political geography

POLITICAL GEOGRAPHY IS the study of the ways geographic space is organized within and by political processes. It focuses on the spatial expression of political behavior. Boundaries on land and on the oceans, the role of capital cities, power relationships among nation-states, administrative systems, voter behavior, conflicts over resources, and even matters involving outer space have politicogeographical dimensions.

Contemplating the state of political geography, Richard Muir observed that “political geography is simultaneously one of the most retarded and most undervalued branches of geography and one that offers
the greatest potential for both theoretical and practical advance.” Things had not always been so. Many of the early geographers such as Peter Kropotkin, Sir Halford J. MACKINDER, and Isaiah Bowman were explicitly concerned with the relations between politics and geography in both their published work and their public lives.

political geography

Mackinder, for example, was a member of parliament, a high commissioner in RUSSIA and chairman of various government committees, and Bowman was an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson at the Versailles Peace Treaty meetings. Sadly, this concern with the very stuff of politics waned after Mackinder and Bowman. Geopolitics became discredited by a Nazi association and political geography became an ossified
subdiscipline of a tired subject, often taught, never researched, a prisoner of outdated theories.

From the disciplinary perspective, political geography may be defined as either geography or political science. In the perspective of political science, political geography appears as “the study of political phenomena in their aerial context,” as one geographer put it.


Political geography is the study of relationships among humans, their environment, and their political institutions. The controversy over states' rights, which has been revived again and again in the UNITED STATES, masks geographic problems growing out of the natural environment of the southern states, or out of natural resources of petroleum-producing states, or out of water requirements in dry and semiarid states. All these and more require political accommodation.

The functions of political geography are not confined to one state but embrace the whole globe. It is intriguing to attempt to rank the sovereign states of the world in terms of effective national power, to evaluate the regional importance of one state compared to its neighbors, to range over the world and consider the ever changing power of the (British) Commonwealth of Nations, or the French Community, to analyze the reasons for political tensions between regions in terms of environmental differences—these are the substance of political geography in its broadest terms.

The subject is also dynamic, searching for the effects of change and the rate of such change. Change affects, in every inhabited spot, the elements within the political state that define it, that strengthen or weaken it, that slowly alter the image of a state in the world. The nature of change and its velocity are both little understood, for humans are cursed with a love of the familiar, the usual and ingrained, and their grasp is finite and time bound.

The political requirements of agrarian ARGENTINA altered internally and externally when the Juan Peron government attempted to industrialize the state. The political geography of the (British) Commonwealth of Nations today contrasts in stress and strain with the 19th-century BRITISH EMPIRE. Changing geographic resources and factors buttressed the weapons race between the UNITED STATES and Soviet Union during the Cold War. Political demands for control of French Louisiana in the early 19th century grew out of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER's role as a transport route for farm products. Today, an interstate superhighway system is of more importance to the agriculture areas of the Midwest than southward river routes. The political importance of the differing economic developments of communist CHINA and democratic INDIA causes scholars to question the suitability of one type of government over another.

Yet scholars admit that the political state is in one sense an abstraction, dependent on written records and some degree of respect for possession or ownership. It could not exist in a world without other political states. As an abstraction, it appears at a certain level of culture, marked by written language, sedentary life, and the need for organization. Today, in certain areas of the world, it appears to be only another stage in the search for unity by groups of people. In newly born states it is national unity. The painfully complex path of Western Europe toward federation is a movement toward regional unity. The latter's course contrasts sharply with the turbulent, uneasy history of newly independent nation-states of the former Soviet Union.

Political geography is functional; it studies the degree of unity reached by the environment and man's political institutions. Laws governing the ownership of water rights that were evolved in moist, cool northwest Europe were unsuccessfully transplanted to the American semiarid southwest. In much of Latin America, most of the land is owned by a small wealthy class. The resultant pressure of population on resources is a continuing specter that threatens to menace the productivity of the environment and to conjure up political revolution.

Subordinate political units in the state also clash with man's use of the environment. It can be witnessed in the U.S. urban trading areas that overlap several states; interstate compacts regulating commerce, navigation, and transportation; and overlapping regional requirements for development of natural resources such as river basins. Above all, there is the increasing role of central political power in the modern industrialized states, which has been forced primarily by the interregional complexities of economic and social problems.

Political geography considers different cultural meanings for similar political and geographic functions. Attitudes, frames of reference, habits, and beliefs—all the rationale of political and cultural action—are explored for their agreement or disagreement with the environment. America, in the colonial period, offered the natives hunting and fishing; to the colonists, it offered farms, lumber, cotton, and tobacco. The prairies of the Midwest or of western CANADA, with their thick, deep-rooted grass, have a different meaning to the settler today than what they had before the invention of the steel plow. These lands were first unsuitable, then invaluable, for profitable settlements. The former accommodates to local tribal government by the patriarch; the latter is the agent of highly centralized, democratic government that is over 1,200 miles distant.

