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Contributions of the geographers

Regional studies


A region is a homogeneous area with physical and cultural characteristics distinct from those of neighboring areas. As part of a national domain a region is sufficiently unified to have a consciousness of its customs and ideals and thus possesses a sense of identity distinct from the rest of the country. The term “regionalism” properly represents the regional idea in action as an ideology, as a social movement, or as the theoretical basis for regional planning; it is also applied to the scientific task of delimiting and analyzing regions as entities lacking formal boundaries.

Official status is given to regions in the statistics of countries like the United States, where the national census groups states and counties in statistical and economic areas. In the international sphere, a region may consist of a group of national states possessing a common culture, common political interests, and often a formal organization. Thus the Scandinavian countries, the Benelux nations (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg), and, in the Western Hemisphere, the Organization of American States (OAS) are true regional groupings (the OAS consists of North and South American states, with the exception of Canada).

In tracing the history of territorial integration, historians have placed little emphasis on ethnically or culturally homogeneous regions, tracing rather the cycle of conquest, aggregation, and empire building, and its antithesis of sectionalism, revolt, self-determination, and movements for national independence. In the Hellenistic world and during the Pax Romana larger cultural structures appeared—empires brought together by force. It was not until after the interregnum of feudalism that smaller political structures, in the form of modern nations, finally emerged from such empires. Regions thus appeared when national territories grew to large size, incorporated new domains, and began to adopt federal forms of government. In a highly centralized country like France, the origins of regionalism can be traced back to differences between historic provinces; it also represents a movement toward decentralization (Hintze 1934). In modern Italy and Germany unification laid the basis for regionalism—a trend accented by the increasing importance of economic differentials. Russia as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics faces most of the problems of ethnic, economic, and sectional differences. In Great Britain regionalism verges on localism, for it goes beyond the traditional differences between England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, extending to the imponderable distinguishing characteristics of such subregions as Wessex, Sussex, and Yorkshire, which have been best portrayed in literature. In its extreme form, regionalism may result in separatism. Regions involved in such conflict are commonly referred to as “sections”; and sectionalism may culminate in self-determination, secession, and independent nationalism, as it did for the Irish Free State. If the movement is crushed, the section may again assume the status of a constituent region, as did the South after the American. Civil War.

As concepts utilized in social science, region and regionalism appear at some midpoint between the community and the nation. Whereas formal boundaries delimit the jurisdiction of political units, if basic regions are to be delimited, social scientists must concern themselves with social realities—demographic and economic. Regionalization is thus a heuristic device undertaken to advance analysis, planning, and administration; it is a common thread that runs through studies of regionalism by diverse disciplines. Regions can thus be regarded as building blocks making up the structure of the larger sociocultural area. The term “subregion” is usually applied to the next unit in descending order, but analysts also use such terms as tract, precinct, center, zone, district, and province.

Region and regionalism are topics common to all the social sciences, and contributions to theory and method in this area have come from both the physical and the social sciences, including biology. Certain evolutionary biologists, for example, hold views at variance with most psychologists about the man-land relationship. Any exegesis of regionalism is likely to prove a gloss on Aristotle’s dictum that man is a political animal. To this is added the corollary that man is by nature a territorial animal. To agree, however, that all behavior patterns observed in man’s political and societal structure are potential in human nature has not proved sufficient to satisfy the more ardent social Darwinists. The association of fighting and rage responses of insects, rodents, birds, and mammals (especially the higher apes) with the defense of territory against invaders of the same species has been demonstrated in a series of biological studies. Man, by species, evolution, and survival, it is contended, has fixed and retained these drives. In the present revival of conflict theory, a work such as Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative (1966) represents a return to the instinct hypothesis—in this instance, a supposed compulsion to hold and defend territory. Citing recent biological studies, Ardrey bases his theory of the “territorial imperative” on the hypothesis that lower species have an instinct to defend definite and precise boundaries. He then extends this hypothesis to explain the foundation of the national state, patriotism, and the universal prevalence of war. Few psychologists or social scientists now welcome a return to the instinct hypothesis as an explanation equally applicable to the varied phenomena associated with localism, feudalism, nationalism, sectionalism, regionalism, and community spirit. To many the jump from animal instinct to human social organization is made by ignoring much of the work done by students of social structure.

