Geographical Thought

The use and misuse of geographical concepts and theories, now and in the past

Gaddafi’s Saharan Farming Schemes



Viewed from space, most of Libya appears as a lightly colored patchwork of browns, tans, and light greys, indicating its arid nature. A few large dark grey areas that look at first glance like vegetation turn out to be barren rock surfaces. Some of the smaller dark patches, however, are irrigated farmland. Closer inspection of older agricultural lands typically shows irregular mosaics of date groves, small plowed fields, and fallow tracts. The new farmlands are strikingly different, dominated by either crisp rectangular blocks or the almost perfect circles formed by center-pivot irrigation systems. Some of the newer developments are massive, visible from earth’s orbit. In the first image above, consider the dark rectangular area at the end of the red arrow and the oddly linear features in the red rectangle. The second image reveals these features to be composed of center-pivot fields, tightly packed in one case and dispersed in the other. Such capital-intensive farms have been proliferating across much of southern Libya in recent years.

Libya’s new Saharan agricultural communities tend to be highly ordered affairs. Planning reaches an extreme in a series of hamlets near the oasis city of Kufra, an infamous hub of human trafficking in the southeastern desert. Each settlement is apparently composed of a small ring of houses situated in the center of a hexagon of partially irrigated land, with each house attached to a wedge-shaped slice of property. The resulting landscape has the appearance of an almost perfect realization of “central place theory,” a once-popular geographical theory that purported to explain the distribution of cities and towns. As hypothesized by Walter Christaller in 1933, economic activities spontaneously create hexagonal forms that dictate urban spacing. In Kufra, the honeycombs are clearly part of a grand governmental design.

Such grandiose developments in a nearly rainless environment have been made possible by the mining of ground water. Most of southern Libya is underlain by what is known as the Nubian formation, beds of porous sandstone some 500 to 3,000 meters thick that form excellent aquifers. Most of the water originated as rainfall during the last glacial period more than 15,000 years ago, when the Sahara was relatively moist. Under today’s hyper-arid conditions, the aquifers are not replenished, and thus yield “fossil water,” a non-renewable resource. Yet supplies are abundant; according to one estimate, the Nubian sandstone formation holds 150,000 km3 of water, dwarfing the 3,608 km³ of water (as of 2005) in the Ogallala aquifer, the largest underground pool in North America.

Libya has been heavily tapping the Nubian aquifer for several decades, in effect turning oil into water through massive investments. The so-called Great Manmade River is arguably the world’s largest hydrological engineering program, entailing 1,300 wells and 5,000 kilometers of pipeline that will eventually yield 3.6 million cubic meters of water per day – at a cost of some $25 billion. The project is inaptly named, as the water is transported underground in pipelines up to four meters wide (a sensible measure considering evaporation rates in the Saharan summer). Libyan sources proclaim the scheme a colossal success, one that has ended water shortages and improved water quality in Libya’s coastal cities while allowing major crop production in what has been barren desert. Thanks to the Great Manmade River, Muammar Gaddafi’s “eighth wonder of the world,” Libya has emerged as the world leader in hydrological engineering. Or so it is said.

Official reports claim that the water resources of the Nubian aquifer are so vast that they can be tapped at the current rate for more than a thousand years. But not all observers are equally optimistic; some claim that they could be exhausted within a century. Depletion will come sooner than anticipated if neighboring countries emulate Libya. Egypt certainly intends to do so, planning to withdraw 500 million cubic meters of water from the Nubian Aquifer Series annually.

Despite his enthusiasm for farming projects in the Sahara, Gaddafi has concluded that they are not adequate to meet his agricultural ambitions. As a result, he has been planning to develop massive tracts of land south of the Sahara, particularly in Mali. Here the Niger River swings north to the edge of the great desert before turning to the southeast as it courses toward the Atlantic. As reported by Environment 360:

Libya’s wholesale move into Malian irrigation and agriculture is the result of a secret deal between Mali’s president, Amadou Toumani Toure, and Libya’s Colonel Gadaffi. Paid for by Gadaffi’s sovereign investment fund, the Libya Africa Portfolio Fund for Investment, the deal hands the land to a Libyan-controlled organization called Malibya for 50 years and gives the Libyans undisclosed rights to the region’s water. … Local campaigners say [the Malian] government is in thrall — and hock — to Libya because it has become dependent on Libya for aid and investment. Many of its civil servants work in offices built by Libya, and international visitors stay at Libyan-built hotels.

The Mali-Libya water transfer scheme has obviously been derailed by the current political turmoil. Environmentalists and cultural-rights advocates hope that it is finished for good, as its local consequences could be devastating. The project would more than double the amount of water pulled from the river for irrigation, and the diversion would take place just upstream from the Niger’s great inland delta, where the river spreads into numerous shifting channels and annually floods vast areas, forming a productive farming, herding, and fishing area the size of Belgium. According to the Wikipedia, some researchers think that the Libyan project could “reduce the area under deep inundation in the Inner Niger Delta by 43%,” significantly reducing the region’s productivity.

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Ellen Churchill Semple and Paths Not Taken


When I was studying geography as a graduate student in the 1980s, little attention was paid to the history of geographic thought. When the works of early 20th century geographers did come up in seminar, they typically served as sign-posts for discredited approaches. Ellen Churchill Semple was a favorite target; passages like this one, from her Influences of Geographic Environment, suggest why.

The dry, pure air stimulates the faculties of the desert-dweller, but the featureless, monotonous surroundings furnish them with little to work with. The mind, finding scant material for sustained logical deduction, falls back upon contemplation. … First and last, these shepherd folk receive from the immense monotony of their environment the impression of unity. Therefore all of them, upon outgrowing their primitive fetish and nature worship, gravitate inevitably toward monotheism (The Influences of Geographic Environment, 1911, p. 512).

Histories of geographic thought tend to pass lightly over “Miss Semple,” as she was once called. In the standard narrative, she performed a valuable service by introducing the “anthropogeography” of Friedrich Ratzel to an English-speaking audience, but she over-emphasized her mentor’s geographical determinism. Progress in human geography required that her approach be superseded, as it was in due time. End of story.

The 100th anniversary of Ellen Churchill Semple’s Influences of Geographic Environment makes this year an appropriate moment to revisit her scholarship. Yes, many passages are overblown and some are galling. But Semple, like the rest of us, was a creature of her time. Despite its flaws, Influences of Geographic Environment is a treasure trove of geohistorical information, reflecting the remarkable erudition of its author. While it is probably fitting that most geographers of her period are read mainly to grasp their manner of thinking, we can still read Semple to learn about the world. Her knowledge of places and times was nothing less than awe-inspiring.

