non-comparability of countries

Demic Atlas Preface, Part III

As the past several GeoCurrents posts have explained, sovereign states make poor units of socio-economic comparison due to their vast size disparities. But issues of scale are not the only reasons for considering an alternative scheme of division. In the standard model of global affairs, countries are the all-purpose and essential units of human organization. According to this view, independent states are neatly demarcated geo-bodies administered over their entire expanses by globally recognized, fully autonomous governments, their inhabitants bound together by common sentiments of national solidarity. Yet the nation-state ideal is seldom fully realized. The world is replete with nationless states, stateless nations, contested nationalities, vacuums of sovereignty, and so on. As Jim Wilson perceptively pointed out in a GeoCurrents comment, such geopolitical “anomalies” are too common to be considered anomalous. The political structure of the world, in short, is far too complex for the reigning model. As a result, the global representation found on country-based political maps is simplistic at best and misleading at worst. On a world map, Somalia has the full appearance of a sovereign state; in actuality it has virtually none of the substance.

Over-reliance on a flawed world model results in more than intellectual mischief. In the early years of this century, U.S. military and political planners had little doubt that Afghanistan and Iraq could be quickly and cheaply stabilized and democratized, as it was assumed that they were coherent nation-states, their people tied together by bonds of common affiliation, and hence willing to work together to achieve national aspirations. A decade on, trillions of dollars and many thousands of lives have not proven adequate in either case. As the United States lurches through its second economic crisis in three years, its financial resources stretched near the breaking point, those billions upon billions of dollars that have flowed into nation-building endeavors in Iraq and especially Afghanistan increasingly seem like poor investments. Had we been less beholden to a normative geopolitical model, perhaps such inordinately optimistic policies would not have been pursued.

The goal of the Demic Atlas is to denaturalize the state-based picture by viewing the world through an alternative lens. It is not to argue that states are passé or unimportant in any way, much less that the standard political map should be abandoned. The contention is rather that countries should not be the only units used for depicting the socio-economic differentiation of the human community. Different modes of division can show different patterns and, we believe, yield new insights.

The classification scheme employed in the Demic Atlas will seem odd to most viewers, and shocking to some. The standard world map and model are so ubiquitous, so taken-for-granted, that any alternative is bound to appear perverse. Many if not most educated people have also been so schooled in nationalism that their own countries at least seem inviolable, forming natural units of not just political power but also of social and economic organization. Quick previews of the demic world map—which will be posted here next Tuesday or Wednesday—provoked quick objections, as viewers found it wrong to see their own countries sundered and then re-aggregated with pieces of other states. But this is precisely the purpose of the exercise: to unsettle conventional notions of global geographical organization by challenging the essentialism of the sovereign state.

Modified Map of Europe  from 1751As instinctive as it has become for us to divide the world along geopolitical lines, it is not a particularly long-standing maneuver. Old maps reveal that before the 1800s, European cartographers typically deployed a hybrid system of terrestrial division. In the early modern period (1500-1800), they typically began by splitting the world into continents, and then carving each of the resulting landmasses into a handful of major divisions. Some of these sub-continental entities were geopolitically delimited kingdoms, empires and the like, such as France, Russia, Persia, and China. Others were former sovereign powers that had long lost that standing, such as Hungary and the German (or Holy Roman) Empire, while others were (at the time) mere regions with no political coherence (Italy, Arabia, and India, for example).* Such units were by no means of equal size, as those of Asia dwarfed those of Europe, reflecting the Eurocentrism of European cartographers. But within each continental frame, all the constituent “countries” were roughly comparable. It would have struck an 18th century cartographer as absurd to elevate the pocket states of northern Italy, let alone those of western Germany, to the same level as France or Spain on their basic maps. Early modern cartographers did occasionally depict the small polities of Italy and the Holy Roman Empire, but only when they were explicitly illustrating the geopolitical order. Maps devised for general purposes relied instead on a hybrid divisional scheme.