Thus the areal approach to the analysis of society poses a stark reality underlying many of the interpretations made by social scientists. According to economic analysis, the primitive “sustentation area,” anchored to the soil and water complex, set boundaries to social interaction and thus both aided in developing social types and, by forcing inbreeding, developed physical types among the inhabitants. In modern society, power, administration, social consensus, and policy determination appear inseparably linked to areas. Moreover, in the localization of resources, industry, and finance, and in the tie-in of lines of transportation to economic centers, the economic order parallels the political at all levels—from the international level to that of the component elements of states and provinces. If territorial groups did not exist, political organization would have to call them into being in order to function. The sociologist develops his specialty around social groups; these groups converge and are organized around interests—locality being a major interest. Society itself is seen as a group of groups. The territorial basis develops as a major social interest at any group level, and below the national level this interest can be seen as focusing on the section or the region. As other interests, such as those of social class or occupational group, gain importance, the regional interest may recede.

Contributions of the geographers

Geographers provided the initial impetus to regional studies. Rigorous and precise analyses of areas are to be found in the works of physical geographers, who are devoted to the integration of the findings of such specialties as climatology, physiography, soil science, and ecology. Geography set the mode of analysis early for differentiating world regions, as exemplified by the work of the French human geographers Paul Vidal de la Blache (1922) and Jean Brunhes. The point of view of the new cultural geography was well stated by Vidal de la Blache in 1903:

A region is a reservoir of energy whose origin lies in nature but whose development depends upon man. It is man, who, by molding the land to his own purposes, brings out its individuality. He establishes a connection between its separate features. He substitutes for the incoherent effect of local circumstances a systematic concourse of forces. It is thus that a region defines and differentiates itself and becomes as it were a medal struck off in the effigy of a people. (Lavisse 1903, p. 8)

It was natural that geography, with its emphasis on the analysis of land forms, should have proceeded from the natural to the cultural landscape. Dynamic assessment of the interaction of life forms and their habitats was first applied to biotic areas of indigenous plant and animal life and later to human-use regions seen as basically economic [see Ecology, article on Human Ecology.] Areal analysis was thus held by some to be a function of the new ecology—plant, animal, and human. The full turn was made when culture and technology were given rein in the modern power complex, and, following G. P. Marsh, the regional phenomenon was viewed in terms of man’s role in changing the face of the earth (International Symposium …1956).

Regional studies

Like the concept of space in philosophy, region as an idea general to all the social sciences has suffered from vagueness and thus from a too easy identification with any and all territorial units. The regional concept will contribute to the social sciences only if greater precision is introduced in its use. Recognizing this need, the Committee on Regionalism of the Association of American Geographers has distinguished between two types of regions—uniform and nodal. Uniform regions are homogeneous throughout, whereas nodal regions are homogeneous only with respect to internal structure or organization. The structure of the nodal region has a focal area, and the surrounding areas are tied to it by lines of circulation—communication and transportation (Whittlesey 1954, pp. 36–37). Uniform areas prevail when the physical environment is the important factor and agriculture is the prevailing mode of economy. Nodal regions appear with increased technology and the growth of large-scale transportation, wholesale distribution, finance, and manufacturing; in such regions metropolises perform the central work of the economy. An analysis of homogeneous regions and focal center areas, using the 67 metropolitan regions of the United States, showed almost no agreement between the boundaries of the two types of regions (Bogue 1957). Nevertheless, it seems clear from the same study that the uniform region and the nodal region concepts present equally valid and important ways of viewing the structure and processes prevailing in an inhabited territory.