Semple’s take on the world was more nuanced than excerpts like the one above would suggest; in fact, a number of her ideas were ahead of their time. For instance, over the past several decades, scholars have “discovered” ocean basins as coherent frames for historical investigation. Such fields as Atlantic studies, Mediterranean studies, and Indian Ocean studies are all relatively new, and thriving. All this was anticipated by Semple:

[The Indian Ocean] has linked together the history of Asia and Africa: and by the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, it has drawn Europe and the Mediterranean into its sphere of influence. At the western corner of the Indian Ocean, a Semitic people, the Arabs of Oman and Yemen, here first developed brilliant maritime activity, like their Phoenician kinsmen of the Lebanon seaboard. …

From the dawn of history the northern Indian Ocean was a thoroughfare. Alexander the Great’s rediscovery of the old sea route to the Orient sounds like a modern event in relation to the gray ages behind it. Along this thoroughfare Indian colonists, traders, and priests carried the elements of Indian civilization to the easternmost Sunda Isles; and oriental wares, science and religion moved westward to the margin of Europe and Africa. The Indian Ocean produced a civilization of its own, with which it colored a vast semi-circle of land reaching from Java to Abyssinia… (Influences of Geographic Environment, 1911, p. 309)

Like other scholars of her day, Semple had to consider race. That she used racial categories uncritically strikes a discordant tone with modern readers, but she never really bought into racial ideology. Her maps were “ethnographic,” not “racial” (and were far more accurate than those of Fleure in 1962, as can be seen above). More important, she decided to confront the idea of racial superiority directly through research. Her question was simple: if public opinion proclaimed the progressive virtues of the Anglo-Saxon race, how then to explain the lack of progress in the backwoods of eastern Kentucky? Little information on the region was available, so Semple set out to obtain it.

Field research was new to human geography in the late 1800s, and Semple was one of its pioneers.* She undertook a 350-mile horseback trek through the most remote districts of the eastern United States. During her entire trip she reported seeing only a few wheeled vehicles. Blood-feuds still characterized the area, which remained largely beyond the reach of modern economy as well as that of state authority. She conducted interviews over a wide area, collecting information on the economy, crafts, agriculture, music, language, folklore, and so on. Semple was impressed by the resourcefulness of the inhabitants and by their cultural practices, reporting that the “accuracy of their memories for … long poems was suggestive of Homeric days” (p. 34). If the region was nonetheless beset by persistent stagnation, that could be attributed squarely to the topography. “The whole civilization of the Kentucky mountains,” she concluded, “is eloquent to the anthropogeographer of the influence of physical environment.” Race, in short, was not the key to human progress.

Deterministic and judgmental though they may have been, Semple’s conclusions about the mountaineers were not without merit. As she showed, the Kentucky hill-folk in the 1890s could barely participate in wider economic and social circles due to transportation constraints. The mountains here are not particularly high, but the land is steep almost everywhere, and the reach of the state did not extend to road-building in such inhospitable terrain. Given the primitive infrastructure, the only salable products that that would bear the costs of porting to market were ginseng and moonshine; even hogs, which could walk themselves to distant markets, would lose too much weight en route to make the trip worthwhile. Social travel was also highly constrained, enforcing isolation. The geographic environment, in other words, was a major influence. Rugged and remote mountains are indeed difficult for states to control and markets to penetrate. Harlan County Kentucky today has plenty of paved roads, of course, but Semple could hardly have been expected to have foreseen that. And even to this day, rugged lands often remain distinctive. Cultural diversity is typically concentrated in such regions, and insurgencies tend to be more numerous and successful in rough uplands than in adjacent lowlands.

Semple’s achievements are all the more impressive when one takes into account the obstacles that she faced as a woman. Having traveled to Leipzig Germany to study with Ratzel, she was not allowed to enroll in the university or even to sit in the lecture hall. To learn from the famous professor, she was forced instead to listen from the hallway. Yet student and scholar did work together, and Ratzel was sufficiently impressed with her that he picked Semple to translate his major work into English. This she refused to do, preferring instead to write a book of her own—albeit one dedicated to his memory.

By all rights, Semple should have been a star professor at a top university, building her own school of anthropogeography and training a cohort of strong graduate students. But while she lectured at a number of universities, Semple did not gain a regular faculty position until hired by Clark University at the age of 57 (at a significantly lower salary than that of her male peers). Her classroom prowess was legendary; while illustrating her lectures with glass-slide projections, she allegedly never turned to look back at the images, as she always knew exactly what was being shown on the screen behind her. She held seminars with graduate students while visiting other schools, and is said to have been inspiring. In 1921, Semple’s contributions to the profession were recognized when she was elected president of the Association of American Geographers. Needless to say, she was the first woman to hold that position. Until 1985, she was also the last.

* See “The Anglo-Saxons of the Kentucky Mountains: A Study in Anthropogeography.” Journal of Geography, June, 1901.

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Malcolm Gladwell and Ellsworth Huntington

In this week’s New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell explains how Ellsworth Huntington created his maps showing “level of civilization,” discussed in the previous post. He simply queried 213 scholars in twenty-seven countries. Twenty-five of his respondents were from the United States. None was from west of the Minnesota or south of the Ohio River

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Environmental Determinism, Ellsworth Huntington, and the Decline of Geography

Geography is defined as “the study of the earth and its features.” Derived from the Greek for “earth writings,” geography traditionally focused on the world as a whole; investigations of smaller regions were a distinct if related branch of learning. For centuries, the main focus of geographical research was filling in the unknown portions of the world map. But as that task came to an end in the late 1800s and early 1900s, new research frontiers were sought. Many geographers turned to what was then a hot topic in social science: the racial differentiation of humankind. Others attempted to distill geographical laws from the age-old theory of environmental determinism, seeking global correlations among climate, soils, and landforms, on the one hand, and social, political, and cultural forms, on the other.

By the 1910s and ‘20s, environmental determinism was the reigning paradigm of geographical studies in the United States. Its leading theorists were Ellsworth Huntington and Ellen Churchill Semple. Ellen Churchill Semple, as we shall see in a forthcoming post, was the more impressive scholar of the two. Huntington’s arguments were often crude, and his central thesis was frankly without merit. If he wielded more influence, it was largely thanks to his connections and position at Yale University, as well as his gender.

