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Countries in question and human geography

Questionner les états en géographie humaine
Kevin Cox


Les états constituent un aspect important de la géographie mondiale, qui semble cependant négligé par les spécialistes de géographie humaine. Quelques règles de base permettant de construire l'étude des pays sont énoncées, ainsi que des propositions pour leur théorisation.

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1Few would dispute that countries are major features of the geography of the world; they condition and they are conditioned. But compared with the writing on, say, cities and urbanization, the geographic literature on countries and the formation of countries is extremely thin. Certainly geographic research is always contextualized with respect to the specificities of the country where it is taking place. But that is almost the limit. Geographers have written books on countries but ‘country’ whether it be France or the United States, typically acts as little more than a frame for a discussion of its internal geography: its economic geography, its regional geography, and so on.

2Other social sciences have shown more interest. Political scientists are as fond of writing studies of the politics of contemporary China as the economists are of talking about its distinctive political economy. There is also a long tradition of comparative studies, using countries as observational units. But these only serve to underline the disinterest of geographers. This is because they typically lack any serious sense of how a geographic imagination could shed light on their objects of inquiry; how countries need to be placed in wider geographic and geohistoric contexts; how the internal geographic structuring of a country is important for what it is, for its contradictory development and how that development in turn reacts on that differentiation; and how countries are important as frameworks for development in the same way as cities are. When they talk about countries, economists, sociologists and so on are, quite bluntly, lost in the wilderness; they need help.

3Beyond these considerations, countries pose questions of profoundly geographic importance. They clearly bear on the question of geographic differentiation: the particularity of places across all dimensions of social life. And as the interest in globalization has shown, there are also questions of interconnection and how that interconnection affects the particularity of countries: do outside influences tend to homogenize, as in ideas of Americanization; do they tend to refract outside influences in distinctive ways; or do they even reinforce difference? On the other hand, how do countries contribute to the production of the rest of the world? What sense are we to make of those cases where a label like apartheid, originating in a particular country, then circulates and gets applied to other countries so that one can talk of American apartheid or Israel as an apartheid society?

4A first step is to think about countries as objects of geographic investigation and what that entails. We need some basic assumptions. There are at least three of these.

  1. The first is that countries are what David Harvey has called ‘permanences’ (1996: 81-82): over long periods of time they are transitory, shifting in their form, sometimes dissolving, sometimes coming into being. We treat them as permanent features of the political landscape, but they are not.

  2. The second is that in examining these processes, we have to situate countries dialectically with respect to all other aspects of the social process, including their geography. Furthermore, the social process is now global in character which means, when we talk about countries, discussions of geographic divisions of labor, of colonialism and neo-colonialism, of what has been called ‘combined and uneven development’, and of global forms of communication and cultural dissemination. These different aspects develop in contradictory ways so that the formation, re-formation and disintegration of countries is typically marked by social struggle.

  3. Finally, it will help if we recognize their historical status. Although we talk about ancient Gaul, the ancient Gauls themselves would have had no idea of being part of a country. Countries as we know them today are, to paraphrase Hobsbawm when talking about the closely related idea of nation “not, as Bagehot thought, ‘as old as history.’ The modern sense of the word is no older than the eighteenth century, give or take the odd predecessor” (1990: 3.) Much is owing to the revolutions in social relations, communication, and politics wrought by capitalism even while the absolutist states of the seventeenth and eighteenth century had played a role in creating the preconditions.

5These assumptions help direct attention to the intellectual resources that might help in developing an understanding of countries and their implications for geography. Two names that come to mind, even while their interest in countries as I have outlined it here, has been only marginal, are those of Doreen Massey and David Harvey. Massey is particularly good on helping us understand the particularity of countries while Harvey helps us see how, nevertheless, they are all expressions of a single and global process. Bringing their contributions together then deepens our understanding further.

6A major strand in Doreen Massey’s thinking was the way in which places and regions were composed by the coming together of influences and conditions with very disparate geographies. Places for Massey were the result of the working out of particular conjunctures of influences from elsewhere and other times, of conditions of a more global character, as well as of local historical legacies. These various influences and conditions might then be the basis for new forms of social structure, hybrid or emergent forms, which would alter a place’s historical trajectory (1999a; 1999b; 2005.)

  • 1 See in particular, Harvey (1985.)

7In Harvey’s work the particularity of places plays a rather subordinate role. It is, though, not difficult to see what the implications of his position might be. Fundamental to his vision is the accumulation process and how it plays itself out over space.1 Accumulation though, depends on conditions of a highly diverse nature: institutions, technologies, relations with nature, divisions of labor, power relations, discourses which can be adapted to the purpose of legitimating capitalist practice, relations to space and much more (Harvey 2010: Chapter 5.) The upshot for Harvey was the emergence of what he called ‘a territorial structured coherence’: a structure of internally related parts involving all aspects of the social process which facilitated the accumulation projects of capitalists where for things to be internally related, means that they cannot be understood apart from one another; the division of labor is always social, spatial, institutional as well as justified discursively, for example (Harvey 1996: Chapter 3.)

