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Parallel worlds: empirical region and place


The concept of regions, segments of the Earth's surface, and the process of regionalization, identifying regions, are potentially useful but in need of reexamination. The meaning of 'region', the nature of regions, and the conventionality of existing regions are the main issues addressed.

Our understanding of the world is heavily influenced by conventional geographies. Humans naturally break the world into classes to understand it, including subdividing the Earth into regions. Regions can be studied directly, but are used mostly to identify the setting of events and experience. At the global scale, we primarily use countries. Additionally, geography, area studies, and other fields are increasingly organized around world regions. The convention that defines these regionalizations and by which we employ them has left the public and even social scientists operating in a mental world at odds with empirical reality.

The conventional understanding of regions is that they are or should be standardized, authoritative or official, exhaustive and exclusive, hierarchical, and bounded. The conventional global regionalizations possess all five properties, and all are problematic. Also critiqued here are the distinction between formal and functional regions, the newer preference for process geographies over trait geographies, and the privileged status of place.

Our substitute for conventional regions should primarily be regions defined by single, empirical attributes of the human, natural, or physical world, attributes most relevant to the subject under consideration; this will produce multiple independent systems of regions, in which regions, and regionalizations, will be parallel, occupying the same space. Examined carefully here are political regionalization, considering the juridical state, sovereignty, and territoriality in international relations, and linguistic regionalization, considering the identification of languages versus dialects, and Ethnologue. World regions at their best point to numerous geographically-concentrated commonalities, often linked to an original civilization and spread through religion or empire; these can be taken simultaneously to define a superregion, comprising a core where all commonalities are present, and a periphery where only one is. South Asia and Latin America are considered briefly as possible superregions; East Asia is considered in detail, with the culture of China as its base.

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