Ellsworth Huntington was nothing is not prolific, writing on topics ranging from the global environment to business geography to Palestine. Yet he returned repeatedly to his pet theory, the idea that “climatic energy” determined human accomplishments. “Civilization,” in his view, could thrive only where allowed by climate. The ideal environment was a temperate one: free from extremes of heat or cold, yet blessed with a bracing seasonal contrast between winter and summer. Rainfall should be spread throughout the year, as prolonged dry seasons sapped both human health and mental acuity. Short-term alternations between wet and dry, on the other hand, were regarded as a positive force, refreshing the mind and spirit. Huntington translated these favorable conditions into numbers and then mapped them across the world. As seen in the map reproduced above, he concluded that climatic energy peaked in western Europe and northeastern North America. New Haven, Connecticut, where he made his home, was in the ideal range, making Huntington a lucky man indeed. Huntington next compared the map to one showing the “level of civilization.” Lo and behold, the two maps correlated nicely, supposedly substantiating the thesis.

In essence, Ellsworth Huntington’s took his own favorite climate to be the driving force of human history. But he allowed that climate did not determine everything. To begin with, the two maps did not correlate perfectly; some areas of “high climatic energy,” such as Patagonia, figured low on the civilizational chart, while some areas of poor climate, such as northern India, had achieved at least a modicum of accomplishment. And such discrepancies would have been more pronounced prior to the migration of Europeans to North America. The northeastern quadrant of the United States may have been climatically blessed, but it would not civilize until the right kind of people moved in. Race, in other words, mattered too.

Huntington ultimately sought to harmonize environmental and racial determinism, arguing that racial differences arose through natural selection propelled by climatic disparities and climate change. He often hedged his racial arguments, however, unlike those based on environmental features. Huntington also avoided the more virulent forms of racism common at the time. He did not in fact put his own Anglo-Saxons at the top of the hierarchy, speculating instead that:

The Jews are probably the greatest of all races. Has any other so persistently produced an almost endless string of great men for three or four thousand years? Has any other produced so many great men in proportion to its number? Certainly no other, unless it be the Chinese, has so consistently maintained a prominent position for millennium after millennium (The Pulse of Progress, 1926, p. 174).

Although environmental and racial theories dominated much academic discourse through the 1920s, they were increasingly challenged, denounced as both prejudicial and reductionistic. One of the most withering critiques came from Franz Boas, a German-born scholar who had switched from physics to geography after receiving his doctorate. Conducting field research on the environmental determinants of Inuit (Eskimo) culture on Baffin Island, Boas underwent an intellectual transformation. He now came to think that culture had to be understood in its own terms rather than in those of nature, and that tribal people were in no way intellectually inferior to others. Faced with poor job prospects as a geographer in Germany, and despairing at his country’s growing nationalism and anti-Semitism, Boas decamped for the United States near the turn of the century. He also changed disciplines again, in the process essentially founding the field of American cultural anthropology. Boasian anthropology, based on cultural relativism and particularism, was effectively a direct rebuttal to Huntingtonian geography. By the 1940s, the intellectual tenor of the academy swung decisively in Boas’s favor. As cultural anthropology expanded in the United States, human geography began to contract.

To be sure, environmental determinism encountered other obstacles as well. Where Huntington and like-minded geographers had stressed the limitations imposed by nature, such constraints seemed antiquated in the technologically optimistic post-WWII era. Air-conditioning alone seemed to many to go a long way to erase the burdens imposed by enervating climates. All societies could achieve economic and social development, the new thinking proclaimed, if only they could adopt the correct policies and accumulate adequate capital. To insist that climate or soil, let alone race, precluded progress over much of the world now seemed bigoted, unimaginative, and unduly pessimistic.

Academic geographers responded to this changing intellectual environment, but not always in an effective way. The field as a whole jettisoned geographical determinism so thoroughly that anything hinting of the doctrine came to be regarded as an intellectual sin. Geographers turned on their own forebears and cut off their own roots. Huntington was cast aside, but so too were far more able scholars of his generation, including the formidable Ellen Churchill Semple.

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Racial Classification, H. J. Fleure, and the Decline of Geography




In scanning “races of the world” maps in atlases published before 1970, I am taken aback as much by the basic errors in world geography as by the crudity of the racial classification. Consider the first map above, derived from a Rand McNally original and printed in my own childhood companion, TheWorld Book Atlas (1964). It is better than some, as it does not purport to show skin color and does not portray Finns as Mongolians. But it does depict the Taiwanese as “Malayan.” The Taiwanese “aborigines” can indeed be so classified by linguistic and perhaps genetic criteria, but they constitute only two percent of the island’s population. Taiwan has been overwhelmingly Chinese for several hundred years, as anyone responsible for making a world map should know. Yet this misleading map came with the imprimatur of two major institutions of geographical education.

The race map from the 1962 Bartholomew’s Atlas, posted here last week and again today, is worse. It would be too tedious to recount all of the geographically misplaced ethnic/linguistic labels on this error-ridden map. To cite just one among their many egregious mistakes, the cartographers made it appear that Russians were largely confined to European Russia, not acknowledging that they extend beyond Lake Baikal in south-central Siberia. Not to know that the Russian cultural zone reaches Vladivostok on the Pacific should have disqualified a person from teaching world geography in 1962, let alone from providing a reference map in an authoritative world atlas.

Yet the editorial consultant for the map, whose name is proudly advertised on the same page, was one of the most celebrated geographers of 20th century Britain, Herbert John Fleure. Fleure, noted also as a zoologist and anthropologist, was secretary of the Geographical Association, editor of Geography, and recipient of numerous geographical awards and honors. He made his reputation largely by writing about race; his books included The Races of Mankind (1927), Racial Evolution and Archaeology (1937),and The Races of England and Wales (1923). Fleure, like many scholars of the time, saw the larger patterns of history and human geography in racial terms, and he located the key to race in skull shape and skin color. His works are filled with reference to aggregations of “broad-heads,” “longheads,” and peoples with intermediate heads, which he saw as the principal actors of European history:

The old fair-haired hunters of the forest, with their restless energy, might be partially ousted, but they remained as warriors and organisers, as the comrades-in-arms who founded an aristocracy loving the chase and the old habits of life. They made wars for grouping the agriculturists, for theorganisation of what should one day bestates, but the scheming, on the large scale, appears often to have been the work, not so much of them, as of a remarkable type intermediate between them and the broad-heads of central Europe. (Human Geography in Western Europe, p. 23-24)

Despite his racial obsession, Fleure was not a racist by the standards of the day. He disdained the notion of racial superiority and had no use for exclusivity, arguing that “If a nation is composed almost entirely of one race, the people will thus tend too much to the same activities and disabilities” (ibid, p. 235). As Tony Kushner has shown in a recent article, Fleure was “a strong and genuine opponent of the Nazi regime who made great efforts to help its Jewish victims, both by providing refugees with support and by giving lectures and writing articles attacking antisemitism and the concept of ‘Aryanism.’”

