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WORLD REGION

 

O.T. FORD

 

A world region is a large primary division of the world used in higher education — originally in anthropology, but then also in geography and history, and as the basis for area studies. The world-regional model was meant in part as a replacement for the continental model as a way of organizing study, given the limitations of continents; continents are quite different from each other not just in size but in internal variability and coherence, particularly in the version in which the Old World is divided into Europe, Asia, and Africa. The world-regional model, by contrast, is defined by culture. While never explicit, the main cultural basis for world regions is the civilization. Conventionally, though, each world region is a group of countries; this by itself limits their coherence, since most large countries and even some small ones are internally diverse, and may have elements that are individually similar to different world regions, and yet the country is assigned wholly just to one. In a few cases, world regions are defined by intergovernmental organizations, which further limits their coherence. And all of the regions exhibit internal diversity in a variety of ways, though that is primarily a function of the scale; no region of that size can be uniform.

The standard elements of the world-regional model (shown below) include North America, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, Central Asia, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, and often the Caribbean, by those names; the remaining regions are some variation of a Russian sphere, and an Australia-Pacific region, with no standard names.

North America as a world region is simply the United States, Canada, and Greenland. The North American world region is defined partially by what it is not (Latin America), though using a country-based definition includes a wide border zone in which Spanish is spoken predominantly or even exclusively. Most of North America is Anglophone, economically advanced and prosperous, and dominated by Europeans; remaining aboriginal populations are small, and their cultures endangered. Greenland has little in common with the US and Canada as a whole, but much in common with their northernmost regions: Inuit culture and Arctic climate. Francophones are dominant in most of Québec and some adjacent areas. Western Christianity is by far the largest religion, divided between Protestant and Catholic. All three states are democratic.

— The Caribbean world region consists of all the Caribbean islands, and a few coastal countries associated with the islands for various reasons — Belize and most of Guiana, namely (Western) Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. The Spanish-speaking territories obviously have more in common with Latin America, the English-speaking territories more with North America. North American Standard English is not a common vernacular, though; English and French creoles are spoken natively by most residents of the former British colonies, and French creole is the main vernacular in Haiti. The smaller states are mostly stable parliamentary democracies. All of the Caribbean except Cuba is in the US economic sphere; Cuba is also the only non-democracy, though Haiti and Suriname are not stable in their democracies.

Latin America, as traditionally defined, is in fact Iberian America; it comprises the former mainland territories of the Spanish and Portuguese empires, but excludes the French territories (even though the “Latin” American idea was originally promoted by the French, to further their sphere of influence). The conventional Latin America includes all the countries from México south, excluding those in Guiana typically included in the Caribbean. Most of Latin America is Hispanophone, and local governments have been forced to a certain degree of creativity to instill the nation-state idea and its attendant loyalty in their subjects. Portuguese America in a political sense is simply Brazil, but Portuguese culture has also been an important factor in northern Uruguay. Owing to the common religion of Spain and Portugal, Latin America is almost entirely Catholic. In contrast to North America, Latin America has large populations maintaining aboriginal culture — Quechua (Inca), Nahuatl (Aztec), Mayan, and Tupi, among others, with Quechua and Aymara holding official status and a Tupi dialect, Guaraní, being the lingua franca of Paraguay.

Europe is essentially the European Union; as the EU has expanded, the conventional understanding of the European world region has expanded alike. It also includes countries that lie west of the eastern border of the EU. Most of these are culturally, politically, and economically similar to the EU members, particularly in the west: Norway, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Iceland, and the European microstates, all of which are part of the EU’s trade system. The European world region also conventionally includes the western Balkans — Albania and the former Yugoslavia. The European world region consists primarily of relatively-wealthy market economies and stable democracies. It is also home to most of the major colonial powers, and is thus culturally and politically connected to many other parts of the world. Eastern Christianity and Islam are traditional in much of the Balkans, but the rest of the region is Western Christian. The major language families in Europe are the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic branches of Indo-European, as well as Finno-Ugric.

— The Middle East and North Africa is the core of the Islamic world, and is predominantly Muslim. Cultural Arabia constitutes most of the world region; the other countries are Turkey, Israel, and Iran. The recognition of South Sudan as a separate country has left Sudan unambiguously a part of North Africa. Aside from Israeli Jews, the other main non-Muslims are Levantine Christians, mostly Arabic-speaking, among the few Christian populations whose religion does not trace back to European colonialism. Important language groups in the region include Semitic (Arabic and Hebrew), Iranian (Persian, Kurdish, and Baluchi), Turkic (Turkish and Azeri), and Berber. The region has few democracies, and most of the world’s remaining traditional absolute monarchies, though military rule has been common as well, and there are two open theocracies (Iran and ISIS). Oil production dominates the economy of many states, leading to disproportionate wealth; those states without oil tend to be poor by world standards. The struggle between liberal and reactionary ideals has taken place here most openly in recent years, as well as a sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shiite Islam that date in some form to the death of Muhammad.