The pace of change today is forcing many peoples to reorient their customs and habits. Unfortunately, cultural inertia often produces only a veneer of change. The oil-rich sheiks of the Arabian peninsula gladly accept the costly consumer goods of the West; many a Cadillac has not been uncrated or may have been run dry of gasoline and abandoned. The distrust of the strange, the foreign, and the unusual continue to haunt most of the world's peoples.

Though moderated after centuries of conflict, religion remains contentious over vast areas. The idea of race, expressed in terms of color of skin and physiognomy causes rioting, murder, economic and social discrimination, and political bias in many countries. Despite the general rise in literacy and the construction of educational systems and rapid communications structures, there probably has not been a corresponding increase in the level of understanding and tolerance. Not less important, and among the slowest to change, are those series of conventions that society impresses upon individuals. These force the control or submission of the instinctive impulses, for the most part, for the general social good.

The political geographer is concerned with the homogeneity and heterogeneity in action within and without the political unit. He or she must attempt to analyze the centrifugal and centripetal forces acting and interacting at different rates.


Humans remained a pawn of their environment for thousands of years before they became sedentary. Security lay with the tribe and idol, and fears led to primitive worship. The arrival of sedentary agriculture provided the grounding to develop small groupings, implying an intimate association with a single homogeneous landscape. In river valleys such as the NILE, Tigris-Euphrates, INDUS, and HUANG, these collective groupings evolved political forms that were linked to the physical settings of FLOODPLAINS, the presence of abundant water, the yearly silting of the fields, and the regularity of the sun and the seasons.

The hold of the primeval past remained strong even in the Greek world of Persian invasions, in the lifetimes of Pericles, Plato, and Aristotle. The Greeks were the first known culture to actively explore geography as a science and philosophy, with major contributors including Thales of Miletus, Herodotus, Eratosthenes, Hipparchus, Aristotle, Dicaearchus of Messana, Strabo, and Ptolemy. But Greek scholars began to think logically and abstractly about the meaning of the world around them. Both Plato and Aristotle analyzed the political state, its environmental base, and man's relationships with it. They attempted to clarify cause, space and time.

Although the political world of their day became complex, they agreed to find unity among environment, man, and the state. The polis, the city-state, was their political frame of reference. The influence of topography in fragmenting the Greek peninsula into many small river valleys, separated by hills and mountains but facing the sea, has also been commented on many times. Yet, even for the Greeks it was true, as it is increasingly today, that humans are active, intelligent agents, not the pawns of their environment.

Whenever we study the thought of other people in other cultures and at other times, their frame of reference must be considered to explain their limitations and successes. Greek thinkers were no exception. An early comment on the political environment by Aristotle was both nationalistic and deterministic. He asserted that “the people of cold countries generally, particularly those of Europe, are full of spirit but deficient in skill and intelligence; and this is why they remain free, but show no political development and faculty of governing others. Peoples of Asia are endowed with intelligence but are deficient in skills. This is why they continue to be peoples of subjects and slaves.” Aristotle's Europeans were those nomadic tribes in south Russia and the Balkans that periodically raided the Mediterranean world and threatened its colonies. He implied that nomadic tribes are not likely to develop a high degree of political organization. His Asians were the peoples of Asia Minor and the Persian Empire. The first of these were his own people, inhabitants of Greek city-states along the fringe of Anatolia—yet he looked down on them.

Today, we would consider the low level of technology at that time as important, one that produced small surpluses but dense populations. The size of these eastern empires contributed to the necessity for a political organization that depended on a highly centralized monarchy buttressed by military power.

When Aristotle wrote that the Greeks were better than barbarians of the north and the Asians of the east, he emphasized the importance of location; he was writing about the known world. In addition, he believed that climate had a strong influence on qualities such as spirit and intelligence, for in the Greek division of climates, the Greek lived in the temperate zones, the nomad in the cold regions, the Asiatic in the hot areas.

Greek thinkers were cautious of their common nationality, but through most of the ancient period they were more impressed by the consciousness of the value of their individual civic life. The 5th century B.C.E. was the period of highest achievement in Greek political life. Greek unity was imposed by Philip and Alexander of the Macedon. The unity of which Plato wrote was sharply limited in dimension. He was certain that the city-state was the ideal political form for humans. Later, in the age of Caesar and Augustus, the geographer Strabo argued that only with a strong central government with one powerful ruler could a continental empire such as Rome survive and flourish. Through the centuries, humans have altered many times their views on the size, structure, and functions of the political state that they continued to require.