But as Kushner goes on to note, Fleure never abandoned race as his unifying framework, undermining his own intellectual legacy and weakening geography as a field of study. By the post-WWII era, the notion of discrete races existing in England and Wales was quaint if not reactionary. By the time Fleure edited the racial map posted above (at age 85), the very concept of biological race was being challenged by Ashley Montagu and others,* who pointed out that the various racial indicators (skin color, head shape, nose dimensions, hair texture, etc.) tend not to coincide with each other but rather to have disjunct distributional patterns. Fleure’s own mapping showed as much: just below his map of skin color in Bartholomew’s Atlas of 1962 is a markedly different depiction (posted above) of physical differentiation, based on cephalic index (head shape).

During Fleure’s heyday, geography aimed to span the world, which meant that leading geographers had to be able to operate at the global scale. Fleure was no exception, editing world maps and writing on the “Races of Mankind.” His heart, however, remained in Western Europe, particularly France, Britain, and his native Guernsey. His favored racial scheme was geared toward European history, as the all-important “broadhead/longhead” distinction meant little in many other places. By the 1960s, Fleure’s knowledge of the word at large was seriously out of date; if the first map above is any indication, it was never adequate in the first place. Yet a major atlas publisher still proudly advertised his portrayal of the diversity of humankind in a map so amateurish as to be embarrassing. Such lax standards have much to say about the decline of geography as an academic discipline during the mid-20th century.

Racial categorization was not the only unifying theme for human geographers in the period before World War II. Its main rival and sometimes complement was environmental determinism, the topic of the next Geocurrents posting.

*The Concept of Race, edited by Ashley Montagu. Collier Books, New York, 1964.

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Absurdities of Racial Mapping




In the conventional narrative of intellectual progress, people of the past are said to have habitually deferred to authority, ignoring sensory evidence if it contradicted accepted wisdom. Galileo’s experiments and telescopes may have been intriguing, but to the extent that they contravened Aristotle or the Bible, they were discounted by those adhering to the old school. Intellectual modernity, by this way of thinking, consisted in large part of abandoning authority as a touchstone of knowledge, and correspondingly elevating evidence as perceived by the senses.

I suspect that this vision of intellectual transformation exaggerates the extent of change. Outside of the narrow confines of scientific research, the authority of the past continues to weigh heavily. How else can one explain the fact that atlases continued to depict Finns and Hungarians as yellow-skinned Mongolians well into the 1960s? All one had to do was look at them to see that their skin was not yellow, and their physical features “non-Mongolian.” For that matter the Mongolians themselves, like other East Asians, are far from “yellow” in skin coloration. They have been identified with yellow in large part because the Chinese traditionally associated that color with their country and their imperial dynasties, but it does not take a trained eye to detect that that there is nothing yellow in their pigmentation.

The baseless notion that a realm of yellow-skinned peoples extended from Finland to Japan was rooted in the authority of 19th and early 20th century physical anthropologists, who built elaborate theories of race based on flimsy evidence. But the cartographic persistence of this fantasy involved other factors as well. Global thematic maps are a challenge to construct – and when that challenge can be elided by copying, it often is. Map content cannot be easily copyrighted, and in practice, cartographers habitually crib from earlier examples, often perpetuating past errors in the process. Since exact copies would violate intellectual property rules, they tend to be slightly modified with each iteration. Such modifications, in the hands of an able mapmaker, can producing more accurate depictions than those found in the earlier models. But they can also do the opposite; careless cartographers may fudge boundaries in arbitrary directions.

Consider, for example, the first map posted above, taken from the 1946 Atlas of World Affairs.* Here one finds, as usual, most of Finland, Hungary, and Turkey mapped within the “Mongolian (or yellow)” race. More amusing is this map’s depiction of eastern Africa. Classifying Ethiopians and Somalis as white was common enough at the time, but this map goes a step further, portraying the inhabitants of Uganda, southern Sudan, and northeastern Congo as well as “Caucasian (or white)”. In actuality, the southern Sudanese are among the world’s darkest people. The only explanation that I can imagine is sloppy copying from other maps.

Maps as ridiculous as the one of “race” in the Atlas of World Affairs no longer circulate widely. The internet, however, facilitates other forms of cartographic mischief. Misleading maps are often copied from website to website with no critical commentary. Matters pertaining to human appearance can be especially problematic. Try running a Google image search of “skin color map.” When I did so this morning, the second map posted above was the most common image returned by a wide margin. Almost all the websites that use this map take it uncritically as an accurate depiction of skin coloration across the globe. On the sites that allow comments, however, some criticism is vented. Commentator Cesare on Centripetal Notion, for example, colorfully contends that:

This map shows some big mistakes. First: as an italian i say that our skin colour is definitly not the same as central europeans because we are darker. Second: in the united states most white people are as white as nord europeans so its another mistake in colouring the map. Third:I went to Iran and saw that the people there are really not as dark as other middle eastern folks. So [f**k] the person who made this map and let him travel more to other countries and let him take a better look at the people. Ciao!!

Cesare makes some good points, but he is off-base in criticizing the map itself rather than the manner in which it has been misused. The original map, as its seldom-reproduced full title indicates, does not depict actual skin color found across the world today. To begin with, its subject is “indigenous peoples” rather than those who ancestors recently crossed the seas; Euro-Americans and Euro-Australians thus do not figure. But more importantly, rather than describing actual skin color, this map denotes the pigment that scientists would expect humans in each region to develop, based on solar radiation and other “environmental factors.” The real epidermal hues of indigenous peoples deviate markedly from the predictions—a fact that the authors of the original map well understood. Most obviously, residents of the Congo Basin are much darker than the indigenous peoples of western Peru or northeastern Brazil, as can be seen on the third map posted above (which does purport to depict the actual skin colors of indigenous peoples).

Map four, from Wikipedia, has its share of problems as well. For example, it shows the people of peninsular Malaysia as darker than those of central New Guinea, which is simply not the case. The mapping of Africa also has some odd features that fail to mesh with other cartographic portrayals of skin color in the region. Compare, for example, the depiction of the area to the northwest of Lake Victoria on maps three and four; on the third map, it is shown as one of the lightest-skinned regions of sub-Saharan Africa; on map four, as one of the darkest.

Such discrepancies seem to derive largely from copying errors. Almost all world maps of human skin coloration, including maps three and four above, derive from Renato Biasutti’s Razze e Popoli dela Terra, published in the mid-1950s in Turin, Italy. Some cartographers have copied Biatsutti’s maps more skillfully than others. But given that the information used to make the originals was gathered before 1940, we would do well to question the quality of the data itself.

