Political Geography Research Paper

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Political geography is a field of inquiry concerned with the nature and implications of the evolving spatial organization of governmental regimes and formal political practices around the world. It is a widely recognized sub-discipline of geography, and it is increasingly an interdisciplinary pursuit as well. Political geography investigates why politically organized areas emerge in the places they do, and how the character and configuration of those areas both reflect and affect the social and environmental contexts in which they are situated. Whereas a political scientist or political sociologist might focus on the politics and social structure of a political entity, a political geographer would likely emphasize how and why a particular piece of the earth’s surface came to be organized as a discrete political unit, and what that unit represents and means for the peoples, institutions, and places affected by it.

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1. Development Of Modern Political Geography, 1890s–1970

The origins of political geography are often traced to Aristotle’s effort to describe the ideal state in terms of its territory, population, and internal geographical structure (Kasperson and Minghi 1969). Its modern roots, however, lie in the writings of the German geographer, Friedrich Ratzel (1844–1904). Ratzel sought to analyze states in terms of their environmental characteristics, arguing that an understanding of the political world needed to be rooted in the human and physical character of the concrete territorial spaces occupied by states. He is most known, however, for his Darwin-inspired organic theory of the state, which treated states as competitive territorial entities vying with one another for control over parts of the earth’s surface. He set forth his theory in a seminal book, Politische Geographie (1897), which marked the formal beginnings of the modern sub-discipline.

Ratzel’s organic state theory attracted attention in both Europe and the United States (Glassner 1996). The Swedish political scientist, Rudolf Kjellen (1865– 1922), used Ratzel’s ideas about the territorial dynamics of state growth to develop an elaborated vision of the state as an organism, in the process giving birth to the term ‘geopolitics.’ Contemporaneously, the American naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914) published an influential set of works arguing that control over sea lanes and adjacent land areas was critical for the maintenance and expansion of political power. This was soon followed by an alternative, more widely circulated geopolitical vision from the geographer-director of the London School of Economics, Sir Halford Mackinder (1861– 1947). He emphasized the importance of the interior of the Eurasian landmass (the heartland) for the maintenance and spread of political power.

Given the relevance of these geopolitical contributions, and the interest they attracted, it is not surprising that the political geography of the early twentieth century was strongly identified with geostrategic thinking (Claval 1994). Ratzel and Kjellen’s work became the foundation for a school of geopolitics (Geopolitik) in Germany led by Karl Haushofer (1869–1946), which eventually was appropriated by the Nazi war machine. In other parts of Europe and the United States, debates over the relative merits of Mahan and Mackinder’s conceptualizations attracted considerable attention in both academic and policy circles, and led to yet other geopolitical visions, most notably those of the Dutch-born, American educated international relations scholar, Nicholas John Spykman (1893–1943), who focused attention on the importance of the so-called rimland (coastal fringe) of Eurasia.

Despite the importance of geopolitical theorization in the early history of the sub-discipline, the first half of the twentieth century also saw expanding work on the geographical characteristics of individual states (Hartshorne 1954). The specific configuration of the world political map was undergoing substantial changes that required investigation and analysis. Geographers were being called upon to provide background on boundary disputes, the internal divisions within empires, and the impacts of new transportation technologies on political areas. World War I was a particular catalyst to such work. Indeed, the director of the American Geographical Society, Isaiah Bowman (1878–1950), was a member of the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference where a new European political map was forged, one that reflected a combination of prevailing geopolitical visions influenced by Mackinder and understandings of the particular geographical characteristics of state territories.

During the interwar period, the study of political geography expanded modestly in colleges and universities, although relatively few geographers defined themselves primarily as political geographers. Those who did emphasized the historical territorial development and contemporary geographical characteristics of individual states. Bowman produced the first systematic political geography text of the post-World War I political order. It concentrated on the territorial problems of the new countries of the world, particularly those in Europe. Richard Hartshorne (1899– 1992) saw this work as an extension of Ratzel’s concern with the environmental character of state areas; his own influential work focused on the integrative and disintegrative potentials of differing state territorial characteristics and founding territorial ideologies (summarized in Hartshorne 1954).

