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Continent X: The Geopolitical Lesson of Size, Shape, and Location

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Continent X: The Geopolitical Lesson of Size, Shape,
and Location
Daryl Byklum



John Adams Junior High School , Rochester, Minnesota
Published online: 11 Sep 2007.

To cite this article: Daryl Byklum (1992) Continent X: The Geopolitical Lesson of Size, Shape, and Location, Journal of
Geography, 91:1, 18-22, DOI: 10.1080/00221349208979332
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00221349208979332

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Continent X: The Geopolitical Lesson of Size,
Shape, and Location
by Daryl Byklurn

Downloaded by [ECU Libraries] at 09:32 20 April 2015

The subject of political geography is often slighted or omitted completely in many high school classrooms. This
article offers a practical approach to introducingthe dynamics of geopoliticalissues to secondary students. Size,
shape, and location as geopolitical themes are incorporatedinto a student exercise of map analysis. Supplemental activities are also included. Key words: geopolitical, size, shape, location, and map analysis.

As events in the Middle East threaten the stability of the Arab
world, and the restructuring of the Eastern Bloc continues to
unfold, an understanding of the major concepts of political
geography is basic for interpreting world events. With the
reunification of Germany and the collapse of the former
Soviet Union, not only will maps of Eurasia be redrawn but
geopoliticalchange necessitates a reevaluation of this region.
For teachers of geography, and political geographyin particular, these events present an exciting opportunity to reemphasize the dynamics of geopolitics and to provide an understanding of the concepts that interact to foster and influence
political happenings.

Territorial characteristics play an important role in the
political nature of a nation-state. Of these characteristics,size,
shape, and location are among the most important.As political
events play themselves out in an increasingly complex world,
too often we tend to examine only the event itself, overlooking
the cause/effect relationships that territorial characteristics
impart to the nature of the happening. Nations throughout
history have been known to rise and fall on the basis of such
factors, yet students and teachers alike often look past these
basic influences and analyze only the end result. A comparison of European maps, before and after World War 11, provides ample evidence of nation-states succumbing to the
geopoliticalpressures of their size, shape, and location. Kings
and pawns emerged in a geopolitical chess game, the reverberations of which are still being felt today. For a teacher who
uses current events in the classroom, a presentation of these
concepts should be a prerequisite to any discussion of world
The following activities provide the opportunitywithin a
hypothetical situation to present these ideas in the classroom.
Thus, the teacher need not contend with real-world constraints
that can turn seemingly clear-cut concepts into murky shades
of gray. After engaging in these activities, students will be
able to transfer the concepts to actual geopolitical conditions
and thereby gain a broader understanding of real-world situations. This project has been designed as an introductory
geopolitical unit but could easily be used elsewhere in the


curriculum. Background information is provided upon which
to build individual lessons. Ideas for follow-up topics are also
included so that supplementary activities can be expanded
into other facets of political geography.

Background: The Concepts
The concept of size has been a political issue since the
beginning of recorded history. Many of the “great” nations of
the ancient world were actually quite small, but as empires
rose and fell, their size, at least in part, influenced the events.
Small states were dominated by larger, more powerful ones;
large empires, in turn, would strugglewith the impracticalities
of their size. The tiny Greek city-state of Athens grew to great
cultural heights, but its size became a detriment in the struggle
against larger enemies such as Persia. Rome would rise to
greatness from very modest beginnings on the Tiber River, yet
in its eternal quest for more territory, the Roman Empire
became so large that it simply outgrew its ability to govern.
What is the ideal size of a nation-state? Is bigger better?
Was the former Soviet Union too large? Is France too small?
These difficult-to-answer questions are relevant in the context
of political geography. A. E. Moodie (1949) wrote that one
should recognize that size alone is not always a decisive factor
in the greatness of countries. Australia, Brazil, and Canada all
have large territories, but none claim the superpower status of
the United States. Moodle goes on to point out that size in and
of itself is not always the issue but rather that nation-states
desire the prestige derived from the size of their land holdings.
Often, nation-states thirst for more territory because
larger countriesenjoy a greater and more varied resource base,
as well as potential space for human settlement.Viewed in this
light, territorial expansion is highly desirable. The additional
territory, however, can carry a liability if efforts to effectively
develop and control the acquisition are met with resistance,
either internally, externally, or both. Visions of expansion
often clash with the physical realities of governing, as Napoleon and Hitler learned on the battlefields of Europe.
The size of a country has a great deal to do with the


