the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2011 December 9


‘Region’ and ‘place’ are terms, not concepts. There are an infinite number of concepts, each one eternal and unchanging, and existing independently of anyone actually thinking them. (This is a platonic statement, of course; on matters such as this, Plato was in my judgement wholly correct.) By contrast, there are a finite number of terms, they change constantly in both form and meaning, and may have multiple meanings at once. The meaning of a term is the concept with which it is associated (to use the semiotic terminology, this is a sign relationship, with the term as signifier and the concept as signified). Terms have traditions, especially in connecting one form with a different form, often through etymological descent (as ‘region’ continues the tradition of the Latin ‘REGIO’). In the case of geographic terms such as ‘region’ and ‘place’ we might identify three main traditions: a vernacular tradition; a scholarly tradition of the term in the original; and a scholarly tradition of the term as a gloss for terms in other linguistic traditions (not just other languages, but the traditions within those languages — vernacular, scholarly, et cetera).

To take ‘region’ first, it has been used, in all three traditions, independently of scale. While any narrow field may employ the term with a scale in mind, it is not the same scale from one field to the next. For example, the “region”, and some accompanying “regionalism”, is frequently meant to contrast with the nation-state, so that a person’s identity is tied to the region rather than the nation-state, or some economic activity is said to be taking place at the level of the region rather than the nation-state. And yet this still does not specify a scale, as both uses could mean either an area smaller than the nation-state, or an area larger. If larger, perhaps an assembly of nation-states; if smaller, perhaps an assembly of provinces or US states — but not necessarily. It could as well be something larger than a city and smaller than a US state or province. And in certain European-integration contexts, or the work of Kenichi Ohmae for example, a region is a region especially if it contains parts of multiple nation-states. The one thing common to all of these uses is that a region is some different scale — a scale different from whichever scale the speaker wishes to form a contrast with.

In the vernacular, ‘region’ is frequently used without the conventional definitional element of boundaries (“the Los Angeles region”, “the Great Lakes region”; these are approximate definitions dependent on proximity to a defining feature, where proximity is relative and context dependent). And while scholars such as Dick Hartshorne and Derwent Whittlesey often posit that a region has already some defining property (whereas an “area” has none), this is not a consistent usage even among scholars. So in the end, a region can be any two-dimensional expanse, and it is not conceptually difficult to extend the term to one or three dimensions, or to an expanse within a moving frame of reference; nearly any expanse can be called a region, and many, many expanses have been.

‘Place’ is a cherished and semi-technical term in some geographical traditions — consider Yi-Fu Tuan or Michael Curry — but as a common word, the vernacular usage is important, perhaps definitive. When John Agnew suggests location, locale, and sense of place as characteristics of place, I can only concur if the three are seen as possible meanings of the term ‘place’, and if the term is allowed to mean any one or combination of two, as well as occasionally all three, since the vernacular and many scholarly uses are not uniformly employing all three senses. Considering Agnew’s troika as a guide, then, we can indeed say that most, if not quite all, uses of ‘place’ are being applied to regions.

In the vernacular, ‘place’ can clearly be used for simple location, as might be expressed in latitude and longitude. Even in this sense, though, some expanse is often implied. That is, while we are referencing the latitude and longitude, we actually have in mind the proximal region — whatever is near the dimensionless point of reference, and the closer to the point, the more we have it in mind. And location can involve geometries other than a dimensionless point. It is just as sensible to speak of a location as having an expanse; real-world objects have extent, and when we consider where such objects are located, we are not concerned solely with the dimensionless location of some arbitrary or even important part of the object, but the location of the whole, the entire expanse that the object occupies, which is, of course, a region. (Here, compare Aristotle’s understanding of place.)

Locale and sense of place are very much about experience, either what we experience about the situatedness of the place, or what we experience about the place without reference to its surroundings. The locale of a place certainly has expanse; if we attempt to identify the locale of a dimensionless location, then everything we think we know about the place is actually about the locale, so the locale (as Agnew may have intended) is the place. This is particularly apt when considering proximal regions. Sense of place is so tied to our own experience of a place that it must have extent, for we cannot exist in a dimensionless place. We might have a sense that Four Corners is a place, for example, but we surely have in mind the objects and the landscape, the near parts of the four states, and not just the inaccessible dot on the ground where they come together.

And if Agnew’s three parts must all be present, if Tuan and Curry are right that a place is a place because we recognize it as such, then places are effectively all regions. We could find a sense for ‘region’ in which this is not true, but it would represent only a narrow tradition, ignoring much of geography and vernacular culture alike.


John Agnew. ‘Space : place’, p81-96 in Cloke and Johnston, eds.
Aristotle. ‘Physics — Place’, 208a25-13a10 in Jonathan Barnes, ed., ‘The complete works’. Princeton University Press, 1984.
—————. ‘The elements all have natural motion’, s300a20-02a09 in ‘On the heavens’. (W.K.C. Guthrie, tr.) Harvard University, 1986.
Paul Cloke and Ron Johnston, eds. ‘Spaces of geographical thought: deconstructing human geography’s binaries’. Sage, 2005.
Michael Curry. ‘Toward a geography of a world without maps: lessons from Ptolemy and postal codes’, p680-91 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v95 n3 (2005).
Richard Hartshorne. (1939) ‘The nature of geography: a critical survey of current thought in the light of the past’, in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v29 n3,4 (1939). Reprinted by the Association of American Geographers, 1961.
—————. (1959) ‘Perspective on the nature of geography’. The Association of American Geographers, 1959.
Kenichi Ohmae. ‘The rise of the region state’, p78-87 in Foreign Affairs, v72 n2 (1993 March-April).
Yi-Fu Tuan. ‘Language and the making of place: a narrative-descriptive approach’, p684-96 in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, v81 n4 (1991).
Derwent Whittlesey et al. ‘The regional concept and the regional method’, p19-68 in Preston E. James and Clarence F. Jones, eds. ‘American geography: inventory and prospect’. Syracuse University, 1954.


Home of the Stewardship Project
and O.T. Ford