Geographic Constructions of the World Research Paper

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In order to grapple with the complexities of global geography, it is necessary to construct abstract models of the world, ordering space into comprehensible frameworks. All intellectual traditions are marked by such geographic constructions. Through spatial categories, people divide their known worlds into regions that can be named and known in relationship to one another.

Typically, geographical constructions are based on an ethnocentric conception of space, focused on a particular group’s homeland. In premodern times, most peoples placed their territories at the center of the world. For the ancient Greeks, the ritual center at Delphi formed the navel of the earth, whereas the Chinese literally regarded their country as the Middle Kingdom. Religious ideas and legacies of cultural borrowing, however, sometimes displaced the “center” into foreign lands. Medieval Europeans thus typically regarded Jerusalem as the global heartland, while the Japanese framed their islands as “eastern” due to the centrality accorded to China in the Confucian tradition and to India in Buddhist scriptures.

Ethnocentrism and Cosmology

Ethnocentrism has also molded the scales on which regional divisions have been constructed. Typically, a given society’s own lands are subdivided into a fine mesh of distinctive regions, whereas vast expanses of terrain in more distant reaches are lumped together. A text from tenth-century Persia (Hudud al-‘Alam), for example, divides the world into fifty-one units, nine of which cover portions of present-day Iran, whereas one suffices for all of Europe north of Spain and west of Russia. In traditional South Asian global visions, China and Arabia were so marginal as to virtually disappear from view.

A second feature of most pre-modern geographic constructions was their cosmological orientation. Patterns of terrestrial order, in other words, were mapped onto those of the cosmos, as interpreted through religious or philosophical doctrines. Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of the world, for example, were ordered around the notion of a central “continent”— Jambudvipa—that was in turn surrounded by a series of concentric, ring-like oceans and landmasses. While Jampudvipa had features that could clearly be identified with real places, the outer continents existed largely as conceptual space. Medieval Europeans’ constructions of place were similarly guided by religious ideology. Thus in the so-called T-O maps of the time, which literally showed a “T” figure inscribed within a circle, the Mediterranean Sea and the Nile and Don rivers form a central cross that structures the world, separating the three continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. This Trinitarian division of the world (held to reflect the patrimony of Noah’s three sons, Ham, Japhet, and Shem) was so deeply ingrained that the discovery of a fourth landmass, the Americas, resulted, according to Eviatar Zerubavel (1992), in “cosmological shock.”

Constructions of the Classical and Islamic Worlds

Not all premodern systems of world geography were wedded to overtly religious doctrines. The constructions of classical Greek and Roman geographers, for example, were based more on geometrical and astronomical theorizing. Central to their conceptual schemes was the notion of clima, or latitudinal belts, distinguished from each other by differences in day length and sun angle. Different clima supposedly produced different kinds of human bodies, with corresponding customs and forms of government. Abstract theorizing often led classical geographers to imagine alter-worlds that were no less fanciful than the ring-like continents of Buddhism. To preserve the symmetry of the globe, for example, it was often thought that a large landmass, roughly equivalent to Europe, Asia, and Africa, had to exist in the southern hemisphere. This notion was not fully put to rest until the eighteenth century.

Traditional Islamic conceptions of the world relied heavily on classical Greek models, giving precedence to latitudinal belts. Muslim geographers, however, also mapped their historically embedded religious concepts across the face of the earth. Their main division contrasted an ideally expanding realm of submission to God (dar al-Islam), where peace would theoretically prevail, with a realm of war (dar al-harb), where religious error and strife reigned.

Imposition and Evolution of the European System

In the last hundred years, traditional non-Western geographic constructions have been largely replaced by those of European origin. After the age of exploration, European knowledge of the world surpassed that of any other civilization, and as European power expanded, ideas of Western origin were forced on, or adopted by, peoples of other regions. The traditional Japanese three-country global model, based on the primacy of Japan, China, and India, for example, could no longer be maintained after Dutch atlases began to circulate in the early modern period. Yet while Western concepts of global geography by this period were informed by a much more complete map of the world, they continued to be based on constructed categories of spatial understanding.

The foundational construct of the Western system, for example, remained that of continental landmasses. The idea of continents goes back to ancient Greek navigators, who differentiated the lands found on either side of the Aegean and Black seas. Throughout the classical and medieval periods, the three known continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) were conceptualized less as discrete landmasses than as connected portions of a singular world-island, the orbis terrarum. The discovery of the Americas forced a reconceptualization of global geography, as the “wheel of the Earth” came to be more cleanly divided into its original three parts, which, along with the Americas, now formed the “four quarters of the world.” Gradually, these “quarters” were reconceived as continents, which allowed the number of recognized major landmasses to increase. The Americas were eventually split in two, just as Australia and Antarctica were added to the continental roster, yielding the familiar sevenfold continental scheme.

