Introduction and origins of the (sub)discipline of political geography

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What is political geography?[edit | edit source]

It is not easy to define precisely what political geography is.

In Balandier's 1967 book Anthropologie politique, political geography is defined as follows: "Political geography, in the strict sense of the term, should take into consideration organizations that develop in a space-time envelope that they contribute to organize or... to disorganize. For Rosière in Comprendre l'espace politique published in 2007, political geography is "the study of the political elements structuring the earthly space". Claval defines political geography as "the spatial dimension of political facts" in his book Les espaces de la politique published in 2010. For Painter and Jeffrey in Political Geography: An Introduction to Space and Power published in 2009, political geography is not easy to define:"[T]he subdiscipline does not refer transparently, straightforwardly and comprehensively to some easily definable'politico-geographic' aspect of the world".

In Geneva, there is a great tradition that emphasizes that space and sites are great social constructions. Construction processes often have a political aspect with this approach. Constructivist means political geography. In many texts, there is the feeling that what is useful is to consider political geography as a discourse that is a product of historical accidents, debates, conflicts, personal and institutional successes and failures and their social, political, cultural, but also economic framing.

The origin of political geography dates back to the late 19th century and early 20th century being a discipline dominated by American and European men until the 1960s. The key concepts put forward by these men reflected the perspectives and practices of powerful states. Since political geography was presented as a practice that provides solutions for those in power, critics were considered far removed from the realities of the time. If political geography can be considered a discourse, there are many variations in the definition of discipline.

Despite variations over time, political geography has always understood common elements:

  • an interest in concepts such as border, territory, state, nation, sphere of influence, place ;
  • an interest in how geography (from physical geography to the distribution of economic resources) interposes between people and political organizations ;
  • institutionalization (professional groups, journals, etc.).

The political geography is difficult to define, it is about spatial dimensions and political facts making a very broad field going back to the ancient Greeks, passing by Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau. Many authors have spoken at one point in their work about the link between space and politics. Thucydides wrote about the maritime empires which fought against the land empires showing that wars result according to the fact where empires are placed.

From the perspective where political geography is a discourse dependent on its context, we will look more specifically at the period of 1875 and the end of the Second World War. Political geography comes to be associated with the arguments of the Nazi regime, but also Japanese and Italian. At the end of the Second World War, political geography had a bad reputation so no one wanted to associate with the term. It will take about twenty years to see the term political geography reappear.

In the period between the second half of the 19th century and the end of the Second World War, many writers pronounced themselves on political geography. Ratzel created political geography and Mackinder built on the basis of Ratzel. Many authors have reacted by proposing new criticism and approaches.

Background: 1875 - 1945[edit | edit source]

The geopolitical context[edit | edit source]

There is an intense rivalry between great powers. In Europe, the creation of empires reached its peak. Outside, the United States and Japan are emerging. Great Britain and France renewed the colonial campaigns in response to German and Italian ambitions. There is a feeling that the era of "open spaces" is coming to an end. Colonization, in a very short time, will somehow see the emergence of a sense of the end of the era and rivalry between the great powers.

Environmental determinism such as Darwin's theses and racist arguments contribute to the context of geopolitical tension in this era. These arguments create fundamental instability in the world political economy caused by the arrival of new powers, economic competition and the decline in England's ability to offer financing to the world economy without damaging its colonial position. This period was also characterized by several fairly serious economic depressions, such as that between 1883 and 1896.

The polarization between Britain, France, the United States and Germany is reflected in the term "The Great Naval Rivalry". At the same time, there is a strong growth of nationalism that sees the emergence of a sense of common destiny. The technological progress with telegraphy, the telephone, the automobile, the plane, the cinema, the radio, the assembly line adds to the feeling of political and economic insecurity which facilitates the mobilization of nationalism as seen before the First World War. The Treaty of Versailles does not offer solutions while the concept of "cordon sanitaire" will become the future field of intervention of the belligerents. At the same time, the United States, Japan and Russia are increasing their ambitions. In 1933, German remilitarization helped to stir up tensions leading up to the Second World War.