*Edited byClifford MacFadden, Henry Kendall, and George Deasy, published by Thomas Y. Crowell Company, and touted by the U.S. Military

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Mapping Language and Race in the Finnic World




In skimming through old atlases, one might be surprised to find Finns racially classified as yellow-skinned Mongolians. Yet until fairly recently, that was the norm. Consider the 1962 map posted above, “Classification of Mankind By Color of Skin,” from the popular Bartholomew’s Advanced Atlas of Modern Geography. Here both Finns and Estonians are “xanthodermic Asiatics.” “(Xanthoderma,” medical dictionaries tell us, refers to “skin that has a yellow coloration, as in jaundice.”) Bizarre as it may be, the idea that Finns are racially linked to East Asians lives on; if in doubt, try an internet search of “Finns Mongols.”

The notion that Finns and other Finno-Ugric-speaking peoples of Europe are of Mongolian stock is hard to take seriously. While biological race is itself a questionable concept, a number of physical traits distinguish East Asians (the “Mongolians” of racial classification): epicanthic eyelid folds; dark, straight, thick hair; and a number of bone and teeth features. (Note that yellow skin is nowhere on this list.) These attributes are as rare in Finland as they are in other European countries. If anything, Finns may be the blondest, most blue-eyed people in the world, as the second set of maps shows. The Eastern Finnic peoples are not quite as light as the western ones, falling closer to the European norm. Red hair, however, is oddly common among the Urdmuts of the central Volga. Udmurtia is proud of this characteristic, running an annual “red festival” that celebrates rufous coloring not only in people but also in “cats, dogs, hamsters, [and] squirrels…”

Why then have the Finno-Ugric peoples, Hungarians as well as Finns and Estonians, so often been classified as “Mongolian”? The credit – or discredit – goes to a German scholar named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752 -1840). Known as the “father of physical anthropology,” Blumenbach is famed for coining the term “Caucasian race.” Blumenbach thought that cranium shape was the key to human differentiation, but his collection of skulls was limited. He purportedly based his claims on the fact that “two Saami (Lapp) skulls and one Finnish skull resembled one Mongol skull.” Evidently, he never examined any livings Finns. Blumenbach’s scientific stature was so elevated that his ideas carried the day, nonsensical though they were.

Linguistic analysis seemed to bolster the idea that Finno-Ugric peoples belonged in the “Mongolian” category. Scholars once widely assumed that peoples who spoke related languages belonged to the same race, sharing descent from a common ancestral population. From the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, most linguists grouped “Uralic” Finno-Ugric languages with Altaic languages, forming a Ural-Altaic macro-family that linked Finnish to Mongolian and Manchu. If their languages were related, the reasoning went, the Finns and Mongols had to be sibling peoples. This Ural-Altaic hypothesis has long since been abandoned, but the Uralic component is still widely accepted, and it still links Finns to peoples who look Asian. Uralic’s highest order split separates Finno-Ugric from Samoyedic, and the Samoyeds – Nenets, Selkups, and others – have dark eyes, straight black hair, and epicanthic eyelid folds. The eastern Ugric-speakers of western Siberia, the Khanty and the Mansi, appear Eurasian, with intermediate features and mixed genetic markers as well.

But we now know that linguistic groups and genetic groups need not have any connection. Languages can spread into new populations even when genes do not, just as migration can bring wholesale genetic changes without linguistic transformations. As a result, large language families often encompass peoples who look very different and have markedly distinct genetic heritages. The Afroasiatic macro-family, for example, encompasses blonde Berbers in North Africa and dark-skinned Hausa in northern Nigeria, and even the Berber family includes the generally dark-skinned Tuareg as well as the generally light-skinned Kabyle. The fact that some Uralic speakers look European while others look East Asian thus tells us nothing about the racial attributes of the Finns—nor of the original speakers of Uralic languages.

As it turns out, the Finns are genetically distinctive, forming an “outlier” European population, as the New York Times “Genetic Map” posted above indicates. Why this should be the case is a matter of some controversy. Some attribute it to a “founder effect,” arising from the fact that the “Finnish population was at one time very small and then expanded, bearing the atypical genetics of its few founders.” Others think that the Finns are simply “more European” than others, having absorbed fewer genes from outsiders. According to this line of reasoning, the Finns most closely resemble the Paleolithic European Cro-Magnons.

Several specific genetic markers also help differentiate the Finnish population. As Asya Pereltsvaig noted in the Geocurrents comments section on Monday, the Y-chromosome DNA haplogroup N is extremely common in Finland, found in 60 percent of the country’s male population, yet is rare in most of the rest of Europe. As Y-DNA passes only in the paternal lineage, a majority of Finnish men must be descended from a single man with a particular mutation on his Y-chromosome who probably lived some 12-14,000 years ago. As it happens, haplogroup N has a close association with peoples speaking Uralic languages. It is thought to have originated in Central Asia, and then spread in a counter-clockwise route through central Siberia and into northern Europe. Haplogroup N is also prevalent in a few areas outside of the Uralic-speaking zone, reaching especially high concentrations (75 percent) among the Turkic-speaking Sakha (Yakut) of central-northern Siberia. But even if most Finns and Sakhas can trace their male lineages back to a single great-great-great…grandfather, that does not mean that they are otherwise genetically similar; when one goes back 12,000 years, the number of one’s ancestors becomes staggeringly large.

Genetic studies also shed light on the history of interactions among Slavic and Finno-Ugric peoples in northern European Russia. According to a 2005 paper by Boris Malyarchuk and others, published in Human Biology 76(6), “… only the most western Russian populations appear to be descendants of the Slavs, whereas northern and eastern Russian populations appear to be the result of an admixture between Slavic tribes and pre-Slavonic populations” (p. 897). For further explorations of the linguistic, genetic, and gender history of this region, see the recent postings on Languages of the World.

Mapping Language and Race in the Finnic World Read More »

The Failure of the Failed State Index


The use of the term “failed state” has surged over the past fifteen years, as can be seen in the Google N-Gram posted above showing the frequency of the term’s occurrence in scanned books. A January 8, 2011 Google news search for “failed state” yielded—in the first twelve articles alone—stories on Sudan, Mexico, Egypt, Nepal, Kenya, Pakistan, Belgium, and Nigeria. The first pick, from the Huffington Post, claims that South Sudan is a “failed sate in waiting,” a charge later echoed in The Telegraph. Remarkable: here we find a state that does not yet exist, yet has already been declared dead. Other assertions of state failure seem equally rash; while Mexico and Egypt have problems aplenty, neither is close to systematic state breakdown. But a determined enough critic can apparently find evidence of state failure almost anywhere. A recent AlterNet posting, leaning on the work of Noam Chomsky, declares that the United States is a “semi-failed state,” and goes on to assert that Victorian Britain “meets many of the formal criteria of failed statehood.” If Victorian Britain, which dominated almost half the world, was a “failed state,” we might as well toss the term out.

