Duke University Alumni Magazine


Photo: Les Todd

Geographer Martin Lewis and historian Karen Wigen are challenging traditional understandings of how--and why--the world is divided into continents.

artin Lewis and Karen Wigan want us to rethink the way we view the world--literally. In their book The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography, published last year by the University of California Press, these two Duke professors expose the intellectually erroneous, politically biased assumptions that underlie traditional divisions of our planet's land masses, and they lay the groundwork for re-mapping the globe according to more clear-eyed and culturally equitable standards. Hailed as a landmark in geographical analysis with significant implications for other fields of study, the volume reflects a strong, collaborative working relationship between two scholars who are also partners in life. This year they're celebrating their fifteenth wedding anniversary and the fourth birthday of their son, Evan Karl Lewis.

In setting forth the fundamental problem they seek to redress in their book, they write, "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 inevitably divided from like, while disparate places are jumbled together." Convenient as global divisions of this sort may be for some purposes, Lewis and Wigen argue that they are oversimplifications that, in the worst cases, can lead to tragic consequences for particular environments and their occupants. They expose the conventional geographical units of continents, nation-states, and supra-continental entities such as East and West as politically motivated "myths" that serve primarily to exaggerate the importance of Europe and the United States. At the same time, they're careful to point out that Euro-American geography isn't unique in its ethnocentrically skewed division of the globe, citing examples in which nations such as China, India, and Korea have been given undue emphasis on maps made in those parts of the world. As an alternative to these prejudiced geographical approaches, they propose a new global model that would conform to more balanced criteria and highlight culturally based "world regions."

Lewis is an associate research professor of geography affiliated with both Duke's Center for International Studies and its program in Comparative Area Studies, of which he and Wigen are co-directors. Although, like her husband, Wigen earned her graduate degrees in geography, she is an associate professor in Duke's department of history. In building their critique of longstanding geographical misconceptions, they carefully examine the historical basis of the mapmakers' mythology they seek to debunk; and in that sense, their book is as relevant to the field of history as it is to geography.

Their main impetus for embarking on the project, Lewis says, was "to get people to pay attention to how the world is divided." This is what he and Wigen mean by the term "metageography," which they define in their book as "the set of spatial structures through which people order their knowledge of the world."

The metageographical terminology we've inherited, says Lewis, "is largely taken for granted or ignored. If our book has any real impact, it will be to convince people that this issue is important. It's not just a neutral issue. It has an interesting history, and it has significant political implications." Citing the "very broad trend toward questioning the categories in fields such as history, the humanities, and social thought," Wigen says she and Lewis set out to apply that same kind of rigorous critical inquiry to global geography.

"There's been an increasing amount of critical activity in the discipline of geography in the last twenty years," Lewis points out. "Geographers have started looking at the ideology and politics that are implicit in our received geographical categories, but that approach hasn't previously been applied on a global scale. That's because modern geography has moved away from a focus on global divisions. It seems to have been almost forgotten that the term 'geography' literally means 'writing about the world as a whole.' There's a related term, 'chorography,' which means writing about particular places. It's rarely used now, but if you go back to the seventeenth century, you'll find people who studied these kinds of things made a real distinction between the two terms. In more recent years, the two have become conflated, and a lot of contemporary geographical studies could be more accurately described as chorographical. So, in some ways you could say that our book follows some of the major trends in the discipline, but in other ways--particularly in our focus on the world as a whole--it represents a move away from current trends. Our emphasis on how the world is divided into these big categories is hardly ever touched."

Central to their critique of the conventional system by which the globe is partitioned is their analysis of "the European anomaly"--the fact that Europe has been traditionally granted continental status even though it doesn't constitute a separate land mass from the much larger area broadly designated as Asia. Describing Europe as merely "one of half a dozen Eurasian subcontinents," they suggest that it might be more aptly compared to a region such as South Asia than to all of Asia, as is implicitly the case in the standard continental system.

Exaggerating Europe's significance in relation to the rest of the globe, the traditional designation of a European continent gives it unwarranted historical priority and effectively serves as "visual propaganda for Eurocentrism." This type of "geographical myopia," Lewis and Wigen assert, makes the so-called "Western" sections of the world map appear to be more important than others.

