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Mapping the Terms Used for First-Order Administrative Divisions

Submitted by on July 30, 2013 – 10:06 am 35 Comments |  
Term Used for First-Order Administrative Divisions MapIn examining the various countries of the world, I am often unsure what to call their main administrative divisions. Recently, I found myself writing about Peruvian departments but then wondered whether they might be called provinces instead. As it turns out, Peru is split into regions. Other countries are divided into districts, counties, governorates, divisions, and so on. Around twenty such terms are listed on Statoids, the most authoritative website on the matter. As a result, it is easy to get confused.

As can be seen on the map posted here, and as was discussed in yesterday’s post, these terms are scattered over the globe in a largely haphazard manner, compounding the confusion. The main reason for the lack of clear patterns is the fact that little differentiates the various entities denoted by these terms. To be sure, sovereign states that call their primary divisions “states” are generally organized in a federal manner, devolving considerable authority on these constituent units. Most countries with states are correspondingly large in territorial extent (but not all: exiguous Palau is divided into sixteen states). Otherwise, I see little holding together the various categories. I have considered examining the etymologies and usages of the terms in question, but it hardly seems worthwhile. If any readers have different ideas on this matter, I would be interested to hear them.

One of the main problems is that of translation, as can be seen in the case of Poland. The Polish term for Poland’s own divisions is województwa, directly translated into English as voivodeship. Although this term appears in the OED and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, it is not viewed as being “in common English usage.” As a result, “province” is more commonly used, as can be seen in the map posted above. But as the Wikipedia article on “voivodship” tells us, “depending on context, historic voivodeships may also be referred to as ‘duchies’, ‘palatinates’ … ‘administrative districts or ‘regions’”.

Ethiopia is another interesting case. In Amharic, its first-level divisions include nine kililoch and two astedader akababiwoch. The term “kililoch” (kilil in the singular) is usually translated either as “state” or as “regional state,” but other English terms would work just as well. The Astedader akababiwoch, on the other hand, are “chartered cities” (Dire Dawa and Addis Ababa, in the Ethiopian case). Globally, it is fairly common for important cities to escape the regular hierarchy of administrative divisions, generating an intrinsic problem for classification.

In the GeoCurrents map posted here, Ethiopia falls into the “state” category. It does so because the map closely follows the Statoids website. (I highly recommend the site, particularly its “factoid” section.)  Statoids’ tables list the primary divisions of almost every country on Earth, and most of the secondary ones as well. They also cover dependencies. As a result, it is easy to slot countries into clear categories based on the terms used for their primary divisions.

I am not ready to follow the website in habitually referring to these divisions as “statoids,” but the term is certainly less cumbersome than “first order administrative division.” As the author of the Statoids, Gwillim Law, argues:

The land area of the world is divided into countries. Most of the countries are, in turn, divided into smaller units. These units may be called states, provinces, regions, governorates, and so on. A phrase that describes them all is “major administrative divisions of countries”. I will use the term “statoid” for short. Since the word has no other accepted meaning, it can be used as a search term on search engines to target this site. The ‘a’ of statoid is long.

This page is a guide to Internet sites about the statoids of each country. It can be used independently, but it is meant to be an update to the book “Administrative Subdivisions of Countries”, by Gwillim Law (McFarland & Company, Jefferson, North Carolina). The international standard ISO 3166 is the source for the list of countries. As a result, some dependencies, and a few integral parts of larger countries, are listed as if they were separate countries.

In making the GeoCurrents map, I deviated from Law’s scheme only by ignoring dependencies. Had I included Greenland, Montenegro would not be the only country divided into “communes.” But I do have a few minor quibbles with his classification system. In particular, it seems to me that the internal divisions of a number of countries are too ambiguous to be so neatly ordered. In the remainder of this post, I will examine two of the more troublesome states: Italy and the United Kingdom. On the map posted above, the former is placed in the “province” category while the latter is in that of the “county,” but I remain dubious in both cases.

On the Statoid webpage, Italy is said to be divided into “provinces” at the primary level and “communes” at the secondary level. Italy is indeed divided into 110 provinces, which are in turn subdivided into numerous comuni (singular comune). But “commune” is usually translated as “municipality” rather than “commune,” a term that has a very different connotation in colloquial English. More important, Italian provinces are grouped together at a higher level into regions, which are usually considered to be the country’s highest-order administrative level, and are so regarded by the European Union through its NUTS system (Nomenclature of Territorial Units for Statistics). When I recently mapped Italian elections, I did so on the basis of regions not provinces, largely because the country’s provinces are too numerous. Italian provinces, moreover, are going to change dramatically in 2014; as a result, the Wikipedia maintains two lists of them, noting that many are “being reorganized.”

British Administrative Divisions Map DetailMuch greater complexities are encountered in regard to the United Kingdom. One could argue that the primary division of this state is the “country,” as England, Scotland, and Wales are “constituent countries” of the UK. (Northern Ireland’s status in this regard is not so clear; the Wikipedia claims that it is “variously described as a country, province or region of the UK, amongst other terms.”). Below this level, diversity prevails. As a different Wikipedia article puts it:

The administrative geography of the United Kingdom is complex, multi-layered and non-uniform… Consequently, there is “no common stratum of administrative unit encompassing the United Kingdom”. … Historically, the subnational divisions of the UK have been the county and the ecclesiastical parish, whilst following the emergence of a unified parliament of the United Kingdom, the ward and constituency have been pan-UK political subdivisions. More contemporary divisions include Lieutenancy areas and the statistical territories defined with the modern NUTS:UK and ISO 3166-2:GB systems. … The highest level subdivisions of England are the nine regions. … Below the district level, civil parishes exist, though not uniformly. Parish or town councils exist for villages and small towns; they only rarely exist for communities within urban areas. They are prevented from existing within Greater London. … Commonly, though not administratively, England’s geography is divided into ceremonial counties, which in most areas closely mirror the traditional counties. Each ceremonial county has a Lord Lieutenant, who is the monarch’s representative.”

British Administrative Divisions ChartAs a result of such administrative intricacy, the map of the UK’s internal divisions is a marvel of cartographic complexity. I have therefore posted a detail of an excellent Wikipedia map on the issue, as well as a chart from the same webpage showing the relationships among these various divisions.


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