A somewhat similar situation obtained in early modern Japan. Before the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Japan was a semi-unified state; the Tokugawa Shogunate exercised hegemony over the main islands, but over 200 feudal lords maintained autonomy within their own domains, many of which were spatially dispersed. Tokugawa cartographers by and large ignored the complexly fractured political order that resulted, and instead mapped the archipelago in accordance with the provinces of classical Japan—units that had no political significance at the time. The continued use of a system of defunct subdivisions in basic maps has struck many observers as a quirky anachronism, but as Kären Wigen has shown in her recent book, A Malleable Map, the strategy had its own compelling logic. The provinces of Tokugawa Japan were observational rather than administrative units, providing spatial containers for place-specific information. Provinces served this purpose well because they were deeply rooted in historical memory, were no longer politically charged, and were spatially stable. Also, unlike the domainal territories of Tokugawa Japan, they were relatively compact and of roughly similar size.

Like the provinces of Tokugawa Japan, the spatial divisions in the Demic Atlas are designed for observational purposes: to serve as politically neutral containers for marshalling socio-economic data. Unlike the old Japanese provinces, of course, they are nakedly artificial constructs without historical precedent. Whether or not such manufactured units prove useful is for readers to decide.

*Intriguingly, mapmakers of the time sometimes claimed to base their divisions on geopolitical criteria, yet in practice they did not exactly do so. Consider Thomas Kitchin’s 1787 map, “Europe Divided into its Empires, Kingdoms, States, Republics, Etc.,” published in London by Robert Sayer. As actually mapped, the “principal parts” of Europe included such non-sovereign entities (at the time) as Italy, Germany, Ireland, and Hungary. The accompanying text notes that “Germany is full of sovereign princes and counts …, every one of which is more free and absolute than several crowned heads.” A 1742 version of Guillaume Delisle’s Atlas Nouveau (published in Amsterdam) likewise contains a map purporting to show Asia “accurately divided into Empires, Kingdoms, States, and Peoples,” yet it depicts all of mainland Southeast Asia as one entity, and all of central and northern Asia as another (“Tartary”). These kinds of maneuvers were typical of the time.

Enlightenment-era views on the geopolitical division of space are perhaps best represented in the Encyclopédie Méthodique par Ordre des Matières (“Methodical Encyclopedia by Order of Subject Matter”), a 200-plus-volume reference work published by Charles-Joseph Panckoucke, designed to follow the more famous encyclopedia of Denis Diderot. Here the Europe entry (vol. 2, page 574) details the division of the landmass into three empires (Russia, Germany, and Turkey-in-Europe), twelve kingdoms, one great ecclesiastical realm (the papal state), one archduchy, one grand duchy, four great republics, and four less powerful republics. Not all of Europe, however, was classifiable in this scheme, with northern Italy presenting particular challenges. In another entry, the encyclopedia describes Italy as “a great country of Europe,” noting that it has too many political divisions to report (vol. 1, page 94). The work also notes that the kingdoms and duchies of Europe are not all ruled by their own sovereigns. Although Hungary is listed as a kingdom (joined with that of Bohemia), the author allows that it is currently “under the House of Austria” (vol. 94, page 2).

The Demic Atlas Project: Toward a Non-State-Based Approach to Mapping Global Economic and Social Development, by Martin W. Lewis, Jake Coolidge, and Anne Fredell

GeoCurrents has taken a summer hiatus to create a new cartographic framework for analyzing socio-economic development. This project is a collaborative effort involving three team-members: Jake Coolidge, a geospatial historian at Stanford University’s Spatial History Lab; Anne Fredell, a Stanford University undergraduate; and myself. The Spatial History Lab at Stanford, which has provided extensive technical assistance, will eventually publish the maps as an on-line document. GeoCurrents will also post maps from the project, as well as commentary on the process. Beginning today, I will discuss both the intellectual rationale for such an atlas and the problems that we have encountered in creating it.

