Geographer’s Guide: Constraints & Blessings

Photo by Fran Djoukeng
Photo by Fran Djoukeng

Ever heard of a Navy Community Planner? GIS Specialist? Or even Mapping, Graphics, and Media Associate? Jobs like these belong to geographers. Besides unique traveling opportunities, surveying, sampling and performing mapping projects, geographers just look at situations differently.

Geographers have a systemic method for analyzing any given situation. Their work is pretty applicable to the unfolding of world events–especially the recent international conflicts. Using a geographer’s mindset can help in understanding the regional dramas shaping global trends.

Think of a Middle Eastern nation. A geographer would evaluate a situation in the Middle East from both singular perspectives (ex: anthropological, economical) and geo-political constraints, according to professor of geography at Brigham Young University, Perry Hardin. Geo-political constraints are conditions that have potential consequences: they can favor a society’s progress or become problematic for a population’s welfare.

Different countries possess different geo-political constraints. “When you think about the Islamic State carving out an area for themselves in northeast Syria, the fact that they are not going to have any kind of access to the Mediterranean Sea gives them some geo-political constraints that they are going to have to deal with, if the state survives, for the rest of their lives,” Hardin says.

What are the geopolitical constraints on Japan? China has geo-political constraints. Everybody has geo-political constraints and those may not be viewed in the same way by a geographer or a political scientist or an anthropologist.

Photo by Fran Djoukeng
Photo by Fran Djoukeng
Common geo-political constraints that civilizations or nations confront are:
  • navigability of waterways
  • the impact of terrain on transportation and the potential for inexpensive transportation
  • availability of energy resources compared to what actual needs are
  • natural boundaries between potential enemies
  • climate and soil

Constraints & Blessings

Hardin says France, for example, does not have a lot of geo-political challenges, except that it’s always been next to the hostile country of Germany. France has coastlines to the North and South and does not have a hostile friend to the West. It’s in good shape, geo-politically speaking. “Through history, it’s had hostile people to the East and there’s been the Northern European plane that permits France’s enemies to come into France without a lot of natural boundaries to prevent them from doing that,” Hardin explains.

Similarly, Hardin says the United States is also blessed because of oceans to the east and the west.  Like France, the United States has a country to the North that agrees with them in terms of political viewpoints. “America has countries to the south pretty much the same way. America has no neighboring enemies,” Hardin says. “We don’t have to spend a lot of our wealth fortifying those borders.That is not a geo-political constraint, that is a blessing.”

Compare that situation to a country such as South Korea, which has China to their West and North Korea to the East. Even now, South Korea is not friends with Japan to the East. “They’ve been an invasion route for centuries for people like the Japanese wanting to invade China,” Hardin says. “Those are constraints that they have to live with and concern themselves with. Part of the budget of South Korea goes into defense because of those constraints.”

Spatial Context

Geography as the study of physical or cultural earth phenomena in their spatial contexts treats location as an important thing. History, in contrast, looks at things through time. Geography looks at things through space.

Photo by Fran Djoukeng

Hardin, who has worked in locations across Central America, Europe, and East Asia counts Singapore among his favorite countries for its clean and safe environment and cultural components. Other FHSS faculty members specializing in geography are busy mapping phenomena.

The geography department, which uses Geographic Information Systems, offers GIS as one emphasis among six. Any good geographer, Hardin says, must appreciate a landscape and ask relevant questions about its impact on things and people and even how people impact the landscape. A typical geographer is always asking more.

When a geographer takes a trip across the country or they go on an airplane trip, they are looking out the window and they are asking questions constantly: “Oh look at this. Why is this railroad junction here? Who does it serve?” Instead of them sleeping in the back or watching television they look at the landscape. – Perry Hardin


 What is your favorite way to engage with the terrain around you?

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