World War II spawned increased interest in political geography offerings in some colleges and universities in the United States and parts of Europe, yet it did not lead to any fundamental reorientation of the subdiscipline. The one exception concerned the geopolitics wing of political geography, which fell into wide disfavor in some places because of its association with Nazi efforts to justify claims to territory. For decades the Soviets opposed any use of the term political geography, and in Germany itself the sub-discipline ceased to be taught altogether. In the English-speaking world, the most influential writings of the succeeding two decades dealt with geographical influences on the functional character of individual states through the study of their morphology, internal organization, social and physical homogeneity, relative location, and boundaries (e.g., Hartshorne 1954, Prescott 1965, East and Moodie 1968). Some innovative work came out of these studies, highlighting critical connections between geography and political decision making (e.g., Cohen 1963). For the most part, however, political geography became somewhat disconnected from conceptual and empirical developments in other parts of geography and beyond. Moreover, the positivist turn of the discipline of geography during the late 1950s and 1960s left little room for the consideration of political matters. By the end of the 1960s, these circumstances had placed political geography in a somewhat marginalized position.

2. Political Geography In The Late Twentieth Century

Political geography did not remain marginal for long. An important edited compilation from the late 1960s (Kasperson and Minghi 1969) provided a useful framework for teaching and research, and geographers trained in quantitative urban and economic geography began to turn their attention to the role that politics plays in the distribution of services, people, and wealth. The latter development spawned work focused at local and regional scales. Kevin Cox’s (1973) seminal book on the politics of urban services gave rise to an influential set of studies in ‘welfare geography’ that drew on diverse theories ranging from Marxism to public choice theory. In the process, political geography came into contact with emerging ‘political economy’ perspectives.

A somewhat different influence on political geography came from a group of urban and economic geographers with a quantitative bent who saw the potential for the quantitative analysis of election data. Extensive work on the spatial organization of elections, voting patterns, and the geography of representation made electoral geography a widely recognized sub-specialty within political geography beginning in the 1970s (Taylor and Johnston 1979). The methods and theories of electoral geography were not closely aligned with other work in the subdiscipline (Taylor 1985), but the developing field of electoral geography widened the scope of political geography and attracted interest among a new generation of geographers. At the same time, the different scales and issues on which votes are taken encouraged a broadening of political geography’s prior preoccupation with the scale of the state.

By the early 1980s, political geography was clearly emerging from its formerly marginalized status. Having shed its positivist orientation, politics was back on the agenda of geography as a whole, and political geography could therefore no longer be dismissed as peripheral to the discipline. Moreover, new work on urban, regional, and electoral themes was attracting increased attention to political geography and connecting it to issues and concerns being taken up by other social sciences. Even more traditional themes were taking on new life, with expanding interest in shifting cold-war geopolitical relations and the emergence of new regimes of control in the world’s oceans (see Glassner 1996). The founding of a new journal, Political Geography (originally entitled Political Geography Quarterly), in 1982; the establishment of major research and study groups in the International Geographical Union and various national geographic organizations; and the founding of a boundary research institute at the University of Durham signaled the growing importance of the subdiscipline.

At the heart of political geography’s revivification was the effort to develop a more sophisticated theoretical foundation for the sub-discipline (Reynolds and Knight 1989). Impetus for the theoretical turn came from the combination of insights being offered by the new, theoretically informed literature on urban social conflict and a growing frustration with the lack of connection between research initiatives outside political geography and more traditional work in the subdiscipline. Explicit engagement with theory took two overlapping, but sometimes conflicting forms: a concern with developing a theory of the state and a concern with theorizing the nature of the state system.

The work of Gordon Clark and Michael Dear (1984) is particularly associated with the effort to theorize the state in political geography. They promoted consideration of a variety of theories of the state and themselves advanced an approach that drew on Marxist ideas on the role of the state in the maintenance and expansion of capitalism, but which argued that the state is also the product of the institutionalized political-economic patterns and arrangements that are produced through specific state structures and functional hierarchies. Their work helped to foster wide-ranging inquires into the spatial dimensions of state policy initiatives, as well as studies of the ‘local state’ and its relationship to the national state. The latter was also heavily influenced by the writings of David Harvey (e.g., Harvey 1985), who focused attention on how the capitalist accumulation process was linked to the political production of spatial inequalities within cities and sub-state regions.