The Non-Comparability of Sovereign States 

Global economic and social comparisons are almost always made within the framework of sovereign states. Countries are numerically ranked against each other on such measurements as per capita GDP, literacy, and longevity, much as students are tallied together on a class grade sheet. If one wants to know what part of the world is the richest, healthiest, or best educated—or the opposite—the answer will generally come in the form of a national name. Whether on maps, tables, or charts, the country is the category that counts.

Our atlas starts from the premise that, while sovereign states are certainly the essential units of the geopolitical order, they are not necessarily appropriate units of socio-economic comparison. In actuality, countries are ill suited for such purposes. For starters, they are simply not comparable entities, varying enormously in both area and population. We know this, but we rarely let it truly sink in. Consider the discrepancy between China, with 1.3 billion inhabitants, and Tuvalu, with ten thousand. Comparing these two independent states is like weighing a single person against a city of 130,000. To appreciate the absurdity of such an exercise, consider what it would mean to compare either with a hypothetical entity equally far removed in the opposite direction. A country as small relative to Tuvalu as Tuvalu is to China would be inhabited by one twelfth of a person, while a country as large relative to China as China is to Tuvalu would be a galactic polity of 160 trillion inhabitants. No serious study would ever make such a comparison, spanning more than five orders of magnitude. Yet when it comes to assessing the economic and social conditions of the world, making such gargantuan leaps in scale is the price we pay for using country-based data.

Relying on an inappropriate geopolitical framework for social and economic analysis can quickly leads one astray. Consider the CIA World Factbook’s list of countries by average longevity (a list that is replicated in Wikipedia). Surprisingly, one country stands well above all others: Monaco. Whereas twenty-four entries are crowded in the eighty- to eighty-four year life-expectancy range, miniscule Monaco reaches almost ninety (89.7). Intriguingly, the third and fourth places are also occupied by European microstates: San Marino and Andorra. As it turns out, most of the top positions on the CIA list are taken by small, tiny, and smaller-than-tiny polities located in Europe, eastern Asia, and the Caribbean. As a result, some of the seemingly healthiest and wealthiest major countries do not rank particularly high on the longevity index. Germany comes in 32nd out of 223, the United Kingdom is 36th, and the United States trails well back at 50th. A quick glance at the table might make it seem as if the U.S. were bested in life expectancy by almost a quarter of the world. In actuality, the total population of the forty-nine top entries is less than ten per cent of the global sum. That is not exactly a stellar showing for the U.S., especially considering the fact that it is bested by several much poorer countries, including Jordan and Bosnia. Still, the fiftieth-place position indicated by the Factbook is misleadingly low.

The preponderance of microstates in the upper reaches of the longevity list could easily lead to erroneous deductions about country size and public health. The correlation, after all, is striking: sixteen of the top fifty entries on the list have fewer than 100,000 people, while none of the bottom fifty do. One might reasonably conclude that small polities are somehow better able to meet the health needs of their citizens than their more populous neighbors. Could political devolution enhance longevity?

Any such conclusion would be nonsensical. The people of Andorra, a feudal remnant in the Pyrenees sandwiched between France and Spain, may live longer than the average residents of neighboring countries, but they do not out-live the inhabitants of adjacent French and Spanish districts. Put differently, if all Europe were divided into states the size of Monaco (population 36,000), Monaco’s sizable advantage would instantly vanish, as other tiny, wealthy enclaves located in salubrious environments would boast similar longevity figures.

In the end, the CIA rankings are compromised by comparing incommensurable entities. But it is not just the World Factbook that is at fault here. Virtually all numerical assessments of global development shoehorn socio-economic data into the same geopolitical categories, where size means nothing. In the world of international statecraft, to be sure, all sovereign countries are treated as theoretically equivalent individuals, regardless of their population or power. Such pretense may be necessary in the halls of diplomacy, but it does not help anyone grasp the complex patterns of social and economic disparity found across the surface of the earth.

