Humans have been organizing and structuring themselves from the beginning. Geographers are interested in that structuring because it is both an expression of the human organization of space and is closely related to other spatial evidences of culture, such as religion, language and ethnicity.


Political Geography is the study of the organization and distribution of political phenomena, including their impact on other spatial components of society and culture.



For this course we will define state on the international level as an independent political unit occupying a defined, permanently populated territory and having full sovereign control over its internal and foreign affairs.


In contrast a nation is a cultural concept defining a group of people with a common culture occupying a particular territory, bound together by a strong sense of unity arising from shared beliefs and customs.



The composite term nation-state properly refers to a state whose territorial extent coincide with that occupied by a distinct nation or people.

•      Iceland, Denmark, Poland, and Japan.



A multi-nation state is one that contains more than one nation.

•      Canada. 

•      Cyprus

A part-nation state is when a nation is dispersed across and is predominant in two or more states.

•      Arab Nation

A stateless nation are a people without state. The Kurds are a nation of some 20 million people divided among six states.

•      Palestinians - Basques



 The now universal idea of the modern state was developed by European political philosophers in the 18th century which advanced the concept that people owe their allegiance to a state and the people it represents rather than its leader or king.

The new concept coincided in France with the French Revolution and spread throughout western Europe to England, Spain and Germany.



This idea of state was passed on to much of Africa, Asia and the Americas during the European Expansion in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.


Indigenous people had their own organized used of space, but the borders were drawn for the convenience of the Europeans who ignored the existing cultures and political structure.


As many of these former colonies have gained political independence, they have maintained the idea of state and the borders established by the Europeans.



The idea of separate statehood grew slowly at first.

•      In 1800 there were 35 countries in the world.

•      By 1939 there were 70 countries

•      After World War II, and the end of the colonial era brought a rapid increase in the number of sovereign states.


At present there are over 200 sovereign states.



Size, shape, and location have great effect on the power and stability of states.


Keep in mind that some states are bigger than others, but resources are not evenly distributed.



In general, the larger the state, the better the chance that there will be enough resources to support the state, but  

•      Canada, Russia and Australia are large states but have relatively small areas capable of supporting agriculture.


Size can also hinder the effective control of a state’s people and/or resources.



Like size, shape can affect the well-being of a state by fostering or hindering effective organization.


States that are roughly circular in shape are called compact states because the distance from the edges to the center are minimal.

•       Poland, Zimbabwe and Uruguay.



Prorupt States are nearly compact but possess one or sometimes two narrow extensions of territory.

Proruption may simply reflect peninsular elongations of land area.

•      Thailand.


In other instances, the extensions have an economic or strategic significance – securing access to resources or water routes.

•      Namibia strip was designed by the Germans to give access to the Zambezi river.



The least efficient shape administratively is represented by countries like Norway, Vietnam, or Chile which are long and narrow.

In such elongated states, the parts of the country far from the capital are likely to be isolated.

These countries are more likely to encompass more diversity of climate, resources, and people.


Fragmented states include countries composed entirely of islands (Philippines, Indonesia), partly on islands, partly on mainland (Italy and Malaysia) and those that are chiefly on the mainland, but whose territory is separated by another state (Alaska – U.S.)


Pakistan was once a fragmented country until 1971 when the eastern part broke away and became Bangladesh.




The whole world, even Antarctica, is divided up and claimed by countries.



Natural Boundaries are those on recognizable physical features, such as mountains, rivers, lakes.

Even though these natural boundaries seem like a good idea, in practice there are problems.

•      Along mountain ranges – China and India

•      Along rivers - Mississippi



The alternative to natural boundaries are geometric boundaries or artificial boundaries.


•      Mason-Dixon Line



An antecedent boundary is one drawn before an area is well populated and prior to the cultural landscape features.


•      The 49th parallel separating the U.S. and Canada



Boundaries drawn after the development of the cultural landscape are termed subsequent boundaries.

There are two types of subsequent boundaries.


Consequent boundary – which is a border drawn to accommodate existing cultural differences.

•      Northern Ireland and Ireland.



A Superimposed Boundary is a boundary imposed on an area by a conquering or colonizing power that is unconcerned about pre-existing cultural patterns.

•      Africa

•      Yugoslavia

•      Afghanistan



A relict boundary is a former boundary line that once had meaning but no longer functions as such, usually marked by landscape features (forts, castles).


The abandoned castles dotting the frontier zone between Wales and England is a relict boundary.


Boundary disputes are a constant source of problems in the world. Since World War II almost one-half of the countries in the world have been involved in some kind of boundary dispute.


There are four general types of boundary disputes.



Positional disputes occur when states disagree about the interpretation of documents that define a boundary.


The boundary between Argentina and Chile was to follow the highest peaks and the watersheds between the east and west flowing rivers. These two things do not always coincide. Argentina and Chile nearly went to war in the late 70’s over this when oil and gas deposits were discovered in the disputed area.



Territorial disputes arise when a superimposed boundary divides a ethnically homogeneous population. Conflicts can arise when one of the states wants to annex part of another state to reunite a group of people.

Hitler used this as an excuse to invade Czechoslovakia and Poland to reunite pockets of German minorities residing in these states.

Somalia has had border clashes with Ethiopia over Somalis living in that country.

Kashmir, a disputed area between India and Pakistan have caused two wars so far.



Resource disputes arise when neighboring states want to access to resources from another state.


The U.S. has had a dispute with Mexico over water rights from the Colorado River and with Canada over fishing grounds.


The Gulf War was also related to this. Iraq helped justify its invasion of Kuwait because of a large oil reserve that mostly lies in Iraq that Kuwait pumps oil from.



Functional disputes arise when neighboring states disagree over policies to be applied over a boundary.

•      U.S. – Mexican border – Drugs and Immigration



At any moment in time, a state can be characterized by forces that promote unity and by others that disrupt unity.


•      Centripetal forces are factors which bind together the people of the state.


•      On the other hand, centrifugal forces weaken a state.







One of the most powerful centripetal forces is nationalism which is an identification with the state and the acceptance of its national goals. Nationalism is based on the concept of allegiance to a single country, its ideals, and way of life.


Most countries have more than one culture and in multi-cultural societies, nationalism helps to integrate groups into a unified population. This kind of consensus nationalism has emerged in the U.S.



Unifying Institutions like schools are expected to instill a society’s goals, values, and traditions, and to teach a common language.


Organization and Administration is a binding force when there is public confidence in the effective organization of the state.


Good Transportation and Communication networks foster political integration by promoting interaction between areas and by joining them economically and socially.



Nationalism is one of the most powerful centripetal forces but it also can be a disruptive centrifugal force.

The idea of the nation-state is that states are formed around nations of people. It is a small step from that to the notion that every nation has the right to its own state or territory.

•      U.S. Civil War



A dissident minority that has total or partial secession of the state as its primary goal is said to be guided by separatism or autonomous nationalism.


Canada, for example, has a powerful secessionist movement in French-speaking Quebec – a vote on this in 1995 just barely lost 51 to 49%.


Separatist movements are expressions of regionalism, which is minority group identification with a region rather than a state.



Problems can arise because the way in which boundary lines are drawn can maximize, minimize or effectively nullify the power of a group of people.


Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing the boundaries of voting districts so as to unfairly favor one political party over another, to fragment voting blocs, or to achieve other non-democratic objectives.