Although those writing on the nature of the local and national state looked to the role of large-scale structural forces, their work focused on communities existing within states (see Reynolds and Knight 1989). Some political geographers saw this as seriously limiting, arguing that intrastate processes could only be understood with reference to the dynamics and norms of the international system of states. They also argued that political geography would have little to say about international relations if it did not confront the nature and meaning of the state system. The writings of Peter Taylor—particularly his important text, Political Geography: World-economy, Nationstate and Locality (Taylor 1985 and later editions) —were influential in advancing this argument. Drawing on the world-systems work of Immanuel Wallerstein, Taylor sought to situate analyses of the changing political geography of the modern world in the context of the territorial dynamics of the emerging capitalist world economy. He argued that the forms and functions of national and sub-national units are derived from the positions territorial states occupy in the global political-economic order. Taylor’s particular use of world-systems approaches was not widely emulated, but his writings helped to put the very nature of the system of states at the center of the political geographic enterprise.

The new theoretical perspectives coming into political geography during the 1980s influenced both the types of issues being studied and how they were studied. The relationship between political geography and uneven development became a particularly significant focus of attention (see Smith 1984). Political geographers also turned their attention to processes of nation-building and substate nationalism, seeing these as predicated in significant ways on the nature of the state and the system of states (e.g., Johnston et al. 1988). Even some studies in electoral geography began to look at the relationship between spatial structures of power and electoral outcomes (Johnston et al. 1990).

The closing decade and a half of the twentieth century saw the emergence of new theoretical influences and a broadening of the scope of political geography (Agnew 1997). The growing influence first of structurationist, and then of post-structuralist, theories in the social sciences had clear impacts on political geography. The concern with the relationship between structure and agency that was part of the structurationist critique prompted political geographers to focus more attention on the ways in which political contexts are created through the interplay of large-scale forces and local practices. In his influential volume Place and Politics, John Agnew (1987) argued that political studies are generally based on the assumption that, in the modern world, local and regional identities are being replaced by national communities segmented by socio-economic differences, not by geographic sectionalism. Yet Agnew showed that this ‘nationalization thesis’ failed to account for the enduring impacts of local context on social and political behavior. In the process, he made a compelling case for taking the concept of place seriously in political geography (see also Johnston 1991).

The structurationist literature also brought with it growing interest in the spatial structures and arrangements that circumscribe social and political life. This offered a potential bridge between new currents of thought and longstanding efforts to analyze the development and meaning of the world political map (Gottmann 1973). An important element in building that bridge was Robert Sack’s work on Human Territoriality (Sack 1986). Sack argued that a critical component of human social behavior was the effort to influence people and ideas through the control of specific geographical areas, and that a concern with ‘human territoriality’ could therefore provide important insights into social and political processes. Sack’s work directly challenged the dominant tendency to treat political territories as a priori spatial givens, in the process opening an important theoretical window for political geographic work focused on the nature and meaning of specific political-territorial developments.

Work on the politics of place and on territoriality has developed in conjunction with themes from the post structuralist literature to open new vistas for political geography. The very centrality of politics and political relations to post-structuralist thought has greatly abetted this process (Painter 1995). Indeed, at some level much of human geography as currently practiced is about politics, making it difficult to establish exactly what constitutes political geography per se. Yet, as Agnew (1997, p. 3) has argued, ‘there is nevertheless still the need for an area of study of the more formalized and institutionalized arenas of power such as the spatiality of states, interstate geopolitics, the geographies of political and social movements, and territorial conflicts involving national and ethnic groups.’ These are the matters that continue to be most closely associated with the sub-discipline of political geography, and they are not particularly confining. Indeed, the recent political geography literature addresses themes that range from the role of political geographic arrangements in the constitution of gendered identities to the implications of new telecommunications technologies for the territorial integrity of states.

3. Contemporary Approaches And Themes

The contemporary practice of political geography echoes the diverse elements that have contributed to its development. Textbooks and research literature reveal approaches that are traceable to (a) political geography’s tradition of describing the spatial configuration, geographic character, and boundaries of politically organized areas; (b) the quantitative turn of political geography in the 1960s; (c) the influence of political-economy perspectives on the sub-discipline in the 1970s and 1980s; and (d) the recent interest in poststructuralist theories of society (see Agnew 1997 for a variation on this typology). Some studies can still be neatly classified in one or another of these analytical traditions, but there is also considerable blurring among them. Nevertheless, tensions persist among proponents of these different perspectives, the most acute of which is between those who posit a world of ‘real’ political spaces arrangements that we can try to comprehend through some combination of empirical and critical analysis, and those post-structuralists who view reality as unknowable outside of the individuals and societies that construct it. The opposition between these positions has created a dualism in the political geography literature that is only beginning to be addressed (Agnew and Corbridge 1995).