Sub-Saharan Africa is exactly as it sounds, the continent of Africa south of the Saharan desert. Since the Sahara has served as an effective ecological and cultural barrier, Sub-Saharan Africa, while diverse internally, is fairly distinct from the rest of the Old World. Sub-Saharan Africa is dominated by the Niger-Congo language family; the Khoisan family is entirely within Sub-Saharan Africa, while the Nilo-Saharan and Afro-Asiatic families are partially in Sub-Saharan Africa, and partially in the Middle East and North Africa. Most of Sub-Saharan Africa was colonized by the Europeans: the British, French, Portuguese, Germans, Belgians, Italians, Dutch, and Spanish. English and French, and to a lesser extent Portuguese, are used as official dialects and linguae francae in most countries, though aboriginal linguae francae are also present throughout. Owing to the colonial history and present misgovernment, Sub-Saharan Africa is the least developed of the world regions. In the northernmost regions, Islam is the main religion; the rest of the region practices various forms of Christianity or local animisms. The Abyssinians are notable as a Christian population in Africa not converted by the Europeans.

— The Russian sphere was entirely in the Russian empire and the Soviet Union; all its countries were republics in the Soviet Union. In addition to Russia, it includes the other two East Slavic republics, Ukraine and Belarus, the three Caucasus republics, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, and Moldova. Russian is the lingua franca. Most of the population is Eastern Christian by heritage or current belief, the rest Muslim, though atheism is widespread throughout, owing to Soviet educational policies. Excluded from the standard Russian world region are the Baltics (having joined the EU, they are now considered part of the European world region) and the Central Asian republics. There are no stable democracies, though all except Azerbaijan have had their periods, and several are democratic at present; Russia and Belarus are notably not.

Central Asia consists primarily of five former Soviet republics, and entirely of former Russian-controlled territory. It is also almost exclusively Muslim, and heavily Turkic-speaking. The Turkic-dominated former Soviet republics are Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, Türkmenistan, and Kyrgyzstan. The last former Soviet republics is Tajikistan, dominated by Persian speakers. The last component is Afghanistan, divided among speakers of Pashto (an Iranian dialect), Persian, and Turkic. Russian is in wide use as a lingua franca, and as a native dialect for a notable minority, including some ethnic Turks. Only Kyrgyzstan has spent any significant time in democracy; the other former Soviet states have been largely autocratic. Afghanistan is partially under the theocratic Taliban, and partially under an emerging but flawed democracy.

South Asia is roughly identical to historical India, and thus a constituent of Indo-Asia. It shares the post-colonial boundaries of its component countries — India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka — and so is mostly former British territory. The Indo-Aryans, speaking Indic dialects descended from Sanskrit, are the dominant cultural group in every country save Bhutan. In southern India Dravidian dialects are spoken, in northwestern Pakistan Iranian dialects are spoken, with Sino-Tibetan dialects the last main component, in the northeast. Mughal rule led to a major Islamic presence in the region, in Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India as well; Tibetan Buddhists and Eastern Christians are present in some communities, but the majority population is Hindu. All countries (along with Afghanistan) are part of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), but since India and Pakistan are rivals and to some extent genuine enemies, SAARC has very little purchase.

East Asia is based, though not explicitly, on Sino-Asia; it is the region of influence of Chinese civilization — Chinese religion, Chinese vocabulary, and the Chinese script. The conventional East Asia consists of the countries of China, Japan, North and South Korea, and, if it is considered a separate country, Taiwan. In most versions, Mongolia is also included, though this is mostly a matter of location; Mongolian culture is not closely aligned with any larger spheres. Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan are democratic and industrialized; Mongolia is democratic, but developing. China is rapidly industrializing but remains an authoritarian state. North Korea is totalitarian and desperately poor. Most of the population speaks Sinitic dialects; also present are Tibeto-Burman, Turkic, and Tai dialects. The linguistic affiliations of Japanese, Korean, and Mongolian are all speculative. In addition to the pluralist Chinese religion (Confucianism, Taoism, Taoist Buddhism, ancestor worship), there are Muslim populations and two national religions: Shinto in Japan, and Juche in North Korea.

Southeast Asia in its standard form is identical to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with the exception of newly-recognized East Timor. Since the states/countries of ASEAN share little in common to begin with, other than location, and ASEAN is a very weak structure (as compared to the EU), Southeast Asia is probably the least justifiable of the world regions. Most of the mainland is Indo-Asian, specifically Buddhist; but cultural Vietnam is Sino-Asian (but also Buddhist). Insular Southeast Asia has had significant Indian, Islamic, Dutch, British, and Spanish influences; most of it is Muslim, but the Philippines is primarily Catholic. Mainland dialects are of the Tibeto-Burman, Tai-Kadai, and Mon-Khmer families; nearly all of insular Southeast Asia speaks one of many Malayo-Polynesian dialects. The region has seen consistent autocratic and even totalitarian rule; the only democracies at present are the Philippines, Indonesia, and East Timor.

— The Australia-Pacific world region consists of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, and all the smaller island groups of the Pacific. Australia and New Zealand (collectively, Australasia) are clearly distinct: Anglophone, European, advanced economies, stable parliamentary democracies. The Pacific has been divided by anthropologists into three main zones: Polynesia (east), Micronesia (northwest), and Melanesia (southwest). Only Polynesia is a coherent cultural region defined by language and history. While much of it is still governed from elsewhere, most of the independent states are stable democracies, but developing. In general, linguistic diversity is high. English Creole is frequently used as a lingua franca in Melanesia and Papua New Guinea.

 

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