The Myth of Continents Book Review

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In recent history, geographers have become concerned with matters of language, and the way in which they communicate and speak about the world. One of the most basic geographical building blocks that one learns is the concept of continents. Everyone learns that there are seven continents, which are simply large landmasses which are ‘separated’ from one another, ideally by oceans. Although this is what how continents are defined, we know this is not always true. An obvious example would be the extremely arbitrary separation of the European and Asian continents.

In the northern portion, they are separated by low, easily crossed mountains, and in the south the separation is the narrow Bosporus Strait, where the city of Istanbul is between the two continents. The Myth of Continents, by Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen, goes into great depth on usages of such terms as continents, first-third world, and global north-south or west-east. The majority of the book is devoted to criticizing the way in which we use these terms to partition up our world. While these terms are necessary if one is to teach about the world, they are also very subjective, and arbitrary.

When speaking of the terms first-world, second-world, and third-world countries, we again see a very arbitrary division. All of Europe is usually grouped into the first world, while all of Asia is usually grouped in the third world. While this is generally accurate in terms of average incomes of these regions, there are also portions of Europe, such as Ireland or Portugal that could easily be put into the second or third-world category, because their incomes and living conditions tend to be much below the majority of Europe.

Grouping all of Asia into the third-world is also problematic, due to the extreme ranges of incomes and living conditions present within just one country, such as China, or the generally high economic output of countries like South Korea. The book also goes into great depth on the subject of eurocentrism, or the exaggeration of the importance placed on Europe in terms of world history. This eurocentrism is evident in the simple fact that Europe is considered its own continent, since it clearly is not its own, separate landmass from Asia.

It is also clear in the materials in which we use to teach children about the world. In school atlas’, Europe is given much more attention than, for example, China, which is just as large and culturally diverse as all of Europe, but usually receives the same amount of attention in atlas’ as tiny countries such as Luxembourg. In the first chapter, The Architecture of Continents goes into depth on what our idea of continents actually is. Everyone knows that a continent is just a large landmass, but no one took the time to define how large a landmass must be, to be a continent.

For example, Greenland is a very large piece of land, but it is mostly ignored due to its extreme northerly latitude, and very low population. The second and third chapters, The Spatial (and Cultural) Constructs of Orient and Occident, East and West, go into depth on the concept of defining the world in the binary of the western, and non-western worlds. This binary itself lends itself to the idea of eurocentrism, because in this binary, only Europe and it’s direct offshoots (like the US), are considered to be the west, while the rest of the world is lumped under the ‘East” category.

This is very problematic because of the extreme variations in all things from climate, to culture, to government, that are present throughout the ‘eastern’ world. The fourth chapter, Eurocentrism and Afrocentrism, goes more into depth on the problem of eurocentrism which is present in almost any geographical materials one may come across in their learning career. The idea of afrocentrism is also present, because the origin of the human species has been traced back to Africa.

This may lead to uneven attention paid to the histories of particular non-African and non-European regions. Chapter five, Global Geography in the Historical Imagination, discusses the framework of civilizations that is present in ideas presented by world historians. Historians treat ‘civilizations,’ as just another unit which can be used to divide the world up into smaller portions, such as the ancient roman civilization. Cultural differences are seen as the division factor for civilizations, which are used to put the world into different regions.

Chapter 6, world regions, delves deeper into modern America’s usage of world regions to study the planets different areas, and why some of these ‘regions,’ such as central Asia, should find their way out of contemporary usage. The authors of the book then go on to define their own system of world regions, in which religion and race are given priority in terms of deciding factors for what makes a particular region. The authors of this book, Martin Lewis and Karen Wigen, are both professors at Duke University, of geography and history respectively.

They obviously have some authority on the subject on which they wrote about, because all the concepts which they mentioned are geographical concepts, which have changed in usage over the course of history. By their usage of some high level vocabulary, and discussions of regions which often require prior knowledge to fully understand, the authors clearly intended this book for an educated, university or higher level audience, who has at least some interest in geographical concepts and, particularly, its terminology.

While this book brings up many valid points on the usage of such terms as ‘continent’, or ‘third world,’ the way in which the argument is presented can sometimes come off in a somewhat pretentious and preachy manner. All of what is discussed in this book has been discussed by others throughout history and the study of the world, but the authors of this book go much more in depth with their analysis than others have in the past.

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