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political make-up and organization of the nation-state. Central government authority can falter if an ineffective political
organizationfails to reach the outer territories it controls. The
fervor for independence in the republics of the collapsing
Soviet Union can be partially traced to the immense size of
that country and the accompanying difficulty of effectively
governing outlying areas such as the Baltic states.
Perception of ideal size varies with advances in transportation, communication, and other forms of technology. During the 19th century, the United States expanded its borders
from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The perceived size of
this new land shrank considerably with the completion of the
Trans-ContinentalRailroad. An ocean grew smaller with the
laying of a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable. Satellites help
countries throughout the world communicate quickly and
effectively.Space age technology has shrunk the entire world
in the mind of humankind.
Popular theory suggests that the ideal shape of a country is
circular or hexagonal, allowing easy access to and rapid
communication with all parts of the country. A compact
country has a shorter boundary to defend. Lucile Carlson
(1962) writes that compactness reduces transportation needs
and will often produce internal coherence more readily than
does elongation or fragmentation of the land within a state.
France is a good example of a compact country that is close to
the ideal shape.
In reality, however, very few countriesin the world are of
such a compact nature. Elongation and fragmentation of
territory present unique problems that can and do impact the
geopoliticalnature of a country. Elongated countrieslike Italy
or Chile face the challenge of unifying populations that span
the length of their far-reaching extremities. Fragmented nation-states face similar cohesion problems. In 1971, Pakistan
succumbed to insurmountable fragmentation problems when
East Pakistan seceded to form the independent country of
Bangladesh. Stoddard, Wishart, and Blouet (1989) attribute
the creationof Bangladeshto problems of unity resultingfrom
the fragmentationof east and west. Physically, economically,
and culturally separated from West Pakistan, the unifying
force of Islam was not enough to hold the two parts together.
Overcoming problems resulting from the shape of territory is the concern of every nation, yet sometimes seemingly
similar circumstancescan dictate totally opposite results. The
industrial might of Japan is undaunted by its island configuration while the neighboring Philippine Islands remain entrenched in political instability and poverty.
The shape of a country and the accompanying political
implications can also be the result of whether the country’s
inhabitantsinterpretthe shape as a positive or a negativeforce.
The United Kingdom has encountered a powder keg of problems in keeping control of fragmented Northern Ireland.
Catholic-Protestant issues and a deep-rooted sense of Irish
nationalism have kept this area a political hot spot. On the
other hand, the United States has shown that fragmentation
need not be a liability. Alaska and Hawaii maintain good

relations with the rest of the 48 contiguous states in spite of
their isolation. If, however, they would come to view,their
location as a negative condition, this attitude could lead to
instability in the governingprocess of these fragmented areas.

The location of a country (in both absolute and relative terms)
influences the political nature of a state in many ways. A good
example of this is vicinal location (i.e., whom your neighbors
are; whether they are large or small, powerful or weak). This,
in turn,helps to determine strategic location, a concern of all
political states. The United States shares a common border
with only two other countries, its northern boundary with
Canada being the longest unfortified border in the world. In
contrast, Brazil shares a common border with 10 different
countries on a continent which, historically, has not been
politically stable. From a military vantage point, boundaries
can be a logistical nightmareshould aregion become involved
in armed conflict. The oil-rich Persian Gulf region illustrates
the consequencesof vicinal location in an area that the United
States has long considered strategic. Iraq was able to take
advantage of Kuwait’s military vulnerability and gain a foothold in the political domain of a weaker neighbor. The
result-war in the Persian Gulf.
Continental versus maritime location must also be considered. The resulting climate and ecosystem are locationbased and can providepotentialsfor, or obstaclesto, economic
development and human settlement. Siberia holds a wealth of
untapped natural resources for the Soviet Union, but a combination of remoteness and cold make extraction expensive.
Location influences a country’s choice of trading partners. Modem land and air transportationnotwithstanding,sea
access is an important component of international trade, and
is determined by a country’s location. Landlocked countries,
restricted in their access to the sea, become victims of location. The Netherlands has a thriving shipping industry because of ports such as Rotterdam, while nearby Luxembourg
is removed from the North Sea and must rely upon others to
ship its goods.
Location also determines a country’s accessibility or
isolation. Great Britain will soon feel the effects of a major
change in its accessibility. Moodie (1949) referred to the
island insularity of Great Britain as a country “of Europe, but
not in it.” Now as the completionof the ChannelTunnel draws
near, Great Britain will be connectedby land with Europe. For
the first time in history, Great Britain will be confronted with
economic, social, and cultural implications that heretofore
would never have arisen because of its island isolation.
Thus, the concepts of size, shape, and location must be
examined to gain a full appreciation of geopolitics. Keen
insight can be gained into world politics if the observer is
schooled in these basic concepts of political geography.
Gordon East and J.R.V. Prescott (1978) write that the political
geographermust be aware that the size, shape, and location of
a state play a very important role in influencing the attitudes
of people and the policies that their governmentsdevelop. By
drawing conclusions from the physical factors that shape

