Human geography is the branch of geography concerned with understanding the world’s culture and how it relates to geographic space. Political geography is the further offshoot that studies the spatial distribution of political processes and how these processes are impacted by one’s geographic location.
Political geography is an academic discipline studying the interaction between political the activity of people and integral geographical space, which includes physical, economic, social, cultural, and political spaces.
Their superposition differentiates integral geographical space and creates socioeconomic and natural conditions for all forms of human activity, and geographical places with their unique history, the structure of economy and settlements, the composition of the population, its identity, culture, way of life, etc.
In other words, political geography deals with the relationship between political activity and geographical conditions under which it develops.
The term “political geography” has been used at least since the eighteenth century, when it was understood as a set of information on the political organization of countries, new territories, and markets involved in the world or the national economy.
However, political geography as a particular discipline emerged much later, when representations about its content, categories and methods started to be formed because of the accumulation of geographical knowledge. The year of the publication of Friedrich Ratzel’s Politische Geographie (1897) can be considered the birth of contemporary political geography.
For a discipline pretending to be the status of a separate branch of knowledge, it is important to define the object and the key relation it studies, its methodology and concrete methods, the system of categories, and specific problems.
The objects of political geography are political-territorial systems—interrelated territorial combinations of different elements of the political sphere (political and administrative boundaries, states and groups of state, national and supra-national political organizations, central and local governments, etc.).
The objective of political geography is to reveal the unity of political activity and of geographical factors of social development. In other words, this discipline studies the interaction of political activity with geographical space. The latter is understood as a combination of “particular” geographical spaces—of physical, economic, social, and cultural spaces. Their juxtaposition creates the differentiation of the integral geographical space and, respectively, of socioeconomic and natural conditions for political and other forms of human activity.
The political space is a form of being of political phenomena and political-geographical objects, of their mutual location, coexistence, interactions, relationships, intensity, etc. For political activity, extremely important are the structure of the population, its level and way of life, political culture, and identity, which vary in space and time. Economic, social, cultural, and political spaces change at different rates: for instance, economic transformations are usually much more dynamic than changes in traditions, values, political culture, and in the political-territorial organization of society. So, the border between two countries that have not existed for very long can be perfectly seen in the cultural landscape, the people’s identity, and their political behavior. Basic features of some regional political cultures demonstrate phenomenal stability, despite the radical economic and social transformation of society.
In the system of geographical disciplines, political geography can be considered a synthetic branch interpreting and summarizing the results obtained in historical geography, cultural geography, the geography of population, economic geography, etc.
History of Political Geography
The origins of political geography lie in the origins of human geography itself, and the early practitioners were concerned mainly with the military and political consequences of the relationships between physical geography, state territories, and state power.
In particular, there was a close association with both regional geography, with its focus on the unique characteristics of regions, and environmental determinism, with its emphasis on the influence of the physical environment on human activities. This association found expression in the work of the German geographer Friedrich Ratzel, who in 1897 in his book Politische Geographie, developed the concept of Lebensraum (living space) which explicitly linked the cultural growth of a nation with territorial expansion, and which was later used to provide academic legitimization for the imperialist expansion of the German Third Reich in the 1930s.
The British geographer Halford Mackinder was also heavily influenced by environmental determinism and in developing his concept of the ‘geographical pivot of history’ or the Heartland Theory (in 1904) he argued that the era of sea power was coming to an end and that land-based powers were in the ascendant, and, in particular, that whoever controlled the heartland of ‘Euro-Asia’ would control the world. This theory involved concepts diametrically opposed to the ideas of Alfred Thayer Mahan about the significance of sea power in world conflict. The heartland theory hypothesized the possibility of a huge empire being created which didn’t need to use coastal or transoceanic transport to supply its military-industrial complex, and that this empire could not be defeated by the rest of the world allied against it. This perspective proved influential throughout the period of the Cold War, underpinning military thinking about the creation of buffer states between East and West in central Europe.
The heartland theory depicted a world divided into a Heartland(Eastern Europe/Western Russia); World Island (Eurasia and Africa); Peripheral Islands (British Isles, Japan, Indonesia, and Australia), and New World(The Americas). Mackinder argued that whoever controlled the Heartland would have control of the world. He used these ideas to politically influence events such as the Treaty of Versailles, where buffer states were created between the USSR and Germany, to prevent either of them controlling the Heartland. At the same time, Ratzel was creating a theory of states based around the concepts of Lebensraum and Social Darwinism. He argued that states were analogous to ‘organisms’ that needed sufficient room in which to live. Both of these writers created the idea of a political and geographical science, with an objective view of the world. Prior to World War II political geography was concerned largely with these issues of global power struggles and influencing state policy, and the above theories were taken on board by German geopoliticians such as Karl Haushofer who – perhaps inadvertently – greatly influenced Nazi political theory, which was a form of politics seen to be legitimated by such ‘scientific’ theories.
The close association with environmental determinism and the freezing of political boundaries during the Cold War led to a significant decline in the perceived importance of political geography, which was described by Brian Berry in 1968 as a ‘moribund backwater‘. Although at this time in most other areas of human geography new approaches, including quantitative spatial science, behavioural studies, and structural Marxism, were invigorating academic research these were largely ignored by political geographers whose main point of reference remained the regional approach.
As a result, most of the political geography texts produced during this period were descriptive, and it was not until 1976 that Richard Muir could argue that political geography was no longer a dead duck, but could in fact be a phoenix.