Needless to say, more precise definitions have been proposed. The Fund for Peace, which along with Foreign Policy magazine has established the influential Failed States Index, has put forward the following criteria of state failure:

  • loss of physical control of its territory, or of the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force therein,
  • erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions,
  • an inability to provide reasonable public services, and
  • an inability to interact with other states as a full member of the international community.

The checklist seems reasonable at first glance, but is difficult to use in practice. The last criterion is seemingly impossible to reach; the state of Somalia controls virtually nothing, yet remains a full-fledged member of the international community.* Other problems further undercut the proposed criteria. An “inability to provide reasonable public services” reflects a broader failure of government rather than that of the state per se, as regional authorities can in some instances deliver. “Erosion of legitimate authority” is a trickier concept, as one first has to assess where legitimacy lies. At the popular level, according to the Fund for Peace, delegitimation occurs through the loss of “confidence in state institutions and processes, [as demonstrated by] widely boycotted or contested elections, mass public demonstrations, sustained civil disobedience…” Yet North Korea, which has experienced none of these things, is deemed an almost completely “deligitimated” state. For all we know, most North Koreans view their government as legitimate; propaganda, after all, often proves effective. North Korea apparently earns its non-legitimate status in the index on the basis of its “massive and endemic corruption” and “the lack of transparency, accountability and political representation,” features that do indeed pertain. But both endemic corruption and lack of representation mark some of the world’s most solid states, including China. The Fund for Peace also views the “violation of human rights” as an indicator of state failure, but massive repression, unfortunately, can solidify the standing of a precarious state, as was recently witnessed in Iran.

The Failed State Index uses twelve indicators, which in turn are divided into a variety of sub-indicators. Some of the metrics are classified as social (demographic pressures, human flight), others as economic (GDP decline, uneven development), and still others political (violation of human rights, intervention by other states, and so forth). Taken together, these various markers can indeed highlight a general level of overall disfunctionality in any given country. But failure in this sense is not the same as state failure. State-run structures of control can remain strong in the face of precipitous economic decline or of human rights outrages. By viewing the “state” as a kind of political-social-economic totality, the Failed State Index loses sight of the state itself, which strictly speaking refers to the institutions of central governmental power, especially in their coercive function. It thus classifies moribund states, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina and Belgium, as much less threatened with collapse than cohesive and repressive states prevailing over dismal economies, such as North Korea and Eritrea. While North Korea might justifiably be called a failed country, there is little evidence that its state apparatus it tottering. Regarding it as such seems like a case of perversely wishful thinking.

If the Failed State Index is a promising but problematic analytical tool, the map that accompanies it on the Foreign Policy website is something else altogether. At first glance, it appears the cartographers have mapped sovereign states from red to green, while using white as an unmarked category to include both dependent territories, such as Greenland and Puerto Rico, and key disputed lands, such Western Sahara and the Hala’ib Triangle (claimed by Sudan, administered by Egypt). Closer inspection, however, reveals a stunning lack of consistency. The regions depicted in white turn out to have nothing in common. Some are dependencies and a few are disputed territories, but others range from autonomous areas, to insular portions of sovereign states, to fully independent countries. Meanwhile, the world’s hottest territorial dispute, Kashmir, is essentially invisible: the area controlled by India is mapped as part of India, the area controlled by Pakistan is mapped as part of Pakistan, and the area controlled by China (Aksai Chin) is mapped as if it were a lake (or perhaps desiccated lake, given that it is portrayed exactly like the Aral Sea!).

A few of the oddities on the map deserve special mention. The cartographer’s most glaring gaffe is the excision of the island of Newfoundland from Canada. France too is shorn of most of its islands; the map implicitly refutes French sovereignty over all of its overseas departments (Guiana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Réunion), even though they are as much parts of France as Hawaii and Alaska are parts of the United States. In the Caribbean, several independent island countries (Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia, Dominica, and more) are denied sovereignty, mapped instead as white splotches. Further south, Chile has been divested of its half of Tierra del Fuego. Some autonomous island groups, such as Portugal’s Azores and Finland’s Åland Archipelago, are mapped in white, but not Denmark’s autonomous Faroe Islands. Taiwan, a de facto sovereign state not recognized by most other independent countries, is shown in white, but Kosovo, which fits the same category, is colored. A too-large West Bank is mapped in white, but in the accompanying tables it is aggregated with Israel. Elsewhere the mapmaker takes islands belonging to one country and assigns them to another. The coloration scheme shows Socotra as part of Somalia rather than Yemen, Rhodes as part of Turkey rather than Greece, and the Florida Keys as part of the Bahamas rather than the United States. Similar errors abound. Have the editors of Foreign Policy and the creators of the Failed State Index never checked their own map?

*On May 19, 2010, Somalia asserted its own unchallenged diplomatic standing by recognizing Kosovo, and thereby giving that partially recognized state a tad more international legitimacy.

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Uses and Misuses of the Mercator Projection

The World Bank is not the only organization to misemploy the Mercator projection for basic world maps. In a Google image search of “world map,” roughly a third of the initial set of maps returned greatly inflate the high latitudes. Not all, however, grotesquely exaggerate Greenland; one particularly unsightly map, reproduced above, solves the problem by erasing the island. The most egregious misuse of the projection is perhaps found in television newscasts in the United States. Here Mercator’s world image seems to serve as an icon of global breadth, adding gravitas, if counterfeit, to the stories of the day. The image is so emblematic of respectability that a caricature version is employed by the satirical Daily Show. In the image above, a gargantuan Canadian archipelago crowns Jon Stewart. Note as well the attenuated and misshapen depiction of India, the slug-shaped Japan, and the numerous non-existent land bridges.

The Mercator projection was designed by its creator for shipboard use, the title of the original map telling us as much: Nova et aucta orbis terrae description ad usum navigantium emendate et accomodata (“new and improved description of the world amended and intended for the use of navigators”). Critical thinkers have long noted the absurdity of using Mercator projections for general purposes. In 1943, the New York Times opined that, “We cannot forever mislead children and even college students with grossly inaccurate pictures of the world.”* Yet mislead them we still do, although to a lesser extent than in the mid-twentieth century.

That is not to say, however, that the only appropriate uses of the projection are navigational. Google Maps, for example, employs Mercator’s perspective because it retains the correct shape of landmasses at any scale of resolution. (Or, as the Wikipedia puts it, “Despite its obvious scale variation at small scales, the projection is well-suited as an interactive world map that can be zoomed seamlessly to large-scale (local) maps, where there is relatively little distortion due to the projection’s near-conformality.”) As a result, Google Maps are quite serviceable for local or regional uses, but at the global scale they are worse then useless, depicting Ellesmere Island (population 146) in the Canadian arctic, for example as roughly the same size as Australia.

