Dividing the World


The World can be divided and classified in many ways. One of the most common ways to do this is to talk about nation-states. The usefulness of the concept state can hardly be denied, but when giving it more thought the prefix nation- raises the question of cultures and nations that do not follow the administrative lines between the states. This is something that should be kept in mind also when making other types of classifications. The practicality of making different groupings only highlights the need to realize these shortcomings.


In primary school children are taught the categorization of the seven continents as the basic building blocks of global geography: North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Oceania, Africa and the Antarctic. Continents seem obvious visual units and perhaps that is why their utility is seldom questioned. Lewis and Wigen argue that "there are many reasons to believe that the ... continental scheme ... obscures more than it reveals"(Lewis & Wigen 1997, 2-3).

The continental system was formalized in the nineteenth century and despite its European bias it has been exported to the rest of the world without provoking any major critical response (ibid, 30-32). Continents are often considered as solid land masses based on scientific studies. In reality the continents are vague concepts that are built not only on the basis of geography but also by using cultural arguments and aiming at political ends. A good example of this is the relationship between Europe and Asia, Eurasia being a concept uniting these two continents.

Taking a look at a world map the line going along Ural from North to South seems artificial. If we had not been taught this division I do not believe that many of us would end up drawing this line basing it on physical geography or on visual definition. Concentrating on the geographical dimension supports strongly the argument that Europe should be just a subcontinent of Asia, its peninsula. The argument that Europe is distinctive enough as a civilization to form a continent of its own is based on a cultural dimension and its significance in defining continents. At the same time it fails to recognize the cultural diversity in Asia and highlights the Eurocentrism of these concepts.

Taking culture as one of the defining variables would create an image of the continents as culturally homogenous units that differ from each other significantly. This is not only untrue but also against the principles based on geography that were first used when dividing the world into continents.

Supracontinental Blocks

Using geographical criteria is not the only way to divide the world. Well known and widely used supracontinental blocks are for instance the divisions like North-South, East-West and First World- Third World. The bisection into the West and to the non-West underlines the unity of the West but forgets that the only thing that non-Western societies have in common is the fact that they are not Western (Huntington 1996, p. 33).

It is surprising how seldom one really considers the concept of First World Eurocentric. A classification that is used frequently creates a situation where we do not question it. In this grouping capitalistic states were known as the First World and communistic states were referred to as the Second World. The rest of the world ended up being the Third world since not all the countries could fit into the first two categories. The only problem of these concepts is not the way they express the superiority of market oriented growth, but that they have been hopelessly outdated by the fall of communism and especially by the economic development of many states and regions in the so-called Third World. We cannot consider these countries as homogeneously backward and ignore the rapid economic growth experienced by some of them. One example of this could be a Third World country like Singapore compared to Portugal as part of the First World.

Contrasting North and South holds many of the same assumptions than the bisection presented above. These classifications are often used synonymously to refer to the Third World as the South and to the First World as the North. Former communistic countries are mostly considered to be part of the North. In a certain manner one can find at the same time both rigidity and flexibility in these concepts. They do not follow the development of the world and the need to find more complex concepts in order to understand reality. At the same time they succeed in leaving the boundaries of the North and the South flexible, which helps us to use these concepts on a more abstract level. In spite of the short-comings of bisections center-periphery and rich-poor I believe in the usefulness of these concepts over the ones mentioned above.


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