8Central to the formation of a structured coherence are capitals but also states, and these give a structured coherences their territorial forms, typically, I want to argue, in the form of a country. Structured coherences are inevitably highly particularized; France is different from the US, and so forth. But Harvey did not comment on what might account for their highly diverse nature. It is here that Massey is helpful. Structured coherences have to be seen in terms of what is brought together, assembled, re-arranged and transformed in creating the necessary conditions for capitalist development. It is indeed specific to the particular space that will eventually become a ‘country’: it is a result of particular geohistorical conditions and legacies, of relations to nature, class relations, divisions of labor, connections with other parts of the world, and the struggles, class, gender, territorial struggles, over national institutions, the place of religion, of the countryside and so much more: a chance juxtaposition of events, conditions, forces, therefore, generating new structures of social relations, new coalitions of forces, new objects of struggle, and new means through which those struggles can be fought to an uneasy conclusion.

  • 2 While extensive, the gold bearing reefs discovered in South Africa in 1886, lay at a considerable d (...)

9In sum: Countries are very modern creations. They are the product of the logics of capitalist development. But this has been a capitalist development which had to construct the conditions of its existence on the basis of what was available culturally, institutionally, discursively, and so much more. And what was and has been available has to be imagined in terms of time-space relations – reaching out- or inwards to particular places at particular times, and both materially and discursively. Countries, therefore, are inevitably particular but it is a particularity that is compatible with, that does not challenge, that even facilitates the capitalist development process. State forms like those of the US on the one hand and the West European countries on the other may appear different, but they function in very similar ways with respect to managing the class relation and promoting capitalist development. It is a specifically capitalist particularity and as the accumulation process has changed – new hegemonic powers in the world, new globalizations – so have countries as their particularities get combined with new influences and reworked. Even the most odious of particularities have to be seen in this light: from the standpoint of its gold mining industry and the need to make it profitable in uncongenial geological circumstances, apartheid worked and secured a profitable position for South Africa in the international division of labor.)2 And apartheid defined South Africa as a country.

10To say that it has worked does not mean that (capitalist) particularity works with equal effectiveness everywhere. Different countries have been ‘the sick men’ – never the sick women apparently – of Europe. Great Britain has been in relative decline for a long time while the ascent of, say, South Korea has been remarkable. This suggests that in thinking about countries further, and how particularity has been absorbed and reworked by the logics of the global political economy, theories of combined and uneven development will be useful. The idea of ‘combination’, of borrowing from other countries and the subsequent encounter of those borrowings with what already exists in a country is central to this conception and allows us to develop further the argument outlined here.

11There are limits to this understanding of countries. They are more than cultures, traditions, social and political particularities, and ways of facilitating the accumulation process. They are also marked by distinctive physical geographies and sometimes highly diverse ones. Much of this falls outside the theorization advanced above. But not all of it. Physical geography becomes part of the national story as in William Blake’s ‘England’s green and pleasant land’; or the natural diversity of France that Vidal was supposed to celebrate in return for the favors granted him by the French government to create a field of university study (Lévy 2003: 985-86); while Australia is ‘the lucky country’ in virtue of its wealth of natural resources.

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Harvey D, 1985, "The Geopolitics of Capitalism", Chapter 7 in: Gregory D., Urry J. (eds), Social Relations and Spatial Structures, London, Macmillan.

Harvey D., 1996, Justice, Nature and the Geography of Difference, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

Harvey D., 2010, The Enigma of Capital, London, Profile Books.

Hobsbawm E. J., 1990, Nations and Nationalism Since 1790, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Lévy J., 2003, "Vidal de la Blache" in: Lévy J., Lussault M. (dir), Dictionnaire de

la Géographie et de l’Espaces des Sociétés, Paris, Belin, 984-987.

Massey D., 1999a, "Spaces of Politics", Chapter 14 in: Massey D., Allen J., Sarre P. (eds),

Human Geography Today, Cambridge, Polity Press.

Massey D., 1999b, "Space-Time, 'Science' and the Relationship between Physical Geography and Human Geography", Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 24, 261-276.

Massey D., 2005, For Space, London, Sage.

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1 See in particular, Harvey (1985.)

2 While extensive, the gold bearing reefs discovered in South Africa in 1886, lay at a considerable depth and had a very low gold content. Only with very cheap labor could the high capital costs of deep mining and then of a labor intensive labor process be offset. White workers could not be induced to work at the wage level necessary. Africans had lower expectations; but even then it would take an ensemble of highly repressive social institutions, including limits on urban residence and the appropriation of African land, all justified racially, to secure the supply of African labor; this was the making of apartheid.

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Kevin Cox, « Countries in question and human geography », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Les 20 ans de Cybergeo, mis en ligne le 14 septembre 2016, consulté le 13 août 2022. URL :

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Kevin Cox

The Ohio State UniversityEmeritus

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