Cold War continents, circa 1975: Ambiguous cases are indicated with dots (Mauritania and the Sudan, often placed in sub-Saharan Africa rather than the Middle East; Afghanistan, located in South Asia rather than the Middle East; and Mongolia, sometimes placed with the Soviet Union rather than with East Asia). The unlabeled Pacific islands are either grouped as Oceania, divided into three realms (Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia), or simply ignored.

In exposing the pro-"Western" propaganda advanced by our inherited metageographical categories, the two scholars also set about dismantling widely accepted notions of the West as the cultural fountainhead of rationalism, democracy, and modernity. "[R]ationalism in its purest form," they point out, "was never more than one contender among many in the unsettled field of Western epistemology, and it has never been widely accepted."

As for democratic ideals and other values associated with progressive modern culture, they sharply challenge the notion that these are by any means essentially "Western" in character. Prior to the beginning of the high modern era, they note, "The foundational institution of the Occidental cultural region--the Roman Catholic Church--did everything it could to oppose the growth of individual freedoms, modern science, democracy, market culture, and, of course, secularism, and today it finds itself uneasily allied with radical Islam in an attempt to maintain traditional 'family structures.' "

In their deconstruction of the Eurocentric assumptions underlying traditional metageography, Lewis and Wigen would appear to be closely allied with radical theorists working in other disciplines. But in several key respects they part company with their fellow proponents of critical theory. For example, they fault the rhetoric of both classical and cultural leftists for perpetuating what they call "West-rest binarism" by simplistically disparaging the West in order to celebrate "the rest." Characterizing their own efforts as simultaneously deconstructive and conservative, they temper their critique of Eurocentrism by acknowledging a need for some form of geographical classification, and asserting that inherited metageographical categories can, in some cases, be of limited use in providing a framework for such classification.

In what is potentially one of their book's most controversial chapters, the co-authors apply their critical lens to a cultural perspective that some of their fellow scholars have in recent years held up as an alternative to the Eurocentric view--namely Afrocentrism. Acknowledging Afrocentrism's status as "a discourse with strong political and moral claims, some of which we really agree with," Wigen admits that their position as white scholars automatically made it "politically delicate" for them to question the basis for that discourse. "We tried to frame our critique of Afrocentrism diplomatically," she says, "but it seemed imperative to us to be rigorous toward all schools of thought. We tried to distinguish between different variants of Afrocentrism, but we found some of the formulations to be objectionable in mirror-image ways to Eurocentrism. To say that its underlying logic is a mirror-image of the Eurocentric view, however, is not to say that Afrocentrism is equally pernicious, because it's actually a very small sidestream of intellectual life in the United States. It's certainly not a mirror-image in the institutional sense."

In their book, Lewis and Wigen identify a variant they characterize as "radical Afrocentrism," describing it as an "inverted Eurocentrism." Proponents of this branch of the discourse, they write, "go beyond rejecting the notion of Western priority to make untenable claims on behalf of Africa, upholding it as the unique locus of innovation or virtue." In so doing, radical Afrocentrists "embrace the same faulty geographical thinking they so effectively expose"--an ultimately flawed strategy that Lewis and Wigen characterize as "substituting one chauvinism for another."

The Myth of Continents makes the case that global geographical concepts are important not only in their implications for discourse about the world, but in the influence they have over policy as well. "We'd like to encourage greater geographical literacy among policymakers," said Lewis, "because more knowledge about how the world is put together could have some real payoff in that area. For one thing, if policymakers were more cognizant of these issues, there might be less ethnocentrism behind the decisions they make. This is not to suggest that ethnocentrism is by any means unique to the United States. But because of the predominance of the United States in the global arena, it's particularly important for politicians in this country to have a more ecumenical view of the world."

One section of the book that might provide policymakers with useful background insights is its discussion of the area that has come to be popularly known as the Middle East, one of the most politically contentious regions on the planet. Lewis and Wigen point out that the current concept of the Middle East grew out of political and economic events surrounding World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, when the East was redefined to include Russia, Eastern Europe, and in some cases, Germany--thus separating them from the rest of Europe. This redefinition, they assert, allowed Western Europe "to disown the uglier episodes in what is, in fact, a shared political history." As a byproduct of this revised metageographical scheme, the Eastern and Southern Mediterranean region was reconceptualized as an intermediate zone connecting Europe, Asia, and Africa. Although the term "Middle East" was coined shortly after the turn of the century to designate the Persian Gulf region as a strategic military arena, the politically motivated reconfiguration of the East-West divide effectively enlarged this zone to extend from Afghanistan to Libya. In light of the geographic facts, Lewis and Wigen find the designation confusing and misleading, and they suggest that this part of the world might be more accurately characterized as Southwest Asia and North Africa.