The Continental Scheme

That Europe is still regarded as a continent shows both the manufactured nature of the scheme as well as the fact that it was devised by Europeans, who, not surprisingly, magnified the extent of their own homeland. In the original Greek formulation, Europe and Asia were considered separate landmasses because they seemed to be all but sundered from each other by a series of seas and straits: the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles, the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus, the Black Sea, the Straits of Kerch, and the Sea of Azov. The expansion of geographical knowledge eventually revealed that these two supposed continents were actually part of an undivided mass of land. Geographers thus competed during the eighteenth century to locate a suitable line of division. In due time, the Ural Mountains came to be accepted, even though this none-too-formidable range vanishes in the steppes of Kazakhstan. The separation of Europe from Asia thus violates the definitional basis of the continental idea, as continents are supposed to be more or less discrete masses of land largely separated from each other by bodies of water.

Even if Europe is classified merely as a segment of a Eurasian continent, as it occasionally is, the continental scheme remains an intellectual construction rather than an unproblematic reflection of the world’s underlying patterns of land and water. The actual building blocks of the earth’s surface, tectonic plates, fail to conform to the architecture of continents. In geological terms, India and Australia would have to be classified together, as both sit on the same plate. No consistent argument has ever been put forward, moreover, to support cataloging Australia as a small continent rather than a large island—or Madagascar as a large island rather than a small continent.

Maritime Constructions

Oceans are no less capricious than continents. The supposedly separate oceans are interconnected by broad passages, as is clearly evident when one looks at a globe from the perspective of the South Pole. The boundaries between the oceans have been established by convention rather than discovered through empirical inquiry. In earlier periods, the maritime expanse had been conceptualized differently. During the eighteenth century, for example, European cartographers usually depicted “oceans” as arcs of water that wrapped around landmasses, potentially connecting distant lands. In Enlightenment-era atlases, an “Ethiopian Ocean” thus covered large expanses of what we now call the South Atlantic and southern Indian oceans, snaking around the contours of southern Africa.

From Continents to World Areas

Although the standard sevenfold continental scheme is still used in reference works, it has recently begun to lose favor in public discourse. Although the term Asia is still routinely employed, it now generally refers only to East, South, and Southeast Asia rather than to the formal continent. Both Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Asia (Siberia) have been, with little acknowledgment, excised from the Asian continent. Other continental labels are used with similar imprecision. “North America,” for example, sometimes refers to the United States and Canada, sometimes to those countries plus Mexico, sometimes to all three plus Central America, and sometimes to all of the areas mentioned above as well as the islands of the Caribbean.

Given these inadequacies, the continental scheme began to yield in the mid-twentieth century to a global architecture based on world areas. In the area studies framework, the fundamental geographical units are broad sub-continental blocks, ideally defined by shared cultural, political, or historical patterns. The various world areas were constructed at different times and in accordance with different ideological or political designs. The term “Latin America,” for example, was put forward by French geographers during the period of Napoleon III, when France was seeking influence in the Western Hemisphere and wished to stress the commonalties of its Spanish-, Portuguese-, and French-speaking territories. The term was subsequently taken up by “Latin Americans” themselves, although it has never been without controversy.

The replacement of continents by world areas in the academic imagination was propelled by political events. During World War II, U.S. military planners concluded that the existing framework of global division was inadequate. As a result, the government commissioned an “ethnogeographical” board to remap the world. In the process, Asia was subdivided into East, South, and Southeast Asia, while Southwest Asia was appended to North Africa to form an expanded Middle East. Sub-Saharan Africa, the Soviet Union and its satellites, Western Europe, Latin America, North America, and Australia and the Pacific rounded out the roster of world regions. During the Cold War, the U.S. government funded area studies centers, while new area studies associations emerged to facilitate inquiry into regionally based cultural, social, and political formations. The newly minted world regional labels were sometimes taken up by political elites in the areas so designated. Southeast Asian leaders thus built ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), which they rigorously limited to the area that had recently been defined by Western scholars as “Southeast Asia.”

New Schemes of Geographic Construction

The end of the Cold War brought another round of geographical reconstruction. When the Soviet Union imploded, scholars were forced to grapple with the geographical positions of newly independent republics in the Baltic, Caucasia, and Central Asia, as well as with those of former Soviet client states in Eastern Europe. At the same time, the entire area studies framework came under attack by scholars who objected to its rigid spatial divisions, its roots in Cold War geopolitics, or its general lack of theoretical rigor. By the turn of the millennium, many scholars were turning to an alternative form of global geographical construction based not on discrete regions but rather on webs of interaction, on the dispersed patterns of transnationalism, and on the widespread phenomenon of globalization.

Despite the rise of such non-bounded spatial concepts, alternative regionalization schemes at the global scale have retained salience. In the Cold War, a popular tripartite division of the globe, based on economic and geopolitical criteria, yielded the so-called First, Second, and Third Worlds. With the end of the Soviet Union, the Second World disappeared, undercutting the conceptual basis of that formula. While the First and Third Worlds linger in the public imagination, a more common gambit is to bifurcate the world into a wealthy “North” and an impoverished “South.” This construct, while polemically useful, is geographically imprecise, as certain countries in the southern half of the terrestrial landmass (Australia, Singapore, the United Arab Emirates, for example) are far more prosperous than some countries of the North (Albania, Ukraine, and Tajikistan, for example).

In short, while no single scheme of geographical construction is ever adequate for all purposes, most shed some light on the global order, whether of the past or the present.


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