Reflections on Regional Research in the Geographical Review

Article excerpt

Regional studies, concepts, and delimitations are regularly found on the pages of the Geographical Review. This is no surprise, given the profession's strong orientation toward regional studies in the first half on the twentieth century and the ongoing concern about the formation of different scalar frameworks today. A survey of the pages of the Geographical Review reflects important shifts in regional approaches, from outlining "formal" or "natural" regions, to discussions of functional regions based on transportation networks or regional development policies, to more humanistic approaches concerned with regional identity and meaning. Social processes and political problems associated with regionalism have also been discussed in articles ranging from localities such as the Balkans (Cvijic 1918, 1920) to Nigeria (Prescott 1959), Sudan (Roden 1974), and Costa Rica (Hall 1984). Any naturalist notion that regions are "out there" waiting to be discovered has long been replaced by a more constructivist one in which regions are understood as social constructs that are formed, shaped, and even created by different agents for distinct purposes (Murphy 1991b).

Although regional analyses have played an important role in the journal's offerings, they have never dominated. A search of Geographical Review titles and abstracts from the 1916 to 2004 found nearly 300 articles that contain the word "region," "regions," "regional," "regionalism," or "regionalization"--no more than 10 percent of all the articles published. For comparative purposes, Figure 1 shows only the number of regional articles by decade from 1920 through 1999. Admittedly, this methodology may overlook some articles with a strong regional focus, but certain trends are clear: Regional articles have persisted, but they have never dominated the pages of the Geographical Review; regional approaches and understandings have evolved; and after a decline in the 1940s and 1950s, regional analysis, be it humanistic or functional in orientation, has been a constant feature of the journal.


A brief essay such as this cannot do justice to the many articles presenting regional perspectives. In selecting articles or issues of the journal, I have been drawn to those regional writings that provoked or challenged geographical orderings of space. What follows is a brief discussion of the kinds of regional approaches displayed in the Geographical Review over almost a century. In particular, I will focus on two special issues of the journal--"Oceans Connect" (Wigen and Harland-Jacobs 1999); "New Geographies of the Middle East" (Stewart 2005c)--as exemplars of the vibrant regional research offered. I will conclude with suggestions of promising avenues for future regional work.


The early years of the journal witnessed concerted attempts to describe the world's "natural regions" as part of a basic geographical effort to fill in the map with particularistic place-based information. In this empirical approach to geographical science, natural regions were delimited and described. In the 1920s articles such as "The Natural Regions of the French Alps" (Blanchard 1921), "The Natural Regions of Mexico" (Sanders 1921), or "Natural Regions of Czechoslovakia" (Moscheles 1924) represented this approach. Depictions of natural boundaries, such as "The Region of Maximum Inaccessibility in the Arctic" (Stefansson 1920) concerned a natural boundary in the polar region where the American Geographical Society (AGS) actively supported exploration. The notion that writing such regional depictions actually created spatial units that might not otherwise exist was not addressed.

Interestingly, the use of the term "natural region" gave way to "geographical region" by the 1930s, perhaps because the scholars who were producing these works were surely aware that there was nothing "natural" about the process of regional delimitation. …