It is in this context that political geography emerges as and under discipline.

The intellectual context[edit | edit source]

Geography as such faces institutionalization with academic geography. Geography as a discipline has a very difficult history linked to colonial enterprises, linked to military strategies and country initiatives to dominate other spaces and other peoples. Geography itself is already at the service of powerful nations in their colonial initiatives. Will be founded national geographic societies dedicated to exploration highlighting a need to map and characterize territories to teach national identity.

At the same time as Darwin's theories are emerging, there is a strong contestation of databases through voluntarism and idealism as opposed to naturalism and materialism. There is a naturalization of knowledge with the separation of the scientific claim of the scientist and a preference for the arguments of the natural sciences mixing Lamarck and Darwin.

Emerges political geography at the intersection of the practical needs of states and empires. To justify imperial and colonial enterprises, it was necessary to "evidence based policy making". We needed something that we could use to explain to citizens why we are in this expansion trend. The scientists of the time were heavily involved in politics. Where they were already involved in politics or through political geography they claimed to bring solutions.

The extension of environmental and biological ideas to global politics had the consequence that political geographers claimed to present solutions to the problems of states and empires. As Hegel confers, the European territorial state acquires the status of a body with its own needs and demands. This is the basis for direct links between political geography and historical context requiring harmonisation between states and nations, the definition of natural political boundaries, the establishment of economic nationalism. There is a determining role of the situation and environmental conditions.

The Political Geography of Ratzel and Mackinder[edit | edit source]

Friedrich Ratzel : 1844 – 1904[edit | edit source]

Friedrich Ratzel.

Ratzel was a pharmacist who obtained a doctorate in zoology in 1868. He conducted geographical explorations in France, Italy, Hungary, Cuba, Mexico and the United States. His Munich period from 1871 to 1886 was marked by a transition from natural sciences to geography. In 1886 Ratzel became professor of geography at the University of Leipzig and director of the Leipzig section of German colonial society. Between 1882 and 1991, he wrote Anthropogéographie. In this work, Ratzel will reintroduce the human element into geography. Leading to a renewal of geography based on the relationships between soil, nature and humans. Ratzel will map the diversity of human societies and natural environments.

In Géographie politique ou la géographie des États, de la circulation et la guerre, written between 1897 and 1903, a founding idea is posed, which is the existence of a close link between the soil and the State: "the soil gradually becomes the instrument and expression of social and political power". The link between soil and state is so strong that it will determine the evolution of states. He postulates that "States will be viewed, at all stages of their development, as bodies that have a necessary relationship with the land".

Ratzel will develop the Euclidean tirade which is complementary to the heart of his theory:

  • Point - position: centrality, marginality, identity, centre-periphery relationship, differential growth which is the relational essence of power ;
  • Surface - extent: extension in space and invisible extension of relations such as trade, traffic and war ;
  • Line - boundaries: borders to penetrate, neighbourhood.

Ratzel characterizes the state as a living organism, which must expand and reach a larger size. It will propose seven laws and trends in the spatial development of the State:

  1. the size of a state grows with its culture;
  2. the growth of a state follows other manifestations of the growth of its people;
  3. the state grows through the annexation of smaller parts - at the same time, the relationship between people and land becomes closer ;
  4. the border is the peripheral organ of the State, bearer of growth and fortification, and involved in any transformation of the organism of the State ;
  5. the State aims to integrate positions that bring political advantages;
  6. the first stimulus for a state's growth comes from outside;
  7. the trend towards territorial annexation is transmitted from State to State, continuously increasing in intensity.

Today, there are many debates about Ratzel's thought, history and heritage. The translation of the political geography work was only done in the 1980s. Some dissemination of the texts is recent. On the one hand Ratzel will be associated with a discourse linked to the colonial enterprise, on the other, several of the central concepts strike by their modernity: centre and periphery, interior and exterior, and neighbourhood. Many of these concepts are relevant today. By introducing the human element into geography, he turned to political organizations that witnessed in the historical context of rivalry between nation-states. For Ratzel, politics was the state.