The next problem in need of analysis concerns the interrelations between these regional units. According to one viewpoint, the structure of national societies has developed as a complex of metropolitan regions, each consisting of its own constellation of communities. This view has been variously supported by, for example, N. S. B. Gras, an economic historian; Robert L. Dickerson, the British geographer; and R. D. McKenzie and Donald Bogue, American sociologists. As metropolitan areas expand, they may eventually form a continuous urban-strip region. This type of region ?—called the “megalopolis“—has been analyzed by Gottmann (1961) in his study of the 43 contiguous metropolitan areas stretching from Boston, Massachusetts to Washington, D.C. Such an area makes new problems for the regional analyst. For example, the intense competition of closely placed centers points to the lack of regional unity. Moreover, it is difficult to assign hinterlands to these metropolises, when they are viewed as nodal regions. Because of the high population density of the megalopolis, its components stand in need of regionalurban planning of a type as yet undeveloped.

Von Thiinen’s work on the isolated state (1826–1863) put location and spatial analysis in the forefront of accepted economic theory. Walter Christaller (1933) developed central place theory, a type of analysis which, strangely enough, had been undertaken by Charles Galpin in his work (1915) on rural communities in Walworth County, Wisconsin. The “place-work-folk” formulation of Le Play and the “valley section” of Victor Branford and Patrick Geddes brought social organization and advanced planning into the analysis of regional relationships. Culture area studies, carried forward under the leadership of Clark Wissler, utilized the location of physical and social traits to reconstruct regional cultures and their diffusion. Wissler’s (1926) work on North American Indians was supplemented by Melville Herskovits’ (Bascom & Herskovits 1959) culture area analysis of indigenous Africa. Regional studies, cultural in the best tradition, are also found in the work of the American geographer Carl O. Sauer and in Isaiah Bowman’s (1931) analysis of “pioneer belts.”

It should be pointed out that the logic of regional study contravenes that of orthodox science: “Western science has been developed by specialization along lines of problem complexes or by abstraction and isolation of certain significant and meaningful ’aspects’ of the chaotic reality. The social sciences are no exception to this principle…. The aim is always the establishment of general principles, not the description of a single concrete society” (Heberle 1943, pp. 281–282). In regional analysis, phenomena are studied and related simply because they converge within a given area to affect the economy and culture of the particular societies. The regional survey, however, proceeds beyond a catalogue of traits into the analysis of an interacting system. Since causation cannot always be made explicit, such surveys often remain more descriptive than systematic—a fact which does not deny their usefulness.

Regional studies can be placed along an ascending scale of complexity, depending on the level of integration of variables. First, regions may be delimited on the basis of one variable: for example, the laying out of market areas and areas of wholesale distribution. Second, regions may be delimited on the basis of a complex of related variables, thus coming closer to cultural-areal reality. At the third level is the complex regional study that is developed in historical depth; it is calculated to show the functional unity of cultural, economic, and social traits of the region, as in W. P. Webb’s The Great Plains (1931). Finally, interregional comparison furnishes an areal-cultural frame of reference for developing general theory about man, culture, or economy. [SeeCulture Area.]

Regionalism in the United States

In the United States, regional studies have flourished under various auspices: regional science, area studies, American studies, literary regionalism, studies of administrative and planning regions, history, and sociology. Despite the fact that New England’s regional economy and culture was an early development, it was not studied as a region, nor was New York, as long as both were accepted as the expression of the national pattern. When New England lost its hegemony, Seymour Harris wrote The Economics of New England. When the regional approach first appeared, it emanated from the West and the South, led in academic circles by Frederick Turner (1925) and Howard W. Odum (1909–1954; 1936).

Turner, a distinguished historian of the West, developed doctrines of the frontier, the section, and sectionalism, all of which undercut the continuity of the European cultural tradition in America, particularly the European concept of “undivided nationalism.” As the frontier matured, it became a distinct section, admitted to the Union but bent upon the pursuit of its own political and economic interests. Keenly aware of such developing differences, Turner viewed the United States as a sectional amalgam, something like a concert of European nations united in conflict, compromise, and adjustment. States rights, he held, functioned as the constitutional shield for sectional demands.