The substantive topics on which political geographers are working are a product of the more general effort to make sense of the rapidly changing political, social, and economic environment of the late twentieth century. The following subsections highlight the topics that are receiving the most attention There is considerable overlap among and between these topics, but each has a core literature attached to it.

3.1 Political Geographic Assumptions Of Social And Political Theory

There is a pervasive tendency in the social sciences to frame analyses of social and political developments in terms of the political territories in which they are situated. Yet the territories themselves are usually treated as little more than locational referents for whatever is being studied. A body of work in political geography seeks to expose the theoretical shortcomings of this state of affairs. Much of that work focuses particularly on the importance of understanding what is hidden and what is revealed when the modern territorial state is treated as an unproblematic spatial container for social and political processes. John Agnew in particular has argued that this creates a ‘territorial trap’ in which critical historical and geographical processes are ignored because the nature and meaning of territory are not problematized (see Chap. 4 of Agnew and Corbridge 1995). A number of political geographic studies support this line of reasoning by showing how the political organization of space is itself implicated in social and political processes, even shaping the very concepts of identity on which political communities are based. Work in this arena is thus tied to the larger effort to bring concepts of space into social theory.

3.2 Geopolitics And Interstate Conflict

Geopolitics is clearly back on the political geography agenda, as evidenced by the publication of a spate of recent books and the founding of a new journal, Geopolitics. The recent literature on the subject reveals some continuing interest in the development of formal geopolitical models, but recent work has concentrated on the changing geopolitical environment for interstate relations and on the world views and political military priorities of key political actors. Particular attention has been paid to the emergence of the modern world economy and its impacts for the conceptualization and pursuit of geopolitics (e.g., Agnew 1998). Political geographers have also examined the locational components of conflict itself, studying where conflicts have occurred and why some areas have experienced more conflict than others (e.g., O’Loughlin and van der Wusten 1993). The interest in discourse as a window into geopolitical motives is the focus of a new literature on ‘critical geopolitics’ (see O Tuathail 1996). Influenced particularly by deconstructionist ideas, this increasingly influential literature looks at the discourse of geopolitical practice to gain insight into the ways in which spatial understandings have been developed, deployed, and manipulated in the pursuit of particular political and military objectives.

3.3 The Changing Role Of The Territorial State In The Modern World

There is a lively debate in political geography and beyond about the degree to which the traditional role of the state is being undermined by the increased mobility of capital and labor, the growing power of multinational corporations, the advent of transportation and communications technologies that decrease or eliminate the friction of distance, and the rise of extra-state trading blocs and political organizations (see generally Painter 1995). Within political geography this debate finds concrete expression in studies focused on the ways in which these developments have altered the internal spatial organization and territorial character of states. Political geographers are raising questions about the changing nature and function of boundaries; the distribution of powers among and between substate, state, and superstate political-territorial entities; and the means by which governments at different scales are seeking to integrate and defend their territories. Research on such matters has been spurred by concrete changes in the world political map: the rise of the European Union; the break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia; and the devolution of substantial powers to substate regional authorities in countries such as the United Kingdom and Spain.

3.4 Ethno-National Challenges To The Pre Ailing Territorial Order

Closely related to the prior theme is research focussed on the often discordant relationship between the map of territorial states and the territorial claims of different ethno-national groups. Political geographers have long argued that the concept of the nation-state is more an aspiration than a reality. The rise of so many visible instances of ethno-national conflict over the past few decades has moved this issue to the center of the political geography agenda. Political geographic research has focused on the competing territorial ideologies and strategies of majority and minority groups, the ways in which the political organization of territory affects intergroup interaction and intragroup identity, and the particular notions of citizenship and nationalism that have been forged in differing historical-geographical contexts (see, e.g., Johnston et al. 1988). The infusion of post-structuralist ideas into political geography has also promoted interest in the use of cultural symbols in the pursuit of territorial strategies, as well as the ways in which meanings develop around particular territories and nationalized landscapes. Work on the political geography of ethno-nationalism has highlighted the overlapping senses of territory that exist among many ethno-national groups and the need for policy approaches that recognize this state of affairs.

