With regularity, studies of the Arctic begin with comments about the difficulties of defining the region. Its name is derived from the Greek word, Arktos (meaning bear), for the constellation around the Pole Star. In its earlier meaning, the Arctic Circle defined that part of the sky, but it now refers to a line of latitude (currently 661330 N) north of which the Sun will remain above the horizon for all 24 h on the June solstice. This shift in English, when the word began to designate a region of the Earth rather than part of the sky, occurred around the sixteenth century when Mercator first circulated a map of high latitudes. Based on information in a book by an Englishman who had traveled North in the 1300s, Mercator's 1569 map popularized the polar projection, a cartographic technique that is still used in textbooks to visualize the Arctic.

If most arctic studies begin with problems of definition, they usually settle on one of five delineations for the region. The best known is the Arctic Circle, that imaginary line of latitude that has been variously calculated and variably drawn across a long humanized landscape. Four other delineations are also often used: the extent of permafrost, tree line, the 10 °C July isotherm, and 60 °N latitude. While no definition is suitable for all research projects, the tenacity of these five definitions suggests that, compared to 'the Orient', the Arctic is understood primarily in physical, rather than cultural, terms. While the region's environmental materialities are hardly the product of fantasy, the emphasis on its physical geographies reflects three research trends. First, the parameters of solar heat are understood to set the Arctic – as a homogeneous region – wholly and physically apart. Second, the abundance of geophysical research provides common definitions that are then often adopted else where. Third, fewer geographers have had reason to render the regional coherence of the Arctic as problematic as that of, say, Africa or Asia.

Nonetheless, there is a growing body of work in the discipline that defines the Arctic as an object of knowledge. The 1920s had already seen a profusion of books – by Diamond Jenness, Knud Rasmussen, and Vilhjalmur Stefansson among others – as well as the first two geography textbooks in English: one by R.N. Rudmose Brown, the other by Ludwig Mecking. Against earlier narratives, this material circulated as a new historiography, a network of statements that summarized the accounts of explorers and corrected earlier knowledge about the Arctic. Stefansson was the most adamant in his pursuit for correction. In Geographical Review and beyond, he argued that the variety of conditions in ''the friendly Arctic'' was poorly represented amidst popular misconceptions.

What for Stefansson were the 'standard errors' of arctic discourse became the raw data for John K Wright's landmark essay about the role of imagination in geographical studies. Wright traced popular nineteenthcentury arguments that claimed an open sea existed around the Pole. His interest in the imaginative geographies of the Arctic gained more momentum after the 1970s, when substantial scholarship revealed the many different ways people imagined the Arctic: as empty or barren, as a rich frontier, as a key transportation route, as a site of scientific discovery, as a strategic military front, as a resource development zone, as a fragile wilderness, and as an ancestral homeland.

Postcolonial studies inform more recent scholarship on the Arctic. Like Edward Said's 1978 classic, Orientalism, such work examines the discourses of 'nordicity' or 'borealism' through which the Arctic is represented, along with the shifting grids of colonial power that produced these discourses. Yet studies that ask how 'the Arctic' was constructed as a coherent regional entity in the first place have only begun to appear. Such work suggests that the relations of production for imagining the Arctic involved epistemic violence, and that categories like the Arctic obscure the diverse histories and fractured connections of the people and lands that these categories were made to contain.

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