The world can be huge and seem confusing. One way we deal with this is by dividing it up into regions.
A region is a basic unit of study in geography—a unit of space characterized by a feature such as a common government, language, political situation, or landform. A region can be a formal country governed by political boundaries, such as France or Canada; a region can be defined by a landform, such as the drainage basin of all the water that flows into the Mississippi River; and a region can even be defined by the area served by a shopping mall.
There are three types of regions: formal, functional, and vernacular.
You can click on the following pictures that illustrate regions to see them full size:
Cultural regions can be defined by similarities in human activities, traditions, or cultural attributes. Geographers use the regional unit to map features of particular interest, and data can be compared between regions to help understand trends, identify patterns, or assist in explaining a particular phenomenon.
A formal region has a governmental, administrative, or political boundary and can have political as well as geographic boundaries that are not open to dispute or debate. Formal boundaries can separate states, provinces, or countries from one another. Physical regions can be included within formal boundaries, such as the Rocky Mountains or New England. An official boundary, such as the boundary of a national park, can be considered a formal boundary. School districts, cities, and county governments have formal boundaries.
Natural physical geographic features have a huge influence on where political boundaries of formal regions are set. If you look at a world map, you will recognize that many political boundaries are natural features, such as rivers, mountain ranges, and large lakes. For example, between the United States and Mexico, the Rio Grande makes up a portion of the border. Likewise, between Canada and the United States, a major part of the eastern border is along the Saint Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. Alpine mountain ranges in Europe create borders, such as the boundary between Switzerland and Italy.
While geographic features can serve as convenient formal borders, political disputes will often flare up in adjacent areas, particularly if valuable natural or cultural resources are found within the geographic features. Oil drilling near the coast of a sovereign country, for example, can cause a dispute between countries about which one has dominion over the oil resources. The exploitation of offshore fisheries can also be disputed.
A Neolithic mummy of a man who died in 3300 BCE caused tension between Italy and Switzerland: the body was originally taken to Innsbruck, Switzerland, but when it was determined that the body was found about 90 meters (180 feet) inside the border of Italy, Italian officials laid claim to the body.
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Functional regions have boundaries related to a practical function within a given area. When the function of an area ends, the functional region ends and its boundaries cease to exist. For example, a functional region can be defined by a newspaper service or delivery area. If the newspaper goes bankrupt, the functional region no longer exists. Church parishes, shopping malls, and business service areas are other examples of functional regions. They function to serve a region and may have established boundaries for limits of the area to which they will provide service. An example of a common service area—that is, a functional region—is the region to which a local pizza shop will deliver.
A metropolitan area, for example, often includes a central city and its surrounding suburbs. We tend to think of the area as a “region” not because everyone is the same religion or ethnicity, or has the same political affiliation, but because it functions as a region. Los Angeles, for example, is the second-most populous city in the United States. However, the region of Los Angeles extends far beyond its official city limits. In fact, over 471,000 workers commute into Los Angeles County from the surrounding region every day. Los Angeles, as with all metropolitan areas, functions economically as a single region and is thus considered a functional region.
Vernacular regions have loosely defined boundaries based on people’s perceptions or thoughts. Vernacular regions can be fluid—that is, different people may have different opinions about the limits of the regions. Vernacular regions include concepts such as the region called the “Middle East.” Many people have a rough idea of the Middle East’s location but do not know precisely which countries make up the Middle East. Also, in the United States, the terms Midwest or South have many variations. Each individual might have a different idea about the location of the boundaries of the South or the Midwest. Whether the state of Kentucky belongs in the Midwest or in the South might be a matter of individual perception. Similarly, various regions of the United States have been referred to as the Rust Belt, Sun Belt, or Bible Belt without a clear definition of their boundaries. The limit of a vernacular area is more a matter of perception than of any formally agreed-upon criteria. Nevertheless, most people would recognize the general area being discussed when using one of the vernacular terms in a conversation.
Political geography provides the foundation for investigating what many people understand as geography: countries and governmental structures. Political geographers ask questions like “Why does a particular state have a conflict with its neighbor?” and “How does the government of a country affect its voting patterns?”
When political geographers study the world, they refer to states, which are independent, or sovereign, political entities recognized by the international community. States are commonly called “countries” in the United States; Germany, France, China, and South Africa are all “states.” So how many states are there in the world? The question is not as easy to answer as it might seem. What if a state declares itself independent, but is not recognized by the entirety of the international community? What if a state collaborates so closely with its neighbor that it gives up some of its sovereignty? What happens if a state is taken over by another state?
As of 2019, there are 206 states that could be considered sovereign, though some are disputed and are only recognized by one other country. Only 193 states are members of the United Nations. Others, like Palestine, are characterized as “observer states.” The United States Department of State recognizes 195 states as independent, including the Holy See, often known as Vatican City, and Kosovo, a disputed state in Southeastern Europe.
✎ There are three types of regions: formal, functional, and vernacular.
✎ A formal region is designated by official boundaries that are not disputed.
✎ Natural physical geographic features have a huge influence on where political boundaries of formal regions are set.
✎ A functional region centers around a particular activity, like a church parish.
✎ A vernacular region is an invention to identify things, people, and places. The South and the Midwest of the United States are vernacular regions. Not every person willl agree on the boundaries of a vernacular region.
✎ Political geography addresses countries (also known as states) and governments.
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Image and additional information credits:
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=668286
Mississippi watershed map
By Unknown – http://www.nwrc.usgs.gov/factshts/016-00/016-00.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8090392
Dalian shopping mall
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=273042
Yellowstone Park map
By http://www.nps.gov – http://www.nps.gov, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5109116
CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=936824
By http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Rust-belt-map.jpg#file, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3000009
By Tuxyso – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28846014