Power & Politics

One common misconception people have about geography is that it’s all about states and capitals. Geographers certainly do care about place, but memorizing a list of states and capitals is not at all what geographers do, nor how geography is taught, particularly in a world where this information is much more readily accessible than times past due to technology.

Political geography is a subfield of human geography that examines how politics influences place and how place and its distinctiveness shapes the kind of politics that operate there. Geographers always have an eye open towards noticing and evaluating the spatial distribution of phenomenon and possible resulting unevenness. In the case of political geography, this translates to examining how political structures are distributed across the world, understanding the context of why political structures operate where they do, and the impact this has on peoples’ everyday lives and the global world order, or how power is distributed internationally.

Politics is first and foremost about power.

Check out the video below to learn about two key types of power: hard power, which operates by force and coercion and soft power, which operates by fostering consent and attraction.

Politics can be understood in three senses:

  • High Politics: essential to state survival (examples: elections, war and peace, diplomacy)
  • Low Politics: non-essential to state survival; mundane; about welfare of the state (examples: department of education, environmental protection agency)
  • politics with a lower case p: challenging existing structures of power (examples: Black Lives Matter movement, gun right’s advocacy groups)

Political geography examines how all three aspects of politics intersect in place and impact peoples’ livelihoods.

States, Nations, & Borders

DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Learn more about states, nations, sovereignty, state shape, types of governance, and borders by reading this (you may stop reading once you reach the Theories of a State section): https://humangeography.pressbooks.com/chapter/4-1/

Exercise: Distribution of Governance Structures

Geographers examine the spatial distribution of phenomena, including governance structures. Use the link below to complete the following tasks:  https://education.maps.arcgis.com/home/webmap/viewer.html?webmap=a4712b8499994842a6a34a8c8803e62c

  • What spatial patterns do you notice in terms of how and where government types are distributed? What factors do you know of that may help explain these patterns?
  • Choose 3 government types to analyze further and do a quick web search to learn what exactly each government type means and compare and contrast the 3 types.

Challenges to State Sovereignty

DEEPEN YOUR UNDERSTANDING: Learn more about challenges to state sovereignty including separatism often driven by differences in identity here (you may stop reading once you reach the Terrorism section): https://humangeography.pressbooks.com/chapter/4-2/
Border disputes and conflicts also pose challenges to state sovereignty. Check out the video about Kashmir below to learn more.

Exercise: Border Disputes

Visit this link and click on countries and yellow dots along borders to learn more about major ongoing border disputes: http://metrocosm.com/disputed-territories-map.html


Sometimes conflict within states, often rooted in (at least perceived) cultural differences, can lead to a humanitarian crisis involving internally displaced persons or refugees, where people are either uprooted from their home and move internally within a country, or cross borders to gain protection. Check out the video below to hear from the voice of a refugee from Myanmar fleeing to Bangladesh, as part of the Rohingya crisis.

Sovereignty in Maritime Spaces

The world is about 70% water and you may have wondered at some point: who owns the oceans? It’s a fair question, but not an entirely easy one to answer.

UNCLOS, which stands for the United Nations (an international organization) Convention for the Law of the Sea, is the current governing agreement by which the majority of countries in theory abide. Below is a chart explaining how sovereignty extends from a territory’s land borders into the sea. Of special note are the powers afforded to countries within territorial sea, which include air, surface, and subsurface rights, and exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which include surface and subsurface rights.

Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:UNCLOS-en.png

The videos below profile two hotspot maritime battlegrounds: the Arctic, where waterways are opening up because of the retreat of sea ice due to climate change, and the South China Sea, where countries in East Asia and Southeast Asia are vying for rights and human-made islands are being constructed to help assert sovereignty. Note how UNCLOS does and does not guide the actions of countries in these areas.

Closer to Home: Electoral Geography

A substantial branch of political geography is devoted to electoral geography, which examines how geography influences political representation and even prescribe best practices to ensure fairness.

If you’ve ever heard of gerrymandering, or wonder why the census becomes a hot-button political issue every ten years, you already know a thing or two about electoral geography.

Check out the video below for a crash course on how geometry and geography intersect with politics, and can affect the weight of your vote in state and national elections.


After working through this chapter, you should have something to say in response to each of these questions:

  • What is the difference between a state and a nation?
  • What is the function of borders?
  • What factors (natural, socio-cultural, etc) influence the location, character, and impact of borders?
  • What are the effects of border disputes (and for whom)?
  • How does the shape of a state affect its internal operations and international actions?
  • How does sovereignty operate in marine spaces?
  • How have events like the Cold War and European and American colonialism shaped the distribution of government types and international diplomatic relations globally?
  • On what grounds are countries making claims in the Arctic?





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Human Geography Copyright © by Christine Rosenfeld & Nathan Burtch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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