views updated





Social scientists looking for an organizing principle with which to understand a large area of social life have long employed broad concepts aimed at integrating complex observations and categories of social behavior. One such concept that has demonstrated broad utility is that of regions. Its application has been great in sociology, history, political analysis, economics, geography, and anthropology. In turn, each of these disciplines has contributed something to the understanding of regions.

During the first half of the twentieth century the study of urban sociology grew strongly, and a major center of this research and theorizing was the sociology department at the University of Chicago. Scholars such as Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, Louis Wirth, and Roderick D. McKenzie developed innovative research projects and interpretations of the human community. Their emphasis overall was on the urban community, and a significant aspect of their work elaborated an ecological conception of the region as an extension of the study of the community.

The ecological approach studies human beings as organisms adapting to a physical environment. Using concepts originally developed in plant and animal ecology, these sociologists focused on the spatial patterns and social organization of the community that resulted from competition for space and available resources in a geographical locale. The approach became distinctively sociological through its focus on social organization, role specialization, population concentration and centralization, and interdependence resulting from differing economic activities. Age and sex distributions are affected by ecological interactions, as is the distribution of various groupings by ethnicity and race. These stratified orders are a salient aspect of the social organization of the human community, and a significant source of these patterns lies in the realm of ecological relationships.

This approach has significant ties with demography, or the statistical study of human population aggregates, and human geography, particularly economic geography, with its attention to the physical factors that determine strategic points of location for commerce and industry. Human ecologists devote great attention to concentration, or increasing density of a population in an area, which often becomes regional concentration. Thus, regional development has its origins in population growth and movement and the tendency of people to concentrate.


The classic conception of the region as taking one of four forms was developed by Louis Wirth, a prominent member of the Chicago school of sociology. His scholarship approached the region as an area distinguished by physical characteristics, such as the type of soil, annual and seasonal amounts and patterns of rainfall, length of growing season, crops grown, and border contours. Here the region is a recognizable physical area in relation to human activities carried on within, or limited by, the contours of the place inhabited or utilized. Wirth continues his analysis of the region by giving attention to areal variations in cultural features of the people who make the region their home. Cultural attributes such as language or local dialects, distinctive religious beliefs and practices, customs in dress, architectural patterns, and unique customs and forms of social organization are considered here. He concludes that either natural areas or cultural areas comprise regions, due to the homogeneity of specific features.

Wirth distinguishes a second form of region set off from other areas by physical features that serve as barriers to migration. These barriers may be mountain ranges, deserts, lakes, rivers, and oceans, or large protected valleys. He also viewed barriers created by human beings as equally powerful. These can include state and national boundaries as well as trade and custom regulations that inhibit or prevent contact between geographical locales and operate to limit the activities of an area and isolate it from surrounding areas.

The third form of region analyzed by Wirth emphasized the interdependence of activities in an area. Activities and units of organization are not homogeneous or necessarily similar, but are integrated as a way of life. This third pattern is likely to involve a trade area with a network of economic linkages with multiple radii of influence extending from a trade center outward. Examples of this third variation of the region are political capitals, cultural centers, colonial primate cities, and in the modern era, the metropolitan region with its urban center. These forms of centered regions frequently have fewer discernible boundaries, with the periphery gradually shading into a vast hinterland, or in some instances, a borderland receiving influence from a competing center or area of dominance. This third form of the region is likely to be less bound by local traditions and is likely to be dynamic, with the life activities of the regions inhabitants in flux.

The fourth type of region is referred to by Wirth as an administrative region or ad hoc region. It often develops in an attempt to control some human problem such as crime, traffic, slum life, or contagious disease. Units of administration are created in order to ameliorate or, at minimum, set limits to the growth of one or more problems of a community. The planning region is likely to take form in a manner that does not coincide with a natural or physically bounded area. The New York Port Authority and Tennessee Valley Authority serve as illustrations of this fourth form of the region.

It should be noted that each of these types of region involves an areal and a spatial dimension in relation to the distribution of people and social behavior. The organized social behavior of human beings is analyzed in terms of location and position in some form of physical, cultural, or social utilization of space. Wirth cautions that none of the conceptions of the regions implies a form of geographical or physical determinism. Soil and atmosphere do not determine culture and social organization. In contrast, some of the previous writings on regionalism took physical determinism for granted and might have reflected earlier viewpoints asserting a close connection between habitat and economic and political activity.


The concept of the region should be clearly separated from sectionalism, which implies organization and political consciousness based on the economic and political interests of a geographical area in a nation. In the United States, and during periods in the history of some European nations, sectional interests have been based on the natural resources of a geographical region. Historical interpretations of sectionalism incline toward a form of economic determinism. The presence of sectional interests and consciousness do point to the manner in which regional organization, and the similarity of a regions qualities, can lead to conflict between regions. The American Civil War was an extreme example of sectional conflict based in part on regional conflict and differing economic interests, along with differing culture and way of life. Regional differences in ethnicity and racial identification, industrial development, types of agriculture, interests in tariff and trade policy, and military traditions were involved in a regional conflict of catastrophic proportions in the War between the States. A result was long-term domination by the North over the South in political and economic relations that followed the conflict.

