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REGION

 

O.T. FORD

 

A region is any two-dimensional expanse on the surface of the Earth; in generic terms, ‘region’ is synonymous with ‘area’, ‘territory’, ‘zone’; for most purposes, on the surface of the Earth, it is synonymous with ‘place’ as well (excluding only those places that are simple coordinate locations, without extent).

Conventionally, regions have five properties:
— standardized
— authoritative
— exclusive and exhaustive
— hierarchical
— bounded

Standardized regions are the same in all circumstances; there is just one set of regions, used for all purposes. Authoritative regions are defined by some official source, which is presumed to have the authority to designate regions. Exclusive regions do not overlap with each other, and exhaustive regions cover all available space; exclusive and exhaustive regions thus fit together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Hierarchical regions nest inside of one another, so that the regions at one scale compose the regions at a broader scale and are composed of the regions at a narrower scale, just as counties compose states and states compose the United States. Bounded regions are contained on all sides by boundaries.

Any of these properties might be true of a given region or set of regions, and identifying regions of these sorts might be useful; but they are all problematic when taken to be the norm. Standardized regions allow for ease of comparison across subjects, and across time. But they also force us to consider subjects in one set of units that are better considered in a different set of units, perhaps identified specifically for that subject — looking at ecology through state borders instead of ecosystems, for example. And standardized regions give the impression of permanence and stasis in the world. Authoritative regions are an excellent idea if the authority is appropriate, but too often the authority is simply a government, or an organization claiming to be, and the regions identified do not clarify the problem as serve the government’s interests. Some things we might care to discuss are naturally exclusive, exhaustive, or hierarchical, but many are not, and forcing that framework on them distorts our understanding of reality.

Regions must be located on the surface of the Earth somehow; we must be able to say where a region lies. Conventionally this can only be done by identifying boundaries on all sides. Such bounded regions do exist; but we can also locate regions based on proximity to a central feature; these are radial regions. The central feature can be a point or a line, or it can even be a smaller region, and the region is all the space near the defining feature. Such definitions are therefore relative and possibly dependent on the scale, or even the person speaking. But not only does this reflect many vernacular usages, like metropolitan areas or the “Great Lakes region”, it also reflects the fact that what counts as “close” to a place, like a city, depends on what we’re talking about; commuting to a given downtown daily for work versus driving in occasionally for shopping or a football game.

Beyond the fact that regions are often identified with the five conventional characteristics, there is a lack of empiricism in the identification of regions in general. In other words, we do not identify regions with respect to facts, and often ignore facts entirely. The most important and commonly-used regions at the global scale are of this sort: countries, imaginary units of land that possess all the conventional properties and are (loosely) based on governmental control, but presumed to represent and capture all realities of our lives, including unconnected realities like culture.

For more: Parallel worlds: empirical region and place

 

© O.T. FORD

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