Politicians in the United States and elsewhere might gain a valuable perspective on another troubled part of the globe from Lewis and Wigen's analysis of the Balkan region. As the two scholars point out, the "de-Europification" of this part of Eurasia also had its origins in the most recent eastward migration of the East-West divide. The resulting displacement has served the propaganda purposes of Western Europe and the United States, they assert, by allowing the region's formidable problems to be blamed on its Eastern heritage. While they acknowledge the power of Turkish and Islamic influences in parts of the Balkans, they're unequivocal in calling it "a serious geographical blunder to imply that a country like Serbia has more in common...with Eastern regions...than it does with the rest of Europe."

According to Lewis, "It would be helpful if policymakers had more of a genuinely global perspective--one that's not so heavily rooted in an emphasis on Europe and the United States--because if you want to understand what's really going on in the world, you need a broader perspective than that. I think about this lately every time I hear politicians and news commentators refer to the 'Asian economic crisis,' as if this were something that's occurring throughout all of Asia, when, in fact, it only applies to certain countries in East and Southeast Asia, like Japan, Indonesia, and Thailand."

It's not surprising that Lewis and Wigen are particularly concerned with the way Asia is conceptualized, since they're both specialists in the study of regions located in that part of the world. During his graduate-school years at the University of California at Berkeley--where he and Wigen met in the early 1980s--Lewis focused on the northern Luzon highlands of the Philippines, and his research in that area eventually resulted in his first book, Wagering the Land: Ritual, Capital, and Environmental Degradation in the Cordillera of Northern Luzon, 1900-1986 (University of California Press, 1992). Wigen's postgraduate work centered on the transformation of a rural valley in Japan from a relatively autonomous center of protoindustrial production to an industrialized suburb of Tokyo, and her doctoral dissertation became her first book, The Making of a Japanese Periphery, 1750-1920 (University of California Press, 1995).

Their collaboration on the new book was in some ways a direct result of their more highly specialized work on sections of Asia. Lewis said the idea for The Myth of Continents grew out of his disappointment over the minimal response to his book on the Philippines' Luzon district. Having concentrated in that volume on a very small and relatively marginal place, he decided to try the opposite geographical approach and focus on the world in its entirety. Wigen traces the initial impetus for her involvement to her interest in Japan and her "increasing awareness of the energy that Japanese intellectuals have invested in trying to locate themselves globally." The same is true of the Chinese, she adds, noting that "in both countries there's been a lot of wrestling with ideas about the reconfiguration of the globe."

Roughly four years in the making, The Myth of Continents was published in August of 1997, and it began to receive attention almost immediately. The first review of the book appeared not in a scholarly journal, but rather in The New York Times Book Review. Reviewer Michael Lind questioned some aspects of the "refined world regional scheme" Lewis and Wigen propose as an alternative to widely held metageographical assumptions, but otherwise his take on the book was overwhelmingly positive and even enthusiastic. He described it as "an entertaining and informative account of the way our maps show us the world that we want to see." Lind's main criticism was that they used "different and incompatible principles" in their proposed tripartite division of the Western Hemisphere, defining North America and Ibero-America according to criteria of language and colonial heritage, while they employ race as the common basis for the region they've designated as "African America."

"We think each region should be defined by the same criteria, but, from a practical standpoint, it's almost impossible to do that," Wigen says. "We tried to even all those kinds of considerations out, but that's especially difficult when you're dealing with the way things have been in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with people migrating en masse, so that you have complete creolization everywhere. What's often called the Black Atlantic region is equally Euro-Atlantic, so how can you adequately label it?"

Heuristic world regionalization scheme: The map used by the authors for teaching global human geography, its regions are: East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia (subdivided into Islamic and Lamaist zones), Southwest Asia and North Africa, sub- Saharan Africa (with an Ethiopian subdivision noted), Ibero America, African America, North America, Western and Central Europe, Russia-Southeast Europe and the Caucasus, Australia and New Zealand, Melanesia, and Micronesia and Polynesia.