A considered defense of the Mercator projection is found in Andrew Taylor’s The World of Gerard Mercator: The Mapmaker Who Revolutionized Geography (2004, Walker & Company, New York). The book is well written and well researched, recommended to anyone interested in the history of cartography. Taylor’s vindication of his subject’s famous projection, however, is poorly considered. He embraces the Mercator projection for general purposes essentially because it is widely embraced: “It is Mercator’s map that appears on schoolroom walls, in diaries and magazines, and, most important of all, in peoples’ minds. That approval is the ultimate democracy” (p. 255). Such claims are extraordinarily anti-intellectual; if nonsense is widely held, we are told, it should be celebrated, as anything else would be an anti-democratic insult to the will of the people.

Epistemological populism, which equates truth with popularity, is a rare and extremist stance. It is difficult to imagine its claims being made so boldly in fields other than geography. When it comes to geography, however, lower standards often apply.

*The quotation is from Andrew Taylor’s book, referenced above.

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Religion in Africa; Agriculture in California


Geocurrents is not usually concerned with touting books or other websites, although requests for such consideration to do come frequently. But some works are so geographically impressive that they do deserve special mention. As a result, today’s posting will consider one website, Eugene Adogla’s Religiously Remapped: Mapping Religious Trends in Africa, and one book, Paul Starrs and Peter Goin’s Field Guide to California Agriculture.

Religiously Remapped shows what can be cartographically achieved with state-level data on religious observation. Eugene Adogla has gathered a tremendous array of statistics on religion in Africa, which he has used to generate a series of innovative maps. Most maps of religion in Africa do little more than separate Muslim from Christian areas. Adogla, however, shows how complex the situation really is, depicting even the distribution of such minor creeds as Rastafarianism and Eckankar. Adogla’s discussions of religious trends are also well considered, and well worth reading. (Disclaimer: Eugene Adogla is one of my former students, and Religiously Remapped was initiated several years ago as project for one of my courses at Stanford University.)

In their Field Guide to California Agriculture, geographer Paul F. Starrs and photographer Peter Goin have devised a new genre of writing. The book’s title hardly does it justice, as the “field guide” that it encompasses is embedded in a comprehensive, erudite, and eloquent disquisition on the history, economics, sociology and – above all – geography of agricultural production in what is arguably the world’s top farming location. It is, in a word, a masterpiece – one that should appeal equally to a broad public audience and to academic experts. The authors have an uncanny ability to hone in on topics of interest and significance, conveying their importance with precision and wit. Their book is both immensely informative and unfailingly entertaining.

This is unusual in a field guide. For geographically inclined readers, the genre is often exasperating. If one turns to traditional field guides with spatial questions in mind—where the range of one tree species begins and another ends, say, or where to find a particular kind of bird—it quickly becomes clear that the work provides little discussion of distribution. The focus is trained on identification, teaching readers to distinguish one species from another. Although I treasure my library’s field guide to North American mammals for its maps, I am perennially disappointed by the fact that it has more information on teeth than on range. How many readers are likely to trap small rodents and pry their mouths open? While marketed to a general audience, the book appears to have been designed for a professional field zoologist.

One could easily imagine a field guide to California agriculture written in the same technical spirit, focusing on diagnostic criteria. Detailed drawings or photographs would accompany bare-bones text, helping readers distinguish one crop from another in the field. For orchard crops, the emphasis would be tree shape, leaf form, and bark pattern, with a sentence or two about the crop itself thrown in for ornamentation. Such a work would be useful for classes in field geography and for curious drivers making excursions across California’s great Central Valley, but would be of limited interest to the general public.

Thanks in good part to the University of California Press, field guides have been evolving into a much more expansive form in recent years. Starrs and Goin, however, have taken the genre to a new completely new level, in both a scholarly and literary sense. To be sure, the book fulfills all of the necessary functions of the traditional field guide, aiding readers in crop and animal identification. Distinguishing features are listed for each entry, and an eight-page “agricultural product identification” guide provides a useful overview. If one is wondering, for example, whether an orchard contains walnut trees, guidelines are provided. As the walnut entry on page 216 puts it: “The utterly distinctive graft line where the English walnut slip was grafted onto a native black walnut rootstock … shows 6 to 24 inches above the ground: an instantaneous sign that this is a walnut…” But as is typical for the book, the key to walnut identification does not conclude so prosaically. Instead, the paragraph ends with an evocative tag: “The cicatrice is signature.” One does not generally turn to field guides for stylistic grace, but Starrs’ writing is at once eloquent and playful. One gets the impression that he had a great deal of fun writing the book, and his enthusiasm can be infectious.

The Field Guide to California Agriculture covers a staggering array of crops and livestock, from bok choi to oysters to cannabis. Each entry covers economic significance, spatial distribution, historical background, and issues of labor demand and farm management. The photos are plentiful and the maps are sharp. California’s share of the national harvest is duly noted for each entry, as is the market value. Obtaining the relevant numbers required considerable sleuthing for some crops. The marijuana entry is one of the most detailed in the book, as befits a crop that may well be worth more than all other California agricultural products combined. It is to Starrs and Goin’s credit that they tackle the issue head-on, writing about it with knowledge and verve.

The Field Guide to California Agriculture is divided into four main sections. The largest is an encyclopedia of crops and livestock, forming the field guide proper. The volume begins with a 70-page historical overview, and concludes with a similarly comprehensive essay on agricultural regions. These book-ends could together form a book on their own. The second section is a luscious photographical gallery aptly titled, “The Paradox and Poetics of Agriculture.” With enlargements and additions, it too could stand alone. Packaged together with the individual crop entries, they add up to a tour de force.

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Why Iran’s Azeris Are Iranian

The weakness of Azeri nationalism in Iran (discussed last week) seems surprising at first glance. Iranian Azeris form a large, distinctive, and relatively cohesive ethnic group that has been deprived of basic educational rights in its own language. Similar situations in neighboring countries have resulted in serious unrest if not prolonged insurgency – think of the Kurds of Turkey. One might assume that the unpopularity of Iran’s restrictive clerical regime and the fact that independent Azerbaijan offers the attractions of a relatively open and globally engaged society would incline the Iranian Azeris toward separatism. Yet with a few exceptions, the southern Azeris show few signs of seeking autonomy, much less independence or union with Azerbaijan.