These early observations on the nature of interlinkages between people, the environment, and political institutions could not evolve in a coherent subdiscipline of political geography. The surge of new geography of the 1950s and 1960s bypassed political geography. The new geography, with spatial analysis as its theme, neoclassical economics as its accounting frame, and logical positivism as its methodological underpinning, could not accommodate a political geography. The emphasis of neoclassical economics on the economy as a harmonious, self-regulating system, where each factor of production receives its fair reward, ignored questions of conflict and inequitable distribution, and the focus of logical positivism directed attention to verifiable empirical statements in particular, and data analysis in general, and away from the operation of the more incorporeal power relations within society.

A truly political geography could not flourish in such a climate. Moreover, the explicit analysis of politics was taken over by the last social science discipline, political science. This academic assertion was being conducted by a discipline, which according to some scholars was a device for avoiding politics without achieving science. Ignored by its discipline and lacking any theoretical substance from political science, it is little wonder that political geography was a moribund subject.


The origins of political geography are usually traced to Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904), who was the brilliant yet ambiguous founder of modern political geography. He was strongly influenced by rapid, vigorous developments in the natural sciences in the 19th century and sought to discover the realities of political society.

Ratzel and Karl Marx both thought that there were natural laws that controlled society. Ratzel's critics have often disregarded his fundamental contributions to the elements of political geography, underestimated the attention he gave to the factors of location and space, and fixed their disliking on his attempt to develop an analogy between political state and living biological organism. In his native GERMANY, the concept of natural selection and survival of the fittest became wedded to a geopolitical jurisdiction of national expansion.

A group of German geopoliticians emerged who gradually discredited his reputation as they abandoned rationale and unbiased geographic thought and turned to justifications of war and conquest.

Ratzel thought that states in all stages of development are considered as organisms that stand in a necessary connection with the ground, and hence must be viewed geographically. He linked the state to a mobile body, to an organism subject to the natural laws of growth and decay. His organism was spiritual and moral. Just as an organism is born, grows, matures, and eventually dies, Ratzel argued, states go through stages of birth (around a culture hearth or core area), expansion (perhaps by colonization), maturity (stability), and eventual collapse.

Strongly influenced by Darwinian thinking, he was interested in the relationships between the state and the Earth, between political institutions and their physical environment. His major contribution came with his representation of the state as a organism needing Lebensraum (living space) and the competition between states for that space as a Darwinian contest involving the survival of the fittest. He suggested that only a sporadic absorption of new land and people could stave off the state's decline. In fact, Ratzel proposed a blueprint for imperialism.

He believed the higher the technological and social development of the political state, the farther that state was removed from its organic foundations. In fact, this thought on the analogy of an organism and the state is ambiguous. The true geographic structure of Ratzel's thought suffered because of imperfect distillation from his German and from the rejection by American geographers of any form of determinism. However, the elements of political geography that are thought to be of major importance today were voluminously discussed and analyzed by Ratzel. The state is not an abstraction— it occupies land and water; its size, location, and boundaries are important characteristics.

Ratzel also thought that the surface features of the land together with vegetation and soil were basic to any political analysis. He emphasized the importance of capital in location and function. The beliefs of social groups in the necessity of a political union based on historical, religious, and cultural values; the theory of centrifugal and centripetal forces operative in the state; the idea of the ecumene or heartland; and the vital roles of communication and movement—all these provide the solid substance of his political geography. He lived in an era that saw the growth of colonial empires to their maximum and the partitioning of virtually all the land areas of the world into politically controlled regions. He correctly saw that the increasing ability to overcome space placed a premium on states of large size. Today, we speak of the continental superpowers that have geographic environments that possess varied and immense resources. In addition, Ratzel devoted attention to relationships between states, particularly on the nature and function of boundaries.

Ratzel's ideas were taken up by a number of geographers with political as well as academic interests, notably Rudolf Kjellen, a Swede, and Karl Haushofer, a German who taught and was close to Rudolf Hess,
Adolf Hitler's deputy in the 1930s. They developed a school of geopolitik, whose writings were used to give an intellectual rationale to 1930s German expansionism—not only the desire to occupy adjacent territories with substantial German populations, such as AUSTRIA and Sudetenland, but also Russian areas further east.

Parallel developments in the UNITED KINGDOM were led by another geographer-politician, Sir Halford Mackinder (1904), whose classic paper related state power to location. In an era when movement of heavy goods and large armies was easier by sea than by land, maritime countries would dominate politically, but as land transport was becoming easier, so “land-based powers” were becoming stronger: he argued that whoever controlled the “world island” (the heartland of Euro-Asia) should be able to control the globe—a geopolitical notion that influenced much strategic thinking throughout the century, until air power (and then power in space) came to dominate military strategy.