According to Raffestin, the consequences of focusing the "scientific knowledge" perspective on the State are the following:

  • only one level of spatial analysis is available, that limited by borders
  • the power of the state is treated as a fact that needs no explanation
  • there is a rupture between the dynamics that can be attributed to this state power and the forms that can be observed in the operating field of a territory

It is possible to distinguish two interpretations of Ratzel's work:

  • Ratzel is an imperialist scientist who provides the arguments to Nazism;
  • Ratzel was an important geographer who revolutionized the discipline. Ratzel will be known for his almost exclusive focus on the state.

Halford Mackinder : 1861 – 1947[edit | edit source]

Halford Mackinder.

Mackinder studied zoology, then history to trace the theory of evolution in human development. He was a geography reader at Oxford in 1887, then director of Reading College from 1892 to 1903, known as co-founder of the London School of Economics in 1895, director between 1903 and 1908, and finally ordinary professor from 1923.

Mackinder emerged in the geopolitical context of England. He also followed a political career as an elected member of parliament from 1910 to 1920 and then participated in the Paris Conference after the First World War.

Its objective is to identify the correlations between geographical and historical generalisations with a focus on the importance of external pressure for internal political development. For Mackinder, there is a strong link between space and politics with an important influence of space on political organization manifested in the Heartland theory which is the human and material resources of the Euro-Asian continent that determines the course of history.

Geopolitical map of the Heartland theory from Halford Mackinder's 1904 The Geographical Pivot of History

For Mackinder: "he who holds the World Island (Europe, Asia, Africa) commands the world". In 1919 he published Democratic Ideals and Reality in which he said that "Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World Island; Who rules the World Island commands the World".

Ratzel introduced the centre-periphery approach with the idea of a space around the Heartland that Mackinder would take up again. For his contributions, Mackinder is regarded as one of the founders of geopolitics and geostrategy which are knowledge at the service of political power. As early as 1904, he tried to systematize a geohistorical vision of power, of power in the world.

His Heartland theory stresses the need for the "cordon sanitaire" between Russia and Germany, a geostrategic approach that influences 20th century policies.

The criticisms[edit | edit source]

Paul Vidal de la Blache : 1845 – 1918[edit | edit source]

Vidal de la Blache is a French geographer who worked in the context of France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and the conflict between church and state. It shares the naturalistic approach and Lamarckian ideas on evolution, but applied to regions and civilizations and not to states. Unlike Ratzel who placed a strong emphasis on borders for whom "Man because German", Vidal de la Blanche is less interested in the role of borders for whom the principle is that of open France within the framework of the approach of the French colonial enterprise with the motto "Man by nature, French by accident".

He minimizes the role of borders advocating an open France for fear of France's decline as a great power with an expansive perspective of "Frenchness" within the framework of a civilizing mission and develops an approach to national identity based on the fusion of "lifestyles". Ratzel makes geography a political geography, Vidal does the opposite. In a way, he tries to generalize the geopolitics that Ratzel introduced by minimizing borders and focusing on regions.

Influenced by Ratzel, but, by opposing determinism, Vidal proposes possibilism. Vidal prefers the term "human" to that of "political" because he considers that economics becomes more important and the separation of politics is less logical than before. Despite the French context of his work, Vidal begins a conception of "politics" beyond the State.

Élisée Reclus : 1840 – 1905[edit | edit source]

Élisée Reclus is a geographer, activist and thinker of French anarchism proposing a radical critique of Ratzelian thought. A supporter of the Paris Commune, he was banished for his anarchist ideas.

Reclus is a defender of a geography centred on the human being. Like Vidal de la Blache, he refused the centrality of the State and imperialism, but defended French colonialism in Africa. In L'homme et la terre, written between 1905 and 1908, Reclus will focus on the identification of "natural regions" produced by history, language and lifestyle. It is a geography that is becoming more political, cultural and human.