Historical factors figure prominently in explaining this seeming paradox. Persian- and Turkic-speaking peoples have been intertwined throughout Iran and Western Central Asia for centuries; historian Robert Canfield thus delineates a large cultural-historical region that he calls “Turko-Persia.” The region’s socio-political foundations long rested on a combination of Turkic military might and political power and Persian economic and intellectual ascendency. The ruling dynasties of Persia (what is now Iran) from the end of the Mongol period through the first quarter of the twentieth century were of Turkic origin, and relied heavily on the military power of Turkish tribal groups scattered widely across the country.

Persia’s last major Turkic dynasty, the Qajars, held power, albeit in a decentralized manner, from 1794 to 1925. Originally of Turkmen stock, the Qajar rulers spoke a language similar to Azeri in their homes, while employing Persian for court proceedings and administration. In the early 1800s, the Qajars lost their northwestern territories in the Caucasus – modern Azerbaijan – to the expanding Russian empire. Continuing threats and interference by both Russia and Britain would compromise the sovereignty of the country until the mid twentieth century. Such foreign pressures, if anything, enhanced the linkage between the Persian and Turkic peoples of Iran.

Ethnic relations were transformed under the Pahlavi dynasty, which came to power in 1925. To modernize Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi sought to construct a nation-state based on Persian culture and language. This required a campaign of Persianization, and corresponding de-Turkification, in much of the country. Restrictions were placed on publication in Azeri and other Turkic languages, place names were changed, and pressure was even put on parents to give their children Persian-sounding names.

The Persio-centric policies of the two Pahlavi shahs antagonized Iran’s ethnic minorities, including not just Turkic-speakers but millions of Arabs, Kurds, and others. They also failed to resonate deeply with many Persians, who formed a bare majority of the country’s population. Under Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, Iran’s head of state from 1941 to 1979, Iranian nationalism was officially based not merely on contemporary Persian culture but on 2,500 years of imperial history. By glorifying his country’s pre-Islamic past, the Shah deeply antagonized Iran’s religious leadership, contributing to the collapse of his regime in 1979.

The new Islamic Republic of Iran fixed its national foundations firmly on the religious ties of Shiite Islam. Although Persian remained the favored language, especially in education, many of the restrictive linguistic policies of the previous government were dropped. As Shiites, the Azeris could easily share in the country’s reformulated scheme of national identity. (The same cannot be said for Iran’s Sunni groups, most notably the Baluch and the Kurds.)

Developments in northern Azerbaijan, under Russian and then Soviet control from the early 1800s to 1991, also militated against the formation of a pan-Azeri national consciousness. Russian imperial rule was harsh, and did not encourage the emergence of Azeri political identity. Under Soviet rule, such identity was nurtured insofar as it remained subsumed within communist ideology. Soviet agents promoted communist ideas in Iran as well. In the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s, the Iranian Communist Party gained strength in the north, and especially in the Azeri-speaking northwest. But the Soviets overplayed their hand. After having occupied much of northern Iran during World War II, the Soviet Union set up a quasi-independent communist state in Iranian Azerbaijan in 1945, appealing to Azeri ethnic identity. Most Iranian Azeris, however, rejected the Marxist ideology of the “Azerbaijan People’s Government,” which collapsed in 1946. As much as they may have distrusted the Pahlavi dynasty, most southern Azeris preferred it to the Soviet Union.

The independence of Azerbaijan in 1991 again changed the dynamics of Azeri identity, opening the doors for the first time to the emergence pan-Azeri nationalism. The effects of long-term historical development, however, are not so quickly erased. In terms of political identity, Iranian Azerbaijan remains far more Iranian than Azerbaijani.

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Militias, Private Armies, and Failed States


Max Weber famously defined the modern state as an entity claiming a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence to enforce order over a specific territory. By this definition, many of the countries that constitute the international geopolitical order fall well short of being genuine states. Consider Lebanon. From 1976 to 2005, a sizable Syrian army was parked on Lebanese soil, making a mockery of any claims that the Lebanese state had a monopoly on force. Although that army subsequently withdrew, Lebanon was not able to establish sovereignty over the full extent of its territory. It is generally agreed today that Hezbollah’s Islamist militia is stronger than the Lebanese national army, exercising power if not monopolizing violence in the country’s Shiite-majority areas, and thereby compromising Lebanon’s territorial integrity if not its very statehood. By strict Weberian criteria, Lebanon must be regarded as a semi-fictive state, one that has the forms but not the full powers of genuine statehood.

One could argue that Hezbollah, for all its strength, is an illegitimate wielder of violence, making Lebanon a legitimate if beleaguered state. Elsewhere in the world, however, plenty of more ambiguous cases can be found. Some states allow the proliferation of private armies, granting paramilitary groups a form of legitimacy—and in so doing undermining their own. If a country takes the further step of relying on such autonomous purveyors of violence to uphold its own order over large stretches of its supposed territory, then it can no longer be classified as a fully modern state, at least by Weber’s definition. Instead, it should be regarded as something more akin to a feudal entity, one in which effective sovereignty is diffuse and parcelized, ceded by a theoretically sovereign power to largely independent, localized forces.

Such quasi-feudal states are more widespread than is commonly realized. Consider the Philippines, the world’s twelfth most populous country. By certain criteria, the Philippines is relatively stable; according to the Failed States Index, more than fifty other countries are at greater risk of systematic collapse. Yet private armies operating with impunity have long been a staple feature of Philippine political life. As MindaNews reported on February 5, 2010, fifty-two private militias operate on the island of Mindanao alone. The power and audacity of Philippine armed retinues came to global attention after the Maguindanao Massacre of November 2009. Fighters associated with the powerful Ampatuan clan attacked a convoy of a rival clan that was heading to register one of its members as a candidate for an up-coming gubernatorial election; fifty-one people were slaughtered, including as many as 32 journalists. The Committee to Protect Journalists describes the incident as the largest single attack on news-reporters in world history.

The November massacre was so outrageous that the Philippine government had to react, arresting key members of the Ampatuan clan, conducting raids (one of which netted 330,000 rounds of M-16 ammunition), and declaring martial law in the region – in effect, denying the legitimacy of the private army that had perpetuated the bloodbath. But up to that point, the Ampatuans had been key allies of the government, and had in fact helped engineer the presidential election of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2004 by ensuring her virtually all of the vote in their home district. Elsewhere in the Philippines, private armies continue to operate with impunity, periodically serving state ends by battling Islamists insurgents in the south and the forces of the Maoist New Peoples’ Army through the rest of Philippine archipelago.

States are by definition territorial entities that are supposed to exercise control over the all areas within their internationally sanctified borders. In the Philippines, as in many other countries, such a condition remains more a dream than a reality. As the map above shows, most parts of the archipelago remain vulnerable to insurgent forces, which retain effective control over many remote areas. Philippine territoriality in the south is also complicated by the existence of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, a topic that will be addressed in next Monday’s posting.

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