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1) Students will be able to
define the concepts of size, shape,
and location as they relate to geopolitics.
2) Students will be able to list
advantages and disadvantages associated with size, shape, and location of political units.
3) Students will use map
analysis to compare and contrast
real and hypotheticalexamplesby
citing circumstances imposed by
size, shape, and location of territory.


Figure I .

nation-state policy, the political geographer can evaluate the
world more effectively.

Guidelines and Objectives
Map analysis of size, shape, and location of territory.
Target Audience
Secondary level and above.
Time Requirement
Two to three class periods.
Materials Required
Student copies of Continent X, Classroom atlases.

Suggested Procedure
The concepts of size, shape, and
location are easily introduced in
the geography classroom with the
help of mythical ContinentX (Figure 1)and alittle imagination.This
lesson can be tailored to work
with many age groups (I use it at
the 8th grade level) and will accommodate whatever degree of
time and depth a teacher desires.
Although this activity was developed as an individual assignment,
it lends itself well to small group
analysis and cooperative learning
techniques. Getting students involved with political geography is
yet another way to make them
more aware of the world around
The map of Continent X was
constructed on an Apple II GS
computer with a program called
PaintworksPlus. Analternatemap
would be easy to construct with
any such ‘‘paint’’ program (or
teachers can copy the map provided). An appropriate hand
drawn map would work also. Continent X is a flexible assignment and can be modified to meet many goals or objectives.
A good addition to the map might be lines of latitude and
longitude to provide yet another perspective for comparison
and analysis.

1) Distribute copies of Continent X (Figure 1).
2) Begin with a general statement instructing students to
examine the map in terms of desirable living conditions. Do
not specifically tell the students at the outset that they will be
analyzing this map in terms of size, shape, and location.
3) Ask students to list advantages and disadvantages of
living in each of the five countries on Continent X.


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Note: At this point, student answers will probably focus
on the physical features of Continent X-mountains, lakes,
rivers, and deserts.
4) Ask students to speculate on the significance of each
country’s name (Figure 1).
5 ) Have students write a paragraph answeringthe following question: In which country would you most like to live?
Note: Be aware that student choices will often be a matter
of perception and circumstance. For example, many students
might like to live on an island. Be sure to have them explain
and defend their choices. Such reactions can make for lively
6) Discuss student responses and reactions. With a little
prompting, it is likely th& many aspects of size, shape, and
location will surface. Problems that occur from fragmentation
and elongation will almost certainly be brought up as well. It
is important for the teacher to steer the discussion in the
desired direction and provide leading questions if students are
7) Introduce the concepts of size, shape, and location,
individually and in more detail, using the map for specific
Note: From this general introduction, you can delve into
the geopolitical arena as deeply as you like. It is always
fascinatinghow easily students grasp this type of analysis and
sometimes pursue lines of questioning that you had not even
8 ) Homework Assignment. Using a world map, students
should look for examples of countries sharing the same
characteristics as those of Continent X. For some classes or
students, it might be better to use a map of a single continent
such as Europe or Africa.
9) Use the ensuing class period to analyze student responses in terms of political realities that have resulted from
the size, shape, and location of these countries. This is a
marvelous way to introduce other current event activities.
The following list offers examples of countries which
could be cited for their particular size, shape, and location
characteristics. (Note that countries can be placed on more
than one list.) Ask students to give possiblereasons why some
of these nations are more politically stable than others.
Compact Countries: France, El Salvador, Lesotho, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, Uruguay, Zimbabwe.
Elongated Countries: Chile,Italy, Norway, Mozambique,
Panama, Thailand, Vietnam.
Fragmented Countries: Australia, Canada, Greece, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, United Kingdom.
Island Countries:Cuba, Iceland, Indonesia,Japan, Madagascar, New Zealand, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Taiwan.
Landlocked Countries: Austria, Bhutan, Central African
Republic, Chad, Czechoslovakia, Mali, Mongolia, Nepal,
Niger, Paraguay.

