the Conceptualisation of Political Geography

The Conceptualisation of Political Geography

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The simple answer to the question “what is political geography about?” is what it says it is about: politics and geography. But that is altogether too simple. Political geography is by no means the sum of its two parts. In political geography, “geography” is drawn on in selective ways: in ways that illuminate the political. By the same token, “politics” is drawn on in ways that shed light on geography. Above all, political geography focuses on the twin ideas of territory and territoriality.

Territory and territoriality are the defining concepts of political geography in that they bring together the ideas of power and space: territories as spaces that are defended, contested, claimed against the claims of others; in short, through territoriality. Territory and territoriality mutually presuppose one another. There can’t be one without the other. Territoriality is activity: the activity of defending, controlling, excluding, including; the territory is the area whose content one seeks to control in these ways. But again, that only takes us so far.

To understand territory and territoriality as opposed to describing what they are about, we need an understanding of spatial relations and politics. As geographic concepts territory and territoriality have their roots, their conditions, in other spatial practices; in particular those relating to movement and those that have to do with the embedding of people and their activities in particular places – ideas that are fundamental to contemporary human geography. Likewise, in order to understand politics in political geography, we need to come to terms with the central concept of modern political science, the state. The state is itself an expression of territorial power: it has an area over which it claims jurisdiction, it has boundaries and it has powers to influence movement and what goes on in any part of its jurisdiction.

For any territorial strategy, any expression of territoriality advanced by a neighborhood organization, a business or ethnic group, or whatever, the state is, accordingly, of crucial significance.

This begs the question, however, of what motivates people to defend particular areas and so to seek out the help of the state. It also begs the question of why the state might be responsive. The territory itself has no substance and what motivates people are interests which are, by definition, substantive in character: they refer to things, perhaps symbols, that people want. In short, we need some concept of what it is that drives people in their territorial activities and what produces conflict over territory.

Ultimately it has to do with our relationship to the material world: our need to relate to that world if we are to survive. But that relationship is always socially mediated. It is always in and through others that we appropriate and transform aspects of that material world into forms that we can use. Concepts of social process, therefore, are central to understanding territory and territoriality. But specifically what social process are we talking about? In human history, there has been a succession of highly diverse social formations. This book, however, has to do with the political geography of the specifically contemporary world. Accordingly, our focus here has to be that highly dynamic force that we know as capitalism.

Now, this may sound as if the treatment is to be economically deterministic. This is far from my aim. Rather I recognize that social life is highly diverse; that it consists of many different conditions, without which it could not function. There is something that I will call the social process that is separate from capitalism. But capitalism is the energizing moment of that process and continually strives to mobilize those other conditions for its own purposes. And in this, it is no different from previous forms of social life. Production is always the central pivot around which social life is continually being organized and shaped.

In the first major section of this opening chapter, therefore, the three principal ideas around which the argument in this book is organized are introduced: territory, the state, and the social process. The second part of the chapter is devoted to a consideration of some case studies through which I want to illustrate how these fundamental ideas can be applied. In a brief closing section, I will then outline how the book as a whole is organized.

Concepts of Political Geography


The core concepts of political geography can be stated quite simply: they are territory and territoriality. These ideas are inextricably interrelated. The territory is to be understood through its relations to those activities we define as territorial: the exercise of territoriality, in other words. Robert Sack (1983) has defined it as an activity aimed at influencing the content of an area. This means that activities of an exclusionary or, alternatively, of an inclusionary nature would be regarded as territorial and the area the content of which one wants to influence as the territory in question. This means that in addition to territory having associations of area and boundary it also has ones of defense: territories are spaces which people defend by excluding some activities and by including those which will enhance more precisely what it is in the territory that they want to defend.

In these terms examples of territorial activity are legion. Import quotas and tariffs are obvious cases in point as are restrictions on immigration. Sometimes the products whose movement is being regulated have a strong cultural content: the French government has tried to limit the amount of non-French programming shown on French television. This is not to say that exclusionary processes are limited to the level of the nation-state so that the territory that political geographers focus on is that of the state’s jurisdiction. Examples can be found at all manner of scales: the gated communities that have become common in the suburbs of many American cities, for example; or the greenbelts which surround every British city of any size and which limit new residential development within their boundaries. And the latter example reminds us that any form of land use zoning is a territorial form of activity.

There are also activities or processes of a more inclusionary nature. People and organizations try to regulate the content of geographic areas by attracting certain sorts of people or activities. The constitution of the state of Israel mandates that all Jews should be accorded full rights of residency in Israel if they should request it. A different sort of example has to do with the channeling of investment flows. For many years in the United States, local and state governments have implemented a variety of policies the goal of which has been to attract new investment inside their boundaries: an investment that will, among other things, generate employment and add to the local tax base. This sort of activity is now becoming more common in Western Europe. The member states of the European Union have been especially active in competing for choice investments like those of the Japanese auto companies.

