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Political Geography



Political Geography, a sub-discipline of geography, particularly human geography, involving the study of both the spatially uneven outcomes of political processes and the ways in which political processes are themselves affected by spatial structures. Its main concerns can be summarized as the interrelationships between people, state, and territory. Conventionally, political geography adopts a three-scale structure for the purposes of analysis, with the state acting as the pivotal scale of the study, concerned with the ways in which the forces of conflict and consensus, and of cohesion and disintegration, are expressed and dealt with within territories. Above the state is the level of international relations, or geopolitics, which involves the study of both geostrategic and geoeconomic processes and relationships, and their spatial expressions. The third scale, below that of the state, is the political geography of localities, which is concerned with the processes, conflicts, and strategies operating both within and between local communities, and also the power relationships between local communities and the central state.


The origins of political geography lie in those of human geography itself as a tool of 19th-century imperial territorial and economic expansion. Early political geographers were thus concerned mainly with the military and political consequences of the interrelationships between physical geography, state territories, and state power. In particular, there was a close association with regional geography, with its focus on the unique physical, economic, social and cultural characteristics of regions; and with environmental determinism, which emphasized the influence of the physical environment on human activities. This association found expression in the work of the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel who, in 1897, developed an organic theory of the state based on the concept of Lebensraum (living space) and the idea that the character and density of a Volk (people) were inextricably tied to a particular area or Raum. He explicitly linked the cultural growth of a nation with territorial expansion, an idea that was later used to give academic legitimacy to the imperialist expansion of the German Third Reich in the 1930s.

The British geographer Sir Halford Mackinder was also heavily influenced by the concept of the region and by environmental determinism. Central to his theory of world political power, first developed in 1904, was the concept of the “geopolitical pivot of history” or heartland. He argued that the era of sea power was coming to an end and that land-based powers were in the ascendant; in particular, he believed that whoever controlled the heartland of “Euro-Asia” would control the world. This perspective proved influential during the Cold War era, underpinning military thinking about the creation in central Europe of buffer zones between East and West.

By the end of the 1930s, however, environmental determinism was largely discredited within academic geographical circles. This was partly because of the lack of intellectual rigour in the theories of some of its leading proponents, such as the American geographer Ellen Semple, and partly because of the racist nature of some of their conclusions. By the end of the 1950s regional geography was also under attack. A new generation of geographers, keen to transform the discipline into a true science concerned with establishing universal laws and theories, and with the quantitative analysis of data, were particularly critical of its emphasis on the uniqueness of regions and on description rather than analysis. Political geography’s close association with environmental determinism and the regional approach meant that it also went into decline during the period after World War II. The trend was reinforced by the freezing of political boundaries during the Cold War. By 1968 the influential Anglo-American geographer Brian Berry was able to describe political geography as “a moribund backwater”. Although in other areas of human geography a number of new approaches were invigorating research, including quantitative spatial analysis, behavioural studies, and structural (as opposed to political) Marxism, these were largely ignored by political geographers whose main point of reference continued to be the region. Much of the political geography of this period was thus purely descriptive with little attempt to produce generalizations from the data collected. It was not until the late 1970s that some geographers began to argue that political geography might not, in fact, be moribund but could instead have a dynamic future.


In early political geography, the principle research techniques were observation, classification, and detailed descriptive mapping. The use of maps is still important, indeed they have been described as the basic documents of political geography because the boundaries they show—for example, state borders, territorial waters, European Union membership, or electoral constituencies—are the spatial expression of political processes at all levels. However, political geographers also use a wide range of other approaches, some incorporated from other disciplines, such as sociology or psychology, including the quantitative analysis of statistical data, and behavioural techniques such as questionnaire surveys and interviews. The areas studied are as varied as the geography of elections, maritime boundaries and the control of ocean resources, territoriality, and the role of political processes in social stratification. Computer-based tools, such a geographical information systems (GIS), are increasingly used for the detailed analysis of data. GIS are special-purpose databases in which all the information is linked to a spatial reference system, and which integrate various kinds of data such as aerial and satellite images; census material; and electoral information, such as electoral boundaries and voting figures. GIS can be used to analyse, for example, changes in the spatial structure of voting patterns.


Since the late 1970s, political geography has undergone a renaissance, and could today be described fairly as one of the most dynamic of geography’s sub-disciplines. The revival was underpinned by the 1982 launch of the international journal Political Geography Quarterly (since 1992, Political Geography). Its editor, the British geographer Peter Taylor, has been a leading figure in the recent resurgence of political geography. In part, this growth has been associated with the adoption by political geographers of approaches taken up earlier in other areas of human geography, including quantitative spatial analysis, behavioural and perceptual analysis, and the theories of structural Marxism. However, the recent growth in the vitality and importance of the sub-discipline is also closely related to the fact that recent decades have been ones of political change at all levels. Most obvious has been the impact of the end of the Cold War, including the emergence of new geopolitical relationships and the development of a new world order that is as yet only poorly defined. The political geography of the state is also undergoing changes that are still incompletely understood, in part as a result of the breakdown of old international relationships. On the one hand, there are centripetal forces tending towards the combination of states into larger units, such as the European Union. On the other hand, there are the centrifugal forces, notably the growth of nationalism in various forms, that threaten the spatial integrity of long-standing state structures—or in the case of the former Soviet Union, former Yugoslavia, and former Czechoslovakia have already destroyed it. Such state-scale political processes are expressed in different ways in different countries. In the United Kingdom, for example, there has been a spatial polarization of politics over the past 20 years that has resulted from profound changes in voting patterns and tactics. This polarization appeared to reach a climax at the May 1, 1997, general election: the Conservative Party, previously the governing party, was left with no political presence at a parliamentary level in Scotland, Wales, and the majority of large English cities. At the level of localities, political flux is seen in the changing pattern of intra- and intercommunity conflicts and coordination, and in the changing relationships between local communities and the central state, notably in the rise of “issue-based” politics.

Also important to the resurgence of political geography has been the development of new research agendas, such as the more recent focus on social movements and political struggles that goes beyond the study of nationalism, with its explicit territorial basis. Recently, too, there has been an increasing interest in the geography of environmentalism, or so-called green politics, including the geopolitics of environmental protest and the capacity of existing political institutions at both the state and wider level to address contemporary and future environmental problems competently.

Political geography has extended the scope of traditional political science approaches by acknowledging that the exercise of power is not restricted to states and bureaucracies, but is part of everyday life. This has resulted in the concerns of political geography increasingly overlapping with those of other human geography sub-disciplines such as economic geography and urban geography, and, particularly, with those of cultural and social geography in relation to the study of the politics of place. Although contemporary political geography maintains many of its traditional concerns, the disciplinary expansion into related areas is part of a general process within human geography that involves the blurring of boundaries between formerly discrete areas of study, and the development of a more multidisciplinary approach.