Odum was a sociologist whose work was devoted to the problems of the South, including its lack of development and its strong sectionalism. As an alternative to sectionalism, he proposed a regionalism that would give precedence to national values. Odum thus advocated regional-national planning that would enable all areas to participate and benefit equally from the nation’s resources, its capital wealth, and its social and political organization. He believed that the development of regional-national integration was necessary to the nation’s survival.

Critics have pointed out certain limitations in regionalism, and it is true that, at its most superficial level, it approaches the method of the cataloguer. For example, the early geographers sought only to determine and list the geographic relationships and influences existing in the region; the criterion of a successful report was the number of traits catalogued. Moreover, the abandonment of the doctrine of determinism appeared to rule out the search for causation, and thus the cultural region and the physical region appeared juxtaposed but unrelated. In the early 1900s, economic and social differentials gave impetus to studies of regional equilibrium and integration, but as development furthered the trend toward economic equality, the obliteration of rural-urban differences, and the diffusion of a uniform culture, the basis for both regional analysis and regional ideology, appeared to diminish. Today, however, the problems of the newly independent, underdeveloped countries accent, as never before, the basic differentials in the status of world regions. The emerging problems inherent in international stratification highlight pressing dilemmas in population policy and regional-national planning (Lagos Matus 1963). Unfortunately, however, these problems are now concealed in the ideological conflict between communism and the Western world. During the era of expanding colonial empires, European scientists made excellent cultural and regional surveys of colonial areas preliminary to planning and development. Few such surveys are being made today; instead, reliance is placed on political dogmas. Thus supersensitive ex-colonials often expend aid funds to no appreciable economic advantage. The first of the new nations to return to the pragmatism of the older regionalism may prove the first to break out of this ideological impasse.

Rupert B. Vance

[Directly related are the entriesCentral Place; Environmentalism; Regional Science; Rural Society; Social Darwinism. Other relevant material may be found inBureaucracy; City, article onThe Modern City; Geography; Planning, Social, article onRegional And Urban Planning; Transportation, article onSocial Aspects; and in the biographies ofBowman; Geddes; Gras; Le Play; Marsh; Odum;, Sauer; TÜnen; Trotter; Turner; Vldal Dela Blache; Wlssler.]


Ardrey, Robert 1966 The Territorial Imperative: A Personal Inquiry Into the Animal Origins of Property and Nations. New York: Atheneum.

Bascom, William R.; and Herskovits, Melville J. (editors) (1959) 1962 Continuity and Change in African Cultures. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Bertrand, Alvin L. 1952 Regional Sociology as a Special Discipline. Social Forces 31:132–136.

Bogue, Donald J. 1949 The Structure of the Metropolitan Community: A Study of Dominance and Subdomi-nance. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies. Bogue, Donald J. 1957 Nodal Versus Homogeneous Regions, and Statistical Techniques for Measuring the Influence of Each. International Statistical Institute, Bulletin 35, no. 4:377–392.

Bogue, Donald J.; and Beale, Calvin L. 1961 Economic Areas of the United States. New York: Free Press.

Bowman, Isaiah 1931 The Pioneer Fringe. New York: American Geographical Society.

Christaller, Walter 1933 Die zentralen Orte in Süddeutschland: Eine ökonomisch—geographische Unter-suchung iiber die Gesetzmässigkeit der Verbreitung und Entwicklung der Siedlungen mit stadtischen Funktionen. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

Dickinson, Robert E. (1947) 1956 City Region and Regionalism: A Geographical Contribution to Human Ecology. London: Routledge.

Duncan, Otis Dudley et al. 1960 Metropolis and Region. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Galpin, Charles J. 1915 The Social Anatomy of an Agricultural Community. Research Bulletin No. 34. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin, Agricultural Experiment Station.

Galpin, Charles J. 1918 Rural Life. New York: Century.

Gottmann, Jean (1949) 1955 L’Amérique. Paris: Hachette.