This is not to say that exclusionary and inclusionary forms of policy are unrelated. What is inclusionary for some may be exclusionary for others, and that may be the point of the exercise. Gentrification has been a common housing market process in neighborhoods close to the downtowns of major cities in both North America and Western Europe. As wealthier people move into an area so rents and housing prices tend to increase. This results in the exclusion of long-term, low-income residents who can no longer afford the rents. But this is a process the gentrifiers promote through trying to secure for the area various local government expenditures and regulatory policies that will make the area more attractive to the well-heeled buyer. And one of the purposes of that is, through the medium of increasing real estate values, to drive out the poor, who for various reasons are regarded as lowering the tone of the area, perhaps introducing a criminal element into the neighborhood.

The idea of territoriality is derivative of other concepts absolutely crucial to contemporary human geography. These are the related ones of mobility and immobility. Geography, bear in mind, is the study of objects, activities, institutions from the standpoint of their space relations (both internal and external), what we might call their various where-nesses. These include their accessibility relations with respect to one another and their distributions.

One way of studying human geography is in terms of movements. This was a dominant theme in the spatial analysis school which dominated human geography for much of the sixties and which is still influential today. The point is that the reproduction of a particular distribution of objects – factories, houses, highways, airports, the people themselves – depends on various sorts of flow: movements of raw materials for the factories, movements of money with which to buy the raw materials, movements of labor among others. To the extent that the geography of movement changes then so will the distribution of houses, factories, and the like. As investment moves out to the suburbs, for example, so the form of the city changes: housing is added on the edge but we often find housing towards the center of the city being deleted. The shift of investment to the suburbs is a major reason for the fact of housing abandonment that is so apparent in some American central cities, like Detroit and Chicago.

But more recently, the converse of movement, the idea of settlement, of immobilization or embedding in a particular place, has come to be recognized as of immense significance. This is particularly so from the standpoint of understanding territoriality. It is certainly true that people move around.

Residential mobility within cities is a fact of life and without it, realtors would go out of business. And people also move over much longer distances, retiring from, say, New York or Montreal to Florida or from the United Kingdom to the Costa Blanca in Spain. In a similar fashion, firms move. They close or sell factories in one location and shift their operations elsewhere. But there are contrary tendencies as well. People, firms, organizations of all types get embedded in particular places: embedded in the sense that other places become costly substitutes for their current locations. People put down what is often referred to as “roots.” They buy houses in neighborhoods and raise families. Their children marry and some, at least, will live in the same city. People also get locked into particular careers with particular firms: they develop skills that are appropriate to their particular employer but which have limited portability. So leaving the area, moving elsewhere, can mean a serious diminution of life chances, a deep sense of loss as one moves away from one’s loved ones and the familiar, or both. Even owning a house is a source of geographic inertia since buying and selling is such a protracted and time-consuming process.

The state

For a start, notice how important the state and its various agencies are in regulating geographies: in structuring movements, in defending the interests of the more immobilized, the more embedded. Central governments everywhere regulate movements across their boundaries: movements of people, of commodities, and of money. They may restrict imports in order to protect particular industries, their workers, and the cities in which they are located from foreign competition. They may also restrict exports for a similar purpose: a duty on exports of American leather protects the shoe-making industry by driving up its price to overseas producers at the same time as it lowers it for the American producer. Limits on immigration on the part of the more developed countries are the norm and so too is the regulation of foreign investment. In the latter regard, there are often laws governing the takeover of firms by foreign corporations or foreign investment in certain sensitive industries like arms firms.

Likewise, there are things that local governments can do that impact geographic change through their effects on movement. This is despite the fact that central branches of the state protect the freedom of movement of labor and of commodities within national boundaries and so local governments cannot try to achieve their ends by interfering with them: protecting a major local employer by imposing restrictions on the sale of goods from competing firms elsewhere in the country, say. Rather there are other means of structuring location choice. Urban development, the siting of new housing developments, new industrial estates, and the location of new highways must invariably run the gauntlet of a local permitting process: public hearings, rezoning hearings, objections from national public health authorities, and so on.

Nevertheless, the relation between the state on the one hand, and power in society on the other, including power over geography, is not straightforward. Power comes in different forms. Immensely important in contemporary social life is the power of money. This is not something that is foreign to the state. This is because it itself draws on that power in persuading others to do what it wants: tax concessions, subsidies, various forms of duty, the threat of fines. But it is also a power that anyone participating in a market, or for that matter trying to purchase the favors of a legislator, draws on. The power of money is expressed among other things in what urban analysts call the competitive bidding process. The wealthy, by and large, live in the more desirable neighborhoods because they can afford to: they have the money to outbid other would-be purchasers.

