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The Myth of Continents

The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography

Martin W. Lewis
Kären E. Wigen
Copyright Date: 1997
Edition: 1
Pages: 383
  • Book Info
    The Myth of Continents
    Book Description:

    In this thoughtful and engaging critique, geographer Martin W. Lewis and historian Kären Wigen reexamine the basic geographical divisions we take for granted, and challenge the unconscious spatial frameworks that govern the way we perceive the world. Arguing that notions of East vs. West, First World vs. Third World, and even the sevenfold continental system are simplistic and misconceived, the authors trace the history of such misconceptions. Their up-to-the-minute study reflects both on the global scale and its relation to the specific continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa-actually part of one contiguous landmass.The Myth of Continentssheds new light on how our metageographical assumptions grew out of cultural concepts: how the first continental divisions developed from classical times; how the Urals became the division between the so-called continents of Europe and Asia; how countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan recently shifted macroregions in the general consciousness. This extremely readable and thought-provoking analysis also explores the ways that new economic regions, the end of the cold war, and the proliferation of communication technologies change our understanding of the world. It stimulates thinking about the role of large-scale spatial constructs as driving forces behind particular worldviews and encourages everyone to take a more thoughtful, geographically informed approach to the task of describing and interpreting the human diversity of the planet.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-91859-7
    Subjects: Geography

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    In a country where high school graduates strain to locate Australia on a globe, conveying basic information about the world has become the overriding pedagogical imperative for university-level courses in global geography. But fulfilling that imperative is harder than it might appear. For it is precisely the most basic information—the highest level of our geographical taxonomy—that is the most problematic. Whether we parcel the earth into half a dozen continents, or whether we make even simpler distinctions between East and West, North and South, or First, Second, and Third Worlds, the result is the same: like areas are...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Architecture of Continents
    (pp. 21-46)

    In contemporary usage, continents are understood to be large, continuous, discrete masses of land, ideally separated by expanses of water. Although of ancient origin, this convention is both historically unstable and surprisingly unexamined; the required size and the requisite degree of physical separation have never been defined. As we shall see, the sevenfold continental system of American elementary school geography did not emerge in final form until the middle decades of the present century.

    According to Arnold Toynbee, the original continental distinction was devised by ancient Greek mariners, who gave the namesEuropeandAsiato the lands on either...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Spatial Constructs of Orient and Occident, East and West
    (pp. 47-72)

    The publication of Edward Said’sOrientalismin 1978 was a landmark in cultural studies. In this seminal work, the author—a Palestinian schooled in European literary history—argued that the Orient was essentially an elaborate construct of the European imagination. Focusing on analysis of British and French texts, Said criticized eighteenth- and nineteenth-century European scholars both for denying the Islamic world its dynamic history and for ascribing to it a bogus cultural unity. Despite vehement criticisms from regional specialists,¹ the impact of Said’s vision across the humanities has been enormous. In the nearly twenty years since his book appeared in...

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Cultural Constructs of Orient and Occident, East and West
    (pp. 73-103)

    Europeans have long been wont to define their own psychosociological qualities in contrast to those of their Eastern neighbors, a habit of thought that shows no sign of decline. The continuing salience of East and West as foundational concepts in our understanding of the world is manifest daily in the popular press, where a cluster of related mental attributes is consistently identified with the European approach to life and contrasted with an opposite set of traits that is said to characterize the East.

    The key components of the Western cluster comprise a familiar list. European civilization is said to be...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism
    (pp. 104-123)

    As the preceding chapters have shown, the assumption of European centrality in the human past is a pervasive feature of Western thought, resurfacing even where it is most loudly denounced. In recent years, of course, this worldview has come under sharp attack: not only as a symptom of cultural arrogance, but as a distortion of the empirical record. Samir Amin is one of many scholars to articulate a compelling critique of Eurocentrism on historical grounds. In positing a direct connection between ancient Greece and modern Europe, Amin argues, the doctrine mistakenly discounts important developments in the intervening millennia.¹

    We have...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Global Geography in the Historical Imagination
    (pp. 124-156)

    It might seem odd for geographers to look to historians for insight into the construction of metageographies. According to conventional wisdom, historians are concerned with time, not with space; their attention is trained on issues of periodization rather than on problems of regionalization. Such was often true in the early days of the profession, when historians typically took established national states to be their proper subject. But this assumption no longer prevails. In the twentieth century, with the rise of social history in all its guises, the subjects and scales of historical analysis have undergone enormous diversification. States may remain...

  11. CHAPTER 6 World Regions: An Alternative Scheme
    (pp. 157-188)

    The burden of our argument to this point has been to show that received metageographical categories, from continents to civilizations, are inadequate frameworks for global human geography. This chapter explores the promise—and the problems—of what we believe is the most serviceable alternative: the framework of “world regions.” Like civilizations, world regions are large sociospatial groupings delimited largely on the grounds of shared history and culture; unlike civilizations, they do not presuppose a literate “high” culture, with the result that a world regional scheme can be used to classify all portions of the globe. Although the number of regions,...

  12. Conclusion: Toward a Critical Metageography
    (pp. 189-206)

    It is no accident that the global geographical framework in use today is essentially a cartographic celebration of European power. After centuries of imperialism, the presumptuous worldview of a once-dominant metropole has become part of the intellectual furniture of the world. Even postcolonial intellectuals, bent on creating new visions for an alternative global order, find themselves stuck with a collection of parochial geohistorical categories that originated in the Eurasian Far West. Admittedly, those categories have been stretched almost beyond recognition during the past five hundred years. Forced to accommodate a world full of previously unknown lands and peoples, they have...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 207-284)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-334)
  15. Index
    (pp. 335-344)