3.5 The Political Geography Of The Environment

One of the clearest obstacles to the effort to confront environmental problems is the fragmentation of the planet into political spaces, few of which are meaningful ecological units. The problem is not just that ecological and political boundaries do not coincide; the very roles that territorial states play in the international state system and the world economy frequently work against collective action in the interests of the environment (Johnston 1996). Building on a tradition of examining the relationship between spaces of governance and environmental geographies, political geographers are increasingly turning their attention to environmental questions. Recent work has focused on new transnational regulation regimes and the special issues presented by environments that do not lie within the territories of individual states: the world’s oceans and Antarctica. At smaller scales, political geographers have examined the circumstances giving rise to the emergence of an environmental politics in particular places, the problems and prospects of collective resource management in different political contexts, and the use of environmental strategies in the pursuit of political-territorial objectives. Some of this work is closely aligned with the emerging field of political ecology, with its focus on the role of large-scale political-economic structures in the production of local environmental outcomes.

3.6 The Quest For Political Power And Influence

Studies in electoral geography have long focused on the spatial dynamics of a particular type of quest for political power: that which takes place in formal elections. The geography of elections continues to attract significant attention among political geographers, but a variety of other political movements are commanding attention as well. This is a product of the increased visibility of such movements and the success of some of them in challenging long-standing political arrangements. Work in political geography has focussed on the political-territorial contexts that give rise to political movements, the spatial character of movement support, and the impacts of movement objectives on the political organization of space. A significant body of recent literature has considered how the economic, social, and political character of individual places is implicated in the rise and success of different types of political movements (Staeheli 1994). The focus on places, however, is not at the expense of larger-scale influences. Instead, many political geographers treat individual places as the product of the interaction between large-scale political and economic structures and local cultural, social, and material circumstances (Johnston 1991).

3.7 Political Place And The Construction Of Social Identity

Closely related to the prior theme is a strand of work in political geography concerned with the ways in which social identities are shaped by the politicalterritorial construction of place. The plethora of new social movements that have come together around social categories such as race, gender, sexual identity, and ethnicity have attracted growing attention throughout human geography, and the recognition that such identities are rooted in territorial practices and arrangements has provided an important bridge between work in political geography and the literature of economic, social, and cultural geography (see Wolch and Dear 1989). The concept of place—as politically and socially constructed—is once again at the center of this area of research because identification with place is so often at the heart of social identity (Johnston 1991, Agnew 1997). Yet place is not necessarily presented as a benign incubator of social identity; a considerable body of literature has focused on the ways in which dominant interests create spaces places of marginalization that reflect and reinforce existing power relations and social prejudices.

3.8 The Emergence Of New Political Spaces

The sweeping economic, political, and technological changes of the late twentieth century are associated with the development of new political spaces that coexist, and sometimes compete, with territorial states. Many of these new spaces are derivative of the map of states in that they are either collections of states (e.g., the European Union) or sub-state regions that have recently achieved greater autonomy (e.g., Catalonia). Yet activities within and among these new state derived political spaces are creating political spaces of a completely new sort. These include new political spaces of cooperation along international boundaries and geographically distant political communities that are forging links outside the framework of states. Behind many of these developments is the explosion in communications and information technologies, which is fostering an increasingly deterritorialized politics that nonetheless has concrete territorial implications. The emergence of far-flung political communities united by ideology and technology poses new theoretical and empirical challenges for an area of inquiry concerned with the spatial dimensions of politics.

4. The Way Forward

Political geography has emerged as one of the most vibrant, active areas of inquiry within the discipline of geography, and it is likely to remain so. The politicalterritorial upheavals of recent years show no signs of abating. Moreover, it is likely that growing challenges to the role of the state will bring into question the tendency throughout the social sciences to treat the map of states as a static frame of reference, and will direct attention to the nature and meaning of the changing spatial organization of politics. The interdisciplinary character and impact of political geography are likely to grow with the recognition that political practices and outcomes cannot be divorced from the changing geographical spaces and contexts within which they are situated.


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