Likewise, there is the power of the normative. Norms are important in regulating family life and much else besides. It isn’t just the power of money that makes us punctual for work; the fear that we will be fired if we don’t turn up on time. We have been socialized into it from early childhood on: “do not be late for meals,”
“do not be late for school,” “hurry, or you’ll miss the bus.” Again, this is something that the state can turn to its own advantage. It is a form of power that it employs through the schools. It is through the educational system, both state schools, and the private schools – that are always regulated by the state – that certain rules of good citizenship are imparted. And through its public statements, if not always through its actions, it advocates the ideal of equality as a principle of social justice.

Yet in talking about the state and its relation to various forms of social power we need to bear in mind that the state form is not universal. There have been societies that lacked states. Some of these exist at the present time in, among other places, the jungles of Amazonia or Borneo. And in many other so-called states, particularly in less developed countries, the power of the state, its ability to penetrate and regulate social life, is weak indeed.
But having said that, a case can be made for some sort of regulation in all societies. Government with the intent of harmonizing the activities of different people, one with another has been an omnipresent feature of all social life: the household, kinship, and the various norms accompanying them, for example. And indeed today these regulatory mechanisms continue to play a role alongside more historically recent ones like the market. But what is characteristic of the present era is the role of the state as, in effect, the regulator of regulators: as the ultimate guarantor – and limiter – through the law, of the social power of others, whether that of capitalists, husbands, and parents, or that of money in the abstract. In other words, there can be government without states; but states always entail government.
Territorial strategies are always exercises of power. To some degree they may depend on the direct exercise of state power: redrawing the catchment districts of schools so as to simultaneously include some and exclude others; or assigning additional police patrols to a neighborhood. Sometimes, on the other hand, strategies appear to be more private in character. This would apply to the gated community or the private school, both of which can have exclusionary intent. But ultimately they both depend on the state. Gated communities have to be legal, as do private schools. And even if private schools are legal the state can take steps to make them more or perhaps less attractive as territorializing options through the sorts of tax concessions it makes to parents (i.e. whether or not school fees are tax-deductible).

But what is attractive about the state as a means of regulating space relations, as a vehicle for the various exclusionary and inclusionary policies different organizations, firms, political parties, residents’ organizations push for, is its own territorial character. Consider the variety of possibilities here. Imagine, for example, a state whose power was not territorial in the sense of areal and bounded. What if (e.g.) people who were the citizens of different states were not as they are now, geographically segregated one from another, but geographically integrated? Imagine a situation, in other words, in which your next-door neighbors, other people living in the same city or region as you belonged not to the same state but to different states: that American citizens lived in the same neighborhood alongside French, German, British, Mexican, Australian, Nigerian citizens and they were all subject to the laws of their respective countries.


The central focus of political geography, the point from which it starts and to which it returns, is defined by the twin concepts of territory and territoriality. Neither of these can be understood apart from each other. In order to talk of territory, one must talk of territoriality and vice versa. Territoriality refers to actions designed to exercise control over some area: the territory. Territory and territoriality, therefore, bring together the two concepts of space and power: geography and the political, as in political geography. Accordingly, in order to understand territory and territoriality, we need an understanding of relations over space and politics.

Territoriality is rooted in the contradiction between movement and fixity. In order to carry on their various activities, people seek some fixity in their lives. They “settle” in particular places, become embedded in them through (e.g.) the relatively permanent transformations they make to the immediate environment (draining the land, cutting down the forests, building houses, creating tracks) and through the relations they develop with other people: relations of kinship, friendship, cooperation. But there are wider movements that either underpin or threaten these place-bound activities. These include natural movements like those that convey acid rain and socially mediated ones like those of trade. There are also displacements of the population which can result in the threat of invasion and dislodgement, and threats to a place-based identity as we discussed in the case of the Chinese immigrants to Vancouver. To protect the place-bound relations that they have created, therefore, people in particular areas seek to control the movements in and out of them by defending, excluding, including; in short by regulating this wider set of movements to local advantage.

The notion of power, on the other hand, is closely bound up today with that of the state. Most of what we talk about in this book will have to do with the state, for in the contemporary world the state is an extremely important regulatory agent. This is not to say that it has been a universal of human existence. There have been stateless societies. But there have been no societies that lacked means of regulating their activities. Even today, regulation cannot be reduced to the state. But the state is now the ultimate regulator which either regulates directly or regulates the regulations of others.

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