Gottmann, Jean (1961) 1964 Megalopolis: The Urbanized Northeastern Seaboard of the United States. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Hall, Robert B. 1947 Area Studies: With Special Reference to Their Implications for Research in the Social Sciences. Pamphlet No. 3. New York: Social Science Research Council.

Harris, Seymour 1952 The Economics of New England: Case Study of an Older Area. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Heberle, Rudolf 1943 Regionalism: Some Critical Observations. Social Forces 21:280–286.

Hintze, Hedwig 1934 Regionalism. Volume 13, pages 208–218 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan.

International Symposium On Man’s Role In Changing The Face Of The Earth, Princeton, N.J., 2955 1956 Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. Edited by William L. Thomas et al. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Lagos Matus, Gustavo 1963 International Stratification and Underdeveloped Countries. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Lavisse, Ernest 1903 Histoire de France depuis les origines jusqu’à la Révolution. Volume 1, Part 1: Tableau de la géographie de la France, by Paul Vidal de la Blache. Paris: Hachette.

LÖsch, August (1940) 1954 The Economics of Location. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → First published as Die räumliche Ordnung der Wirtschaft.

Meyer, J. R. 1963 Regional Economics: A Survey. American Economic Review 53:19–54.

Mukerjee, Radhakamal 1926 Regional Sociology. New York: Century.

Odum, Howard W. (1909–1954) 1964 Folk, Region, and Society: Selected Papers. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press. → Organized to present Odum’s sociological system. Contains a bibliography and a biographical sketch. Published posthumously.

Odum, Howard W. (1936) 1943 Southern Regions of the United States. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

Odum, Howard W.; and Moore, Harry E. 1938 American Regionalism: A Cultural-Historical Approach to National Integration. New York: Holt.

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Subbabao, B. 1958 Regions and Regionalism in India. Economic Weekly 10:1215–1220.

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Vance, Rupert B. 1945 All These People: The Nation’s Human Resources in the South. Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press.

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re·gion / ˈrējən/ • n. an area or division, esp. part of a country or the world having definable characteristics but not always fixed boundaries: one of the region's major employers the equatorial regions a major wine-producing region. ∎  an administrative district of a city or country. ∎  a part of the body, esp. around or near an organ: an unexpected clenching sensation in the region of her heart. ∎ fig. the sphere or realm of something: his work takes needlework into the region of folk art. PHRASES: in the region of approximately: annual sales in the region of $30 million. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French, from Latin regio(n-) ‘direction, district,’ from regere ‘to rule, direct.’

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region †kingdom, realm; tract of country. division of the world XIV; part or division of the air, a city, the body XVI. — (O)F. région — L. regiō, -ōn- direction, line, boundary, quarter, district, province, f. regere direct, guide, rule; see -ION.
So regional (-AL1) XVII. — late L.

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regionabrasion, Australasian, equation, Eurasian, evasion, invasion, occasion, persuasion, pervasion, suasion, Vespasianadhesion, cohesion, Friesian, lesion •circumcision, collision, concision, decision, derision, division, elision, envision, excision, imprecision, incision, misprision, precisian, precision, provision, scission, vision •subdivision • television • Eurovision •LaserVision •corrosion, eclosion, erosion, explosion, implosion •allusion, collusion, conclusion, confusion, contusion, delusion, diffusion, effusion, exclusion, extrusion, fusion, illusion, inclusion, interfusion, intrusion, obtrusion, occlusion, preclusion, profusion, prolusion, protrusion, reclusion, seclusion, suffusion, transfusion •Monaghan • Belgian •Bajan, Cajun, contagion, TrajanGlaswegian, legion, Norwegian, region •irreligion, religion •Injun • Harijan • oxygen • antigen •sojourn • donjon • Georgian •theologian, Trojan •Rügen •bludgeon, curmudgeon, dudgeon, gudgeon, trudgen •dungeon • glycogen • halogen •collagen • Imogen • carcinogen •hallucinogen • androgen •oestrogen (US estrogen) •hydrogen • nitrogen •burgeon, sturgeon, surgeon

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