Follow-up Topics
Effectof Physical Features
The various physical features of Continent X, such as mountains, deserts, and rivers can be examined for positive and

negative political attributes. For example, mountains and
deserts act as barriers. River access and water control will be
hotly debated because three countries might battle for water
rights. Peninsular areas can be considered in terms of real or
perceived isolation while coastlines should be examined for
potential harbor sites.

Possible Activities
Discussion.Discuss the statement,“Ideally, a state should
have rugged mountains and hills around its edges and plains
in the interior” (Jordan and Rowntree 1990). Jordan and
Rowntree cite the town of Berchtesgaden, which is wreathed
by the Bavarian Alps, as an example of the political importance of terrain. Protected from invading armies before the
development of modem transportation and communication,
would such physical features offer political relevance today?
Research. Have students research and report on state
water rights within the United States and the controversies
and/or solutions that have developed. Water claims along the
Missouri and Colorado rivers would serve as good illustrations.
Map Analysis. Have students examine population distribution maps of Africa, Australia, or any other political region.
Ask students to identify physical features which encourage
dense populations and those that prove detrimental to human
Enclaves and Exclaves
An enclave is defined as a state or territory completely
surroundedby another state or territory, but not ruled by it. An
example of an enclave is Country D on Continent X. A realworld example is the African nation of Lesotho, which is
completely surrounded by South Africa. Exclaves are pieces
of territory that are separated from the political body that
controls it. Country A has an exclave on Continent X. Alaska
is an exclave of the United States.
Possible Activities
Discussion. Direct student attention to Country D, an
enclave on Continent X. Discuss the question: What are the
positive or negative aspects of Country D’s location? Consider such complexities as defense, trading partners, and
movement of goods.
Research. Have students research the history of Pakistan,
founded in 1947. Students should report on the problems and
instability created by East Pakistan, an exclave, located some
1000 miles east of Pakistan. The report could also include the
subsequent founding of the country of Bangladesh.
Map Analysis. Have students examine world maps and
list examples of enclaves and exclaves. Examples of enclaves
would include Vatican City and San Marino. Since few
enclaves exist in the world, have students reflect on why this
might be. Examples of exclaves can be found in the list of
fragmented countries.
Political Boundaries
Boundaries are a part of every political state; however, the

nature of those boundaries differs greatly. Boundaries are
imposed in many ways and by a variety of circumstances.
Natural boundaries (consisting of features of the physical
landscape), ethnographic boundaries (based on cultural traits
and features), and geometric boundaries (surveyed boundaries often consisting of straight lines) are all examples of
politicalboundaries, the effect of which impact the population
residing within.

Carlson, L. 1962. Geography and worldpolitics. Englewood Cliffs,New
Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc.
East,G. W., and J.R.V. Prescott. 1978.Ourfiagmented world-An introduction to political geography. London: Macmillan F’ress.
Jordan, T. G., and L. Rowntree. 1990. The human mosaic. New York
Harper & Row, Publishers.
Moodie, A. E. 1949. Geography behind polirics. London: Hutchinson
University Library.
Stoddard, R. H., D. J. Wishart, and B. W. Blouet. 1989.Human geography-People. places, and cultures. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:
Prentice Hall.

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Possible Activities
Discussion. Discuss the statement, What problems can
develop from the use of rivers as political boundaries? The
changing course of the Rio Grande, and thus the United Stated
Mexico border, is a good starting point.
Research. Have students research the history of colonization in Africa and the effects of political boundaries on the
continent. This project could be used in conjunction with the

map exercise below.
Map exercise. Have students redraw the map of Africa
taking into account ethnic and tribal distributions.



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