a human construct—a tool for our use. Some of the boundaries we have in place conform closely to physical geography; mountains, rivers, and oceans can serve as natural barriers between areas and can serve as logical political boundaries, as seen with Cuba or Jamaica. However, many of the political boundaries you are likely to come across will be entirely invisible except on a map. When crossing through different counties in the United States, for example, there may be little more than a roadside sign demarcating a transition into a different political territory, if that.

Function of Political Boundaries, Political Boundaries Example, US Counties Map, StudySmarterFig. 3 - There are over 3,000 counties in the US. How many political boundaries have you crossed in your lifetime?

Some political boundaries are more obvious. Many international political crossings are fenced and guarded by border security, with signs and flags and traffic patterns that you simply cannot miss.

Function of Political Boundaries, Political Boundaries Example, Sultan Iskandar complex, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Malaysia's Sultan Iskandar border complex, funneling international traffic from Singapore, is impossible to miss.

The Singapore-Malaysia border is one of the busiest international political boundaries in the world and is easily demarcated by large customs buildings and huge flags. An estimated 300,000 travelers cross the border daily, mostly for work.

Function of Political Boundaries - Key takeaways

  • A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities.
  • There are both internal and international political boundaries.
  • Political boundaries may form around economic, national, or cultural causes. They may also form through the political policy of a foreign or international entity.
  • Political boundaries delineate sovereign authority and may deter conflict, although sometimes the borders themselves provoke conflict.
  • Political boundaries help determine almost every civic aspect of your life.

Frequently Asked Questions about Function of Political Boundaries

Political boundaries delineate sovereign political authority over an area. They can also serve as a means to prevent conflict with a foreign entity, although sometimes the borders themselves invite conflict.

A political boundary's purpose is to establish who's "in charge" of an area.  

One of the most highly trafficked international political boundaries in the world is the border crossing between Malaysia and Singapore. Many internal political boundaries, like the boundaries between the counties throughout the US, are entirely invisible except on a map. 

Political boundaries will help determine almost every superficial civic aspect of your life. They will determine which political entities you are accountable to, and which polities entities are, in turn, accountable to you. 

A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities. 

Final Function of Political Boundaries Quiz

Question

Define demilitarized zone. 

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Answer

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

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Question

Explain the function of a demilitarized zone. 

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Answer

DMZs are meant to prevent or stop military conflict.

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Question

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

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Answer

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

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Question

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

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Answer

The United States and the Soviet Union

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Question

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

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Answer

Lyuh Woon-hyung

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Question

By what year were there functionally two separate Korean nations? 

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Answer

1948

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Question

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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Answer

North Korea; South Korea

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Question

What agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone?

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Answer

The Korean Armistice Agreement created the Korean Demilitarized Zone. 

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Question

Where, approximately, is the Korean Demilitarized Zone located?

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Answer

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

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Question

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

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Answer

160; 2.5

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Question

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

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Answer

Mouflon

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Question

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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Answer

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

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Question

Tourists can access this portion of the Korean DMZ.

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Answer

The Civilian Control Zone

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Question

Which of the following was not part of the General Act of the Berlin Conference?

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Answer

Drawing colonial boundaries

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Which country was NOT present at the Berlin Conference?

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Answer

Poland

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How many Africans were present at the Berlin Conference?

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Answer

0

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Question

What famous novella portrays the Congo Free State?

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Answer

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad.

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Question

What major justification for the Berlin Conference was not taken seriously by attendees or commentators?

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Answer

Slavery

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Question

Name two major African states that existed for over 500 years 

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Answer

Kongo Kingdom; Kanem-Bornu Empire

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Question

(True or False) As used in the Berlin Conference, "Congo Basin" refers solely to the area drained by the Congo River.

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Answer

False. It referred to a swath of central-southern Africa stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans.

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Question

Since _____ seemed poised to gain colonial territory from the Atlantic to the Indian oceans, _____ was worried that their own north-south corridor would be severed.

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Answer

Portugal...Great Britain

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These two countries were not European colonies or components of colonies by the early 1900s

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Answer

Liberia and Ethiopia

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The Principle of Effective Occupation required:

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Answer

Colonial powers claiming land to actually inhabit and administer it

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Question

Which of the following BEST describes the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea? 

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Answer

A convention to set limits on naval military power.

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What are the high seas?

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Answer

The high seas are international waters. No one nation has sovereignty over the high seas, but certain activities may be regulated by the UN. 

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The third Convention on the Law of the Sea began in what year? 

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Answer

1973!

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Question

Why is the United States NOT a party to UNCLOS? Select the BEST answer.

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Answer

UNCLOS undermines the mission of the United States Navy by banning warships from entering straits.

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Which of the following is the most accurate description of an UNCLOS zone? 

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Answer

The Exclusive Economic Zone extends 200nm from a country's baseline.

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Two countries have overlapping EEZs. How might the overlap be resolved?

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Through the creation of a median line.

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True or False: A transit passage is a continuous and expeditious transit through a strait. 

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True!

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True or False: While conducting innocent passage, normal military operations and exercises are still authorized. 

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False! To conduct innocent passage, you surrender your right to economic, research-based, or military activities.

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True or False: Under UNCLOS, landlocked nations have no right to the sea.

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Answer

False! Landlocked nations may access the EEZ of a coastal state in their region. 

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What is a political boundary?

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Answer

A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities.

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Question

Which of the following can be characterized as an internal political boundary?

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Answer

The border between Texas and Mexico.

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What is the difference between a negotiated boundary and an imposed boundary?

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Answer

Negotiated boundaries are agreed upon by parties. Imposed boundaries are not agreed upon, but enforced through the use or threat of force. 

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Question

Country Purple is trying to expand its political boundaries to incorporate as many oil fields as possible. Which factor is most at play?

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Answer

Economic.

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Country Teal is trying to annex Country Blue because their citizens are of the same ethnic group and have similar lifestyles. Which factor(s) are most at play?

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Answer

National.

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Question

Which of the following political boundaries were mostly established through foreign or supranational policy? Select ALL that apply. 

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Answer

The modern international political boundaries of Africa.

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Question

What is a contested border?

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Answer

A border the location of which cannot be agreed upon. Contested borders may provoke military conflict.

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Question

What are de facto political boundaries?

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Boundaries of territory within which a political entity has the ability to actually enforce its laws.

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What are de jure political boundaries?

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Answer

Boundaries legally recognized as belonging to a political entity.

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Question

True or False: The Comanche had well-established de jure boundaries that matched their de facto area of control. 

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Answer

False! The Comanche had de facto control over a large area, but no legally established de jure political boundaries.

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Question

True or False: The political boundaries you are living within play a big role in determining almost every civic aspect of your life.

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Answer

True!

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Question

Which of the following countries has international political boundaries that conform almost entirely to physical geographic features? 

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Answer

Cuba.

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Question

True or False: "Nation" is always synonymous with "country" or "state."

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Answer

False! Although they can often be used synonymously, "country" or "state" specifically refer to legal entities, while "nation" may refer to a group with or without governmental representation. 

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Question

What is a boundary dispute? 

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Answer

A boundary dispute is a situation in which a political boundary is contested.

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Question

Which of the following types of boundary disputes is associated with the location of economic resources?

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Answer

Allocational dispute.

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Question

Which of the following types of boundary disputes is associated with disagreements over how a boundary has been defined? 

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Answer

Definitional dispute.

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