André Siegfried : 1875 – 1959[edit | edit source]

Siegfried was a geographer, political scientist, economist, historian, sociologist, but also a publicist. Many of his books are translated into several languages, including studies on the United States, Canada and Britain. In 1913 he published the Tableau politique de la France de l'Ouest sous la Troisième République, the founding work of electoral geography, and in 1933 he obtained the Chair of Economic and Political Geography at the Collège de France.

Siegfried was inspired by Montesquieu and Tocqueville more than Vidal or that German geography placing a strong emphasis on the political dimensions of places, especially at the regional level. But, according to Claval, Siegfried is criticized because he refuses to formulate a theoretical synthesis on the relations between power and space.

He had a strong influence on political science in France as well as on political geography through his assistant Jean Gottmann who published Megalopolis in 1961 and The Significance of Territory in 1973, but also an influence on electoral sociology and French social geography.

American Political Geography[edit | edit source]

In the United States, the context is different than in Europe. The tension between pure determinism and American exceptionalism is very pronounced, creating a lively intellectual environment. The United States is seen as a "social experiment" that inspires political geographers to a certain idealism less perceived than among political geographers in Europe. The emphasis will be on free trade and the notion of a peaceful nation with open borders.

Wilsonism[edit | edit source]

Wilson is the defender par excellence of American exceptionalism with a system of global collective security through liberal capitalism and international treaties consecrating the creation of the League of Nations project.

Isaiah Bowman : 1878 – 1950[edit | edit source]

Bowman was involved in politics sitting on the American Territorial Council at the Peace Conference in Paris. He was director of the American Geographical Society, but also president of Johns Hopkins University. His empirical studies focus on the territorial structures of states. In The New World published in 1921, he produced an inventory of political conditions. On the other hand, he is defender of the "scientific neutrality" of naturalism with a rejection of determinism.

His work focuses on practical aspects of analyses on the impact of structural changes such as new borders, ethnic redistribution and new modes of communication.

Richard Hartshorne : 1899 – 1992[edit | edit source]

Hartshorne is considered one of the deans of American political geography known for his functional approach to political geography notably through spatial differentiation - "aeral differentiation". For him, political geography deals mainly with the "character" of territories of which the state territories are paradigmatic examples, with work on the integrity of the state focusing on centrifugal and centripetal forces. He tries to explain the political dynamics according to the character of the territories.

According to Painter, Hartshorne's static and apolitical conceptualization of the state dominated political geography until the early 1980s.

Space, race, expansion[edit | edit source]

German Geopolitical School[edit | edit source]

With the emergence of fascism in Germany was born the German geopolitical school inspired by the Razelian notion of the state as an organism and Mackinder's geopolitical model. This implies a commitment to the nationalist and then Nazi milieu. The concept of Lebensraum Exposants supports the air theories put in the context of the relationship between space and politics in favour of a racism linked to expansion.

Rudolf Kjellén : 1864 – 1922[edit | edit source]

Kjellén is the source of the term "geopolitics". The physical growth of States is the inevitable product of competition between States.

Karl Haushofer : 1869 – 1946[edit | edit source]

Haushofer develops the term "Pan-regions" which are territories of imperial and colonial populations.

There is an intense debate about Geopolitik's influence on the Nazis' annihilationist discourse. Through the seizure of power in 1933, the Nazis acquired prestige. Nevertheless, there is incomplete consistency about racism and anti-Semitism. The Geopolitik adherents sought an alliance with the Soviet Union considering Central Europe as a multi-ethnic federation. Other more influential geographers such as Penck supported the need to "unify" the German populations and to define "natural" German borders stemming in part from resentment of the Treaty of Versailles.