While most global comparisons are made strictly within the framework of sovereign states, which number slightly fewer than 200, the CIA World Factbook employs an expanded list, noting 223 “countries” in its longevity chart. The additional entries are actually dependent territories, most of which boast impressive life-expectancy figures (Cayman Islands, Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Isle of Man, etc.). Such an inclusive approach is beginning to be followed by other major data sources as well, no doubt from a desire to be fair and comprehensive. Just because Greenland and Guernsey lack full independence is no reason to consign them to statistical oblivion. In the process, however, the problem of incomparability is compounded. While all of the world’s independent countries (barring the anomalous Vatican City) have at least 10,000 inhabitants, many dependencies are much smaller. Wikipedia’s inclusive “list of countries by population” bottoms out with 224th-place Pitcairn, which boasts all of fifty residents at last count. Although Pitcairn does not make the CIA’s longevity table, a number of other miniscule dependencies do. Adding these micro-units clutters the list while providing little information of value.

The biggest distortion that results from using states or quasi-states as all-encompassing spatial containers for socio-economic comparison is that lightly populated areas might receive precise scrutiny, while some of the world’s most populous places are subjected to extraordinarily crude aggregation. As a consequence, the residents of small countries literally count for more than do the residents of large ones. An equal appraisal of individual polities, in other words, results in an intrinsically unfair weighting of the individual persons within those polities. In the World Factbook’s tabulation, the average inhabitant of the British dependency of Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha (population 5,660) is inadvertently deemed twenty-six million times more attention-worthy than the average resident of China.

China and India, the world’s demographic giants, are particularly ill-served by being treated as singularities. Not only do these two countries have huge populations—more than a third of the global total between them—but both are characterized by vast regional disparities. As a result, numbers given for China and India as a whole are almost worthless. When overall per capita GDP is calculated in terms of purchasing power parity, China’s $7,500 figure ranks well below the global average of $11,100. But the commercial core areas of eastern China, increasingly vital drivers of the world economy, evince per capita GDP figures well above the world average, reaching $13,000 in Jiangsu, $18,500 in Shanghai, and $46,000 in Hong Kong. In contrast, Guizhou in China’s south-central interior produced only $3,400 worth of goods and services per person in 2010, a figure comparable to that of war-ravaged Iraq. In global comparative terms, China spans the gap between the rich and poor worlds. Grasping such regional differences is essential for understanding the economy of China, and hence that of the world. Yet in the standard method of tabulating and portraying global economic data, such disparities remain invisible.*

The depiction of the world as divided into supposedly comparable individual geopolitical entities reaches its extreme form in a number of almanacs and children’s atlases in which each country is accorded its own map and page or two of text. In such cases, China typically receives a bit more attention than Tuvalu—but not much. The genre is nicely parodied in Our Dumb World: The Onion’s Atlas of the Planet Earth. Its mocking caption for San Marino, whose 32,000 people inhabit twenty-four square miles, reads, “These A**holes Don’t Belong In An Atlas,” while the text focuses on the absurdity of elevating such an insignificant piece of territory to the same level as that of major countries. A sidebar, entitled “A Marino You Should Care About,” claims that “Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino achieved more during his 17-year Hall of Fame career than the ‘nation’ of San Marino has managed to accomplish since A.D. 301.” In actuality, the history of the little state is rather more illustrious than that; in early modern Europe, San Marino was often highlighted by geographers because of the fact that it was a rare republic (officially, “the most serene republic”) during a period of monarchical dominance. But the humorists at The Onion have a point; putting San Marino at the same level as Italy, let alone India, is an exercise in absurdity.

How might such absurdity be avoided? This is a complex issue that will occupy the pages of GeoCurrents over the next several weeks.


* Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, with its own laws and currency, is usually tabulated separately from the rest of the country