Elsewhere, political geography merged as the study of states and their impact on the landscape, as exemplified by D. Whittelsey (1939) and by R. Hartshorne's (1950) paper on the functional approach: the latter saw the spatial structuring of the state as a resolution of centrifugal and centripetal forces, focused on its core area and capital city. Many of their writings involved identifying typologies of states and dividing the world into geopolitical regions.

Descriptive analyses of the world political map were continued by a number of scholars who at various times posited bipolar, multipolar, center-periphery, and other structures. Other geographers developed interests in boundary demarcation and disputes, on land and at sea. This continuing strand of work on geopolitics had little impact on the wider discipline, despite its links to strategic thinking. It was almost entirely absent from geography in FRANCE, Germany. and Russia from 1945 onward because of the association of political geography with geopolitics and then geopolitik. The Soviet Union, for example, blocked the establishment of commission on political geography within the International Geographical Union until 1984.

Climatic variations have inspired another set of geopolitical hypotheses and critiques. International political patterns have also been linked with the uneven distribution of the various raw-materials requisites of modern industry. There is some disposition to regard areal differentials in technology as the critical variable, a hypothesis that has been linked with demographic distribution to produce a prediction that international political patterns will ultimately be determined by the latter. The prediction is based on the premise that technological primacy will vary with relative numbers of superior scientists and other gifted individuals varying in the long run with the size of population.

A revival of interests in political geography from the 1970s onward was initially linked to the “quantitative revolution,” which the wider discipline experienced in the 1960s and 1970s. Work on ELECTORAL GEOGRAPHY started then and geographers increasingly brought their spatial perspective to bear on a range of subjects broadly defined as “political” and relating in some ways to the operation of the state. Location and conflict (over land uses, public goods, and so forth) became topics considered by political geographers. But a political location theory was not as obvious as an economic, or even a social, one.

New texts in the 1970s also stimulated a broadening of the substantive areas of interests within political geography, with chapters on the geography of law, for example, and on spatial variations in the operation of government programs and government spending. Both depth and breadth were brought to the subdiscipline by this concern with theory, which involved moving away from the treatment of space as a given, as the environment within which states operate, toward a perspective that sees space as produced and reproduced by human action—the world political map is a social production. Two “spatial takes” were particularly relevant in this movement. The first was a treatment of scale. Strongly influenced by world-systems analysis, it was argued that world capitalism is organized globally, mediated and regulated regionally by states, and experienced locally.

The second theoretical perspective was introduced to develop the concept of territoriality to show how bounded spaces (including those of nation states) are crucial to the exercise of political, economic, cultural and military powers. The world is a mosaic of nested containers within which power is exercised and people controlled—with the criterion for whether you are subject to a particular rule of law being whether you are within the territory where it is sovereign. The theory is further analyzed in the light of increased globalization and the consequent changing role of the territorially defined nation state.

The most recent area of expansion has been in the study of critical geopolitics, a further outgrowth of the growing theoretical sophistication within human geography. As John O'Loughlin (1994) illustrates, this involves questioning the assumptions upon which geopolitical strategies are based—not so much the “geographical information” employed as the representations of peoples and places (both “selves” and
“others”). These are involved in the creation of identities: images of “us” and “them” (as in the 1945 to 1990 Cold War in which the two major powers and their allies each created images of the other on which to base their policies and around which to mobilize popular support). Geopolitical practices are subjected to critical scrutiny as opposing views of the world are deconstructed.

Political geography is now a vibrant component of its parent discipline. Its renaissance and expansion were marked by the launch of the journal Political Geography Quarterly in 1983, which is now published eight times a year (as Political Geography) and is the major source for tracking developments.


Unlike its sister disciplines of economics or political science, political geography has a relatively small amount of published research that contains quantitative analysis. The reasons for the relatively paucity of quantitative work in political geography can be traced to dual trends that have been evident for the past 20 years. First, like the rest of human geography, political geography has seen a rise in interest in poststructuralist and humanistic research methodologies as the 1970s heyday of positivism passed.

Some scholars believe that this trend has acquired because words are more persuasive than numbers, though it seems more likely that political geography is returning to the status quo ante, where quantitative methodology is just one of a plethora of options on the research menu. Second, and connected to the first, quantitative geography (and shortly after, geographic information systems, GIS) was promoted as a response to the challenges of the day, especially the economic stagnation in Western countries. By pursuing spatial analysis and GIS, and later merging these approaches, geography could certify its scientific status and show its various uses.

To paraphrase P. Longley and M. Batty (1996), quantitative political geography now stands at a junction. Either it will be integrated more intensively with the rest of political geography (this has to be a twoway street and will only succeed if non-quantitative political geographers accept quantitative approaches and research results) and more generally with other quantitative social science, or it will become further isolated.