4.5 Shapes and Boundaries of States

Shape of States

The shape of a state is essential because it helps determine potential communication internally, military protection, access to resources, and more. The following is a list of the six types of state shapes and can be viewed in Google Maps by clicking on the links provided.

Compact states have relatively equal distances from their center to any boundary, much like a circle. They are often regarded as efficient states. An example of a compact state would be Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi.

Elongated states have a long and narrow shape. The major problem with these states is with internal communication, which causes isolation of towns from the capital city. Malawi, Chile, and Vietnam are examples of elongated states.

Prorupted states occur when a compact state has a portion of its boundary extending outward exceedingly more than the other portions of the boundary. Some of these types of states exist so that the citizens can have access to a specific resource such as a large body of water. In other circumstances, the extended boundary was created to separate two other nations from having a common boundary. An example of a prorupted state would be Namibia.

Perforated states have other state territories or states within them. A great example of this is Lesotho, which is a sovereign state within South Africa.

Fragmented states exist when a state is separated. Sometimes large bodies of water can fragment a state. Indonesia is an example of a fragmented state. Fragmentation also occurs when a state is separated by another state. An example in the U.S. would be Michigan.

Landlocked states lack a direct outlet to a significant body of water such as a sea or ocean. This becomes problematic specifically for exporting trade and can hinder a state’s economy. Landlocked states are most common in Africa, where the European powers divided up Africa into territories during the Berlin Conference of 1884. After these African territories gained their independence and broke into sovereign states, many became landlocked from the surrounding ocean. An example here would be Niger.

Types of State Boundaries

State boundaries are determined either by physical features such as rivers, mountains, deserts, or glaciers or by cultural features such as religion, culture, or ethnicity. Boundaries are dynamic features that vary with space and time. Throughout most of human history, boundaries were determined by frontiers where no political entity controlled the area. These were often large, uninhabitable regions such as deserts, oceans, and glaciers. However, technological and communication advancements have allowed nations to protect their regions without the need of frontiers. Today, most frontiers have been replaced by boundaries.

Desert boundaries can be quite significant barriers for states and can serve for protection. Deserts are typical along 30 degrees north or south of the equator where permanent high pressure creates sunny, dry conditions year-round.

Mountainous boundaries can also protect large areas if they are difficult to climb through. However, they can also isolate societies from each other using transportation, trade and export, and culture. Like desert boundaries, they can also make geopolitics difficult when determining the boundary of a state since it is not a clear boundary or line.

Often, water boundaries like rivers, lakes, and oceans create state boundaries. If the body of water is large enough, it can be protective. Invading armies would need to use boats and limited resources to attack a state from its water boundary. However, boundaries that use rivers and lakes can be problematic with changing climates. If a river meanders to a new location, does the boundary of that country also change?

Geometric boundaries are straight lines drawn on a map.

Cultural boundaries are used to separate people with differences in both of these cultural traits. Often, cultural and ethnic conflicts occur between people with different languages or religions. Religious differences often coincide with boundaries between states, but in only a few cases has religion been used to select the actual boundary line. The most notable example was in South Asia, when the British partitioned India into two states based on religion. The predominantly Muslim portions were allocated to Pakistan, whereas the predominantly Hindu portions became the independent state of India. Language is an essential cultural characteristic for drawing boundaries, especially in Europe. By global standards, European languages have strong literacy traditions and formal rules of grammar and spelling. Language has long been an essential means of distinguishing distinctive nationalities in Europe. In 2011, the state of Sudan separated into Sudan and South Sudan along a language boundary.


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Introduction to Human Geography by R. Adam Dastrup, MA, GISP is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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