The world regional scheme that Lewis and Wigen propose as an alternative to the spatial framework of traditional metageography is a refinement of a strategically motivated system that U.S. government and military planners developed during World War II. The two co-authors define the regions into which this system divides the Earth as "large sociospatial groupings delimited largely on the basis of shared history and culture." These differ from civilizations, they point out, in the absence of any presupposition of a literate "high" culture, and for that reason no portion of the globe is omitted from the system. Although this standard world regional system relies heavily on traditional metageographical terminology, Lewis and Wigen find it preferable to the continental framework in its breakup of the Asian supercontinent and its delineation of new boundaries based not on land forms but rather on historical connections. "Where the continental scheme is based on a spurious identity between human groupings and the land masses they inhabit," they write, "the world regional framework (at its best) attempts to delineate areas of shared ideas, related lifeways, and long-standing cultural ties."

Lewis and Wigen's refined world regional framework divides the world into fourteen such areas: Micronesia and Polynesia; Melanesia; Australia and New Zealand; Southeast Asia; East Asia; South Asia; Central Asia (subdivided into Islamic and Lamaist zones); Russia (Southeast Europe and the Caucasus); Sub-Saharan Africa; Southwest Asia and North Africa; Western and Central Europe; Ibero-America; African America; and North America. In proposing this system, they're careful to qualify it as no more than "a convenient but crude device for making sense of particular patterns of human life," and "a vehicle for talking and teaching about basic global patterns of sociocultural geography at the college level."

Lewis and Wigen aren't hesitant to point out what they see as the limitations and shortcomings of the ideas they present in The Myth of Continents. For example, Lewis says their critique is largely limited to European metageographical concepts. "We tried to look at some of the ways in which the world is conceptualized by non-Western cultures, but we could only touch on those. We would have liked to have given them more attention."

Wigen recalls a conversation she and Lewis had with John Headley--a professor of Renaissance history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--soon after their book was released. "His first comment was that he thought we hadn't broken decisively enough with conventional geography. To exemplify what he meant, he pointed out that all of the maps in the book are centered on the Atlantic Ocean. I just laughed, because I immediately saw that he was right."

In the book's conclusion, they deal with the potential value of an alternative geographical frame of reference emphasizing water rather than land. Arguing that "it is essential in some contexts to deploy a regionalization scheme centered on oceans and bays rather than on continents or cultural blocs," they highlight the role these large bodies of water serve in creating "complex webs of capital and commodity exchange." They also encourage further research into "the intellectual history of maritime regions in the geographical imagination," and note that "communities oriented around the world's major seas have become increasingly visible in recent decades...."

Following up on these suggestions in their joint roles as co-directors of Comparative Area Studies at Duke, Lewis and Wigen have helped launch a project called "Oceans Connect: Culture, Capital, and Commodity Flows Across Basins." Initiated last fall with a $50,000 seed grant from the Ford Foundation, the project brings area-studies scholars together in several groups organized around six different maritime basins--the Mediterranean Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Black and Caspian seas--in order to study cultural and economic exchanges across these major waterways. The more than sixty Duke faculty members and graduate students who have participated in these groups have come from such diverse fields as literature, classics, public policy, religion, philosophy, Romance studies, cultural anthropology, and sociology.

The work Lewis and Wigen have done on the "Oceans Connect" project is already beginning to have an impact on their individual scholarly endeavors. Lewis says, "In my research, I'm starting to look at oceans in the same way we looked at continents in our book. I've been looking at atlases from different periods in history and different parts of the world to see how bodies of water have been labeled and depicted and conceptualized, and in the process I've begun to discover how political these labels can be. What we call the Sea of Japan is not the Sea of Japan as far as the Koreans are concerned."

The co-authors of The Myth of Continents are the first to acknowledge that the labels by which we've learned to identify the various land masses and bodies of water on the globe are deeply entrenched. "There's a tremendous amount of inertia about changing these traditional ways of looking at the world," says Wigen. "Maps haven't been scrutinized in the same way that texts have. They have an aura of authority, and they're taken as more of a given than texts are."

Patterson, a freelance writer, lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina

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