There is no shortage of conflicts in the world at large in which regional differences play a large role. The domination of Tibet by China is a striking example in Asia. Through centuries the strategic location of Tibet between East, South, and Central Asia made it a focus of contention between more powerful rival empires. Nonetheless, its extreme difficulty of access enabled Tibet to live in isolation through most of its history. It was governed by a series of aristocratic families and became the religious center of Lamaistic Buddhism.

After the victory of the Chinese Communists over the Nationalists in 1949, the victors announced plans to liberate Tibet and secure Chinas traditional boundaries. The Peking government acted on its threat in 1950, attacking in Eastern Tibet. After appeals for support that were ignored or rebuffed, Chinese terms were accepted in 1951. Chinese sovereignty was recognized, in exchange for assurances of broad Tibetan autonomy. The Chinese soon widened their administrative control and in response Tibets people rose up in revolt in 1956, and again in 1959. After the Dalai Lama was forced to flee to India, the Chinese crushed the rebellion. In 1965 Tibet became an Autonomous Region of the Peoples Republic of China. This sequence of events represents an example of a more powerful nation exerting domination over a smaller, less powerful region near its border.

Governance in Spain represents another illustration of strains between regions within a nation containing historical regional-based divisions in language and culture. A part of the basis for representation is regional variation in interest. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Spains senate, composed of 256 members, includes 46 members chosen by regional governments. Earlier, during the 1980s, Catalonia and the Basque Provinces had begun asking for greater autonomy, as well as the official use of Catalan and the Basque languages in their respective provinces. The Basque separatists were defeated politically in 1994. When the major Catalonian terrorist group renounced violence in 1991, Catalonias president was given an influential position in the Spanish government.

Italy represents another example of a nation with major regional divisions based on natural resources, economic development, local custom, and dialects, as well as other regional subcultural differences. In this case, the northern region of Italy is largely dominant over the south.

Northern Italy includes the Italian Alps, a northern plain, and the region of Liguria, on the steep and narrow coastline of the Ligurian Sea. The northern plain of Italy, south of the Alps, is an extended lowland that benefits from an abundant water supply from rainfall and the regions rivers. Summers are long, farmlands are fertile, and there is a heavy concentration of industry. The large city of Genoa provides services to the industries of Lombardy, as well as hosting local enterprises that include chemical firms, shipbuilders, and oil refineries. Genoas oil pipelines penetrate into Switzerland and Germany.

Central Italy includes the regions of Tuscany, Umbria, Latium, and Marche. This area has contributed very strongly to Western civilization. The peninsula is highly urbanized, with centers such as Rome, though industry is not highly developed. Farther south, the islands of Sicily and Sardinia have no notable resources; their terrain is rugged, and droughts as well as floods are frequent. These islands are also physically more isolated, and despite attempts at development following World War II, industrial growth has been slow. These conditions have meant that economically, the north of Italy has been dominant, with population migration more frequently directed at the northern cities. Social mobility has increased in recent years with population movement from villages into cities, and particularly from the south to the more industrialized north.

World development can also be seen from the perspective of large regional variations in industrial development and political influence. Colonialism has had an overarching influence on large world areas. European influence in North America, New Zealand, and Australia resulted in the domination of small groupings of traditional hunters and gatherers, or in some instances, pastoral societies. European settlements became dominant, and long-term colonial administrative relations were established. In large areas in southern portions of the globein Africa, Asia, and South Americathe autochthonous, or native, populations remained numerically predominant, but under colonial rule.

These latter areas have experienced much slower industrial development than North America, the Western and Northern European capitalist centers, or Australia and New Zealand. In recent years, conditions in some of the impoverished regions of the South have actually deteriorated. Poverty is extremely widespread in the former colonial areas: In the year 2000, an estimated 1.5 billion people, nearly a quarter of the worlds population, lived in poverty in developing countries around the world. An estimated half of the global poor live in Asia, and around one-third live in Africa, with many of the remaining portion of the worlds impoverished people living in Central and South America. These statistics are now frequently seen as reflecting a worldwide division between North and Southa division that is perhaps world historys greatest regional variation, with the largest human consequences.

SEE ALSO Development in Sociology; Geography; Globalization, Social and Economic Aspects of; Nationalism and Nationality


Caudill, Harry M. 1963. Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area. Boston: Little, Brown.

Giddens, Anthony, Mitchell Duneier, and Richard P. Applebaum. 2005. Introduction to Sociology. 5th ed. New York: Norton.

Hawley, Amos H. 1950. Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. New York: Ronald Press.

Hawley, Amos H. 1981. Urban Society: An Ecological Approach. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley.

Macionis, John J., and Vincent N. Parrillo. 2007. Cities and Urban Life. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice-Hall.

McKenzie, Roderick D. 1968. The Scope of Human Ecology. In Roderick D. McKenzie on Human Ecology, ed. Amos H. Hawley, 19-32. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Palen, J. John. 2005. The Urban World. 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Pious, Richard M. 1998. IndiaSeychelles. Vol. 2 of Governments of the World: A Student Companion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Saunders, William S., ed. 2005. Sprawl and Suburbia: A Harvard Design Magazine Reader. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Wirth, Louis. 1964. On Cities and Social Life, ed. Albert J. Reiss Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Kenneth N. Eslinger

About this article


Updated About content Print Article