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The myth of the continents Essay

In trying to summarize this piece of writing, I have tried to talk about what stood out to me, all quotations used for emphasis are from The myth of the continents: A critique of metageography (University of California Press: 1997).

The very first thing we are taught about how the world is divided- before classifying it as first, second and third world or even simply North, East, West and South- is that it is divided into different continents. These different continents are then associated with different problems, cultures, and histories amoung other things. This then makes it possible for people from different continents to be distinctive groups of people as Europeans, Africans etc.

The basis of this continental separation, however, is not always easy to understand since they are not always based on “continental divisions”. “The Isthmus of Panama, separating North from South America, is of little importance for either social history or the animal and plant kingdoms”, In the case of Africa it would be more effective to consider it as the south of the Sahara dessert rather than the south of the Mediterranean Sea. And between Europe and Asia there really is no viable separation. We can only understand these separations “by discarding the commonplace notion that continents denote significant biological or cultural groupings”

Continents often lead people to make false conclusions about how well off people are in certain countries based on what ‘region’ they are in. Especially when we start looking at entire regions- and not specific countries- as first, second and third world. This puts poor countries such as Portugal and Greece in what is considered first world regions while countries with a relatively high economic activity such as Singapore and South Korea are considered third world countries. “Greece and Portugal lie within Europe and since Europe is a wealthy ‘continent’, its constituent states are often considered ‘developed’ by definition, regardless of their
actual circumstances.”

Other parts of the world may be named/identified just for convenience. Southeast Asia for example was only identified because it was “a suitable geographical platform for military strategists.” There are not many characteristics that are unique to that part of the world. Considering the agricultural patterns for example, they are the same patterns found in southern China and central Madagascar to name a few. There is no concrete way to define landmasses based on environmental criteria since there are many different, unrelated areas with the same environmental conditions. Southwest Asia and North Africa is another example of this.

There is no single conventional way in which the world is divided. Different Geographers focus on different parts of the world, while others cannot seem to agree where some regions start and end. “For one author the ‘Middle East’ stretches all the way from Morocco to Afghanistan; for another, it begins only at the Nile Valle; for a third, it might dip southward to encompass, sub-Saharan Somalia.” There are no definite natural separations between continents and it would therefore it would be contradictory to insist on consistent regional separations.

The way continents and world regions in general end up being divided creates distortion of different information. A country like Sudan is often considered to be in the Middle East even though part of it is in Sub-Saharan Africa, in failing to divide countries in a way that is substantial, historical and cultural patterns are lost and instead political configurations override the criteria supposedly used to set up boundaries i.e. language, religion and intellectual traditions.

There is no one way of defining continents or even parts of continents that is agreed upon by the several things based on when dividing up world regions (i.e culture, religion, climate etc). Continental divisions are therefore based on political configurations and not natural separations.

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