Political Geography

What is (political) geography?

Non-geographers glancing over the articles on this site might ask in surprise 'What's this got to do with geography?' Geography means, literally, 'earth-describing'. Just as physical geographers might describe how fluvial alluvial, glacial, or other processes form the earth's physical surface, so political geographers explore how that surface becomes divided up and controlled by human societies.

To illustrate this, consider a political map of the world. It looks so tidily divided up between different states, shaded in different colours with neat borders between them, and each with a capital city. Each has a seat at the United Nations, and the borders of the map may be decorated with their flags. We are so used to seeing that map that it appears natural.

But, of course, there is nothing natural about it. It has a contested history, bearing scant resemblance to the map of 150 years ago, for example.

Beyond that, the map conceals more than it reveals. The social/ethnic geography of the state rarely coincides neatly with its borders. Some states may exert almost no control over parts of their territory, yet others seek to impose totalitarian control throughout.

Except for size, these states seem equal, each with a border and a capital city. Yet this map conceals massive inequalities in economic and military power and the resultant asymmetric relations between states.

Furthermore, the map ignores military alliances, trade blocs, interstate unions, multinational corporations, supranational courts, international regulatory frameworks created by treaties, international scientific and health bodies, and a host of other entities that affect relations between states and the ability of individual states to project authority over their territories. Under conditions of advanced capitalism, global flows of finance and information, controlled by a variety of actors, can likewise have enormous impacts on the populations and policies of many states.

At the same time, ethnic or other minority populations below the state level are invisible on the map, but may seek to remake it be carving out new states for themselves. Invisible too but nonetheless important are international networks of citizen activists, terrorists, smugglers of licit or illicit goods, and religious believers, who may have other loyalties and agendas to those of the state - and may sometimes be at odds with the very idea of a world made up of states.

Political geography seeks to 'get behind the map' and explore and illuminate these issues. It asks 'why is the map like this?', but also, 'how do different people in different places suffer or benefit as a result?', and inevitably prompts us to question 'how could it be different, and how can we contribute towards making it so?' As the great geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, put it, whereas the key question in philosophy is 'what makes the good life?', geography's counterpart is 'what makes a good place?'

In tackling these questions it draws on the insights of many other disciplines, and uses a variety of methods, desk and field based, from quantitative / statistical analysis to qualitative investigation by interviews, ethnography (participant observation), and studies of texts, films, and other cultural products. Geography, at its best, recognises that science is a collective endeavour, and is thus neither territorial about its field of study nor dogmatic about its methods.

Apart from my speech at Newcastle University's 'common cause for geography' debate in 2009, I do not include a separate overview of my 'geography' publications: all the pieces on this site, whether media reviews, scholarly articles, interviews with politicians, religious addresses or journalistic reports, are infused with the above understanding of political geography.

Cambridge, November 2002; updated Newcastle, January, 2008.