Political geography in the middle of the 20th century[edit | edit source]

For almost thirty years, the role of the state was neglected in geography because the thought of political geography was associated with Ratzel and Mackinder while French political geography was only interested in the regions. That is why political geography has a bad reputation. The role of the State in political geography was largely neglected for about thirty years until the quantitative revolution in Anglo-American geography in the 1960s and 1970s leading to a renewal of political geography in the late 1970s and 1980s. In the United States, one of the first to contribute to this change was David Harvey who addressed the state in its broader engagement with Marxist political economy.

Geopolitics vs. Political Geography[edit | edit source]

There was opposition to geopolitical orthodoxy, particularly between Rimland and Heartland. North America was seen as a new central pole ignoring the economic dimension. The vidalian heritage supports a need to study states in relation to other human phenomena such as cities, agriculture, but also trade.

Summary and Conclusions[edit | edit source]

Political geography focuses as much on the impact of geographical facts on politics as on the spatial impact of political facts. Political geography emerges in a historical context characterized by intense competition between imperialist states, the emergence of new powers, economic instability, scientific renewal and cultural transformations.

Geopolitics does not have an exact dimension. According to Claval in Les espaces de la politique published in 2010, political geography is "the spatial dimension of political facts". Political geography must be understood as a discourse. For example, to understand Mackinder, one must try to understand the context in which his texts were written.

The context of the emergence of political geography is that :

  • from the intense rivalry between states and colonial empires towards the end of the 19th century leading to the First World War and then the Second World War, the context of the unification of Germany and Italy upset the stability that existed in the 19th century
  • Darwinist thoughts are incorporated into social theories with competition between "races" justifying colonization in particular;
  • the institutionalization of geography.
Géopo timeline émergence de la géographie politique 1.png

We can see that the first thinkers of political geography had an interest in strengthening this institutionalization, in highlighting the power of this new discipline putting itself at the service of States as is the case for Ratzel or Mackinder. The key works are indicated by red dots concentrated around the First World War.

For Ratzel, everything revolves around the link between the ground and the State. It reintroduces the human element into geography by focusing on the political organization that predominates being the states giving rise to a geography of states. He is also interested in the correspondence between the diversity of social and natural environments. It observes a diversity of natural environments that vary according to the mechanism of evolution. According to Ratzel, there is a strong causality between natural evolution and that of States considering States as organisms.

For Mackinder, determinism is different. While Ratzel is interested in determinism from the natural environment, Mackinder is interested in history. For him, political geography serves to introduce a cordon sanitaire. It is an answer to the context that we will find in the middle of the 20th century with the containment of communism.

With Vidal, we begin to notice a strong opposition to Ratzelian thought. What is important in the transition of geography is the human element which does not become only the political element. Vidal, like Ratzel, was influenced by Darwin's thinking, but unlike Ratzel, he was not oriented towards states, but towards regions and civilizations. Moreover, for Vidal, borders are less and less important, substituting determinism for possibilism.

Reclus, very critical of Ratzel assumes an anarchic posture. For him, the State is something that must be eliminated by seeing a world without States with a strong emphasis on the human element.

At Siegfried, there is a lack of synthesis of his thoughts. He highlighted an empirical interest in the character of territories interested in the political aspect of places oriented like Vidal towards the regions. Siegfried's work will have a strong influence on political science, political geography, electoral sociology.

The American authors oppose determinism because they consider that it is not determinism that can explain the United States at the international level. They have an interest in trade as a driving force for concentration. This approach must be seen in the context of the emergence of the United States, which is beginning to be competitive in international trade.

Bowman and Hartshorne embarked like Siegfried on the characterization of territorial structures. Hartshorne demonstrates a functional approach that looks at territorial integrity and how the characteristics of the territory contribute to or oppose the integrity of the state.

In the early phases of political geography, there is an interesting and important transformation. For Ratzel and Mackinder, their work focused on the influence of territory on politics. As time goes by, this causal relationship is reversed. With Siegfried and the Americans, we see that it is really the political facts that determine the organization of space. On the one hand, it is an analytical posture, but on the other hand it is also because interests are changing, in particular with the diversification of actors that are important with political transformations that have an impact on the organization of space.

Annexes[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]