Criticism of World Regional Maps

World Region Map based on data from the Country Similarity Index

The textbook Geography: Realms, Regions, and Concepts, defines a geographic region as a combination of “cultural, economic, historical, political, and appropriate environmental features”. The world regional map created using the data from the Country Similarity Index, also defines regions by considering a multitude of different factors, including demographics, culture, politics, infrastructure, and physical geography. Unlike most regional maps created in the past, which have been defined by geographers based on their own finite knowledge and biases, the Country Similarity Index is a more rigorous, statistically based approach to this extremely complicated task. It is worthwhile to look at how the Index’s map compares to ten other world regional maps. All these maps divide the world up into between 6 and 12 regions. Examining the differences between these maps and the Country Similarity Index, can help find where there might be mistakes in these maps, as well as faults in the Index’s map as well. The following 10 maps were compared against the Index:

Prentice Hall


Unlike most other regional maps of the world, the Country Similarity Index map unites the entirety of Europe, United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Russia all within the same macro-region.
Most maps divide up the Western World into North America, Europe, Russia, and Australasia. This is sensible since they are located in vastly different parts of the world. However, the Country Similarity Index recognizes that despite the geographic distances that United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand have from Europe, on a global scale, the majority of their traits are similar to Europe. In these countries, most people have Caucasian ancestry. The majority natively speak Indo-European languages and use alphabetic writing scripts originating from the Greek alphabet. They are also mostly Christian, although many are not particularly religious anymore. Even their typical diet consists of wheat and potato-based starches, unlike other areas of the world where rice, cassava, corn, or sorghum may be more common staples. Furthermore, countries in this region are wealthier and have better developed infrastructure on average than the rest of the world. They also tend to have well educated, but aging populations.
On a global scale, it seems that the differences between European countries are quite small in comparison to other areas of the world. Since many textbooks are written by Western academia, the differences between European countries seem to be exaggerated, while the differences between Asian countries may be vastly oversimplified.


Like most other regional maps of the world, the Country Similarity Index defines Central and South America as a distinct region, although there are some that break up Central America and South America into two regions. However, the Index indicates that a better break might be between the former Spanish, French, and Portuguese countries that speak Romantic languages in this region, and the countries that speak Germanic languages and were colonized by Great Britain and the Netherlands.
One way that the Index differed from most regional maps is its treatment of Cape Verde and Mauritius. At first glance, it is understandable that most maps group these countries with Africa since they are islands not far from the main continent. However, most of the defining characteristics of these islands are closer to those of Caribbean islands not Sub-Saharan African countries. Much of the indigenous population in the Caribbean was wiped out by disease, while Cape Verde and Mauritius were uninhabited. Europeans brought slaves and indentured servants to these lands. As a result, their people speak creole languages based on their colonizers’ respective native languages. Furthermore, the economic situation and infrastructure on these islands are much better than in most Sub-Saharan African countries. What is fascinating about Mauritius is that its most similar country based on the Index turned out to be Trinidad & Tobago, despite being over 13,000 km away from each other. Both are former British colonies where most of the population is made up of the decedents of African slaves and indentured servants from India.


Eight of the ten maps studied include a region combining Southwest Asia, also known as the Middle East, with North Africa. Three of the ten maps also grouped Central Asian countries with the Middle East and North Africa.
The hierarchical clustering of the Country Similarity Index classifies Yemen as part of the Sub-Saharan Africa instead of the Middle East, despite it not actually being located in Africa. However, this only happened because Sudan was the most similar country to Yemen. A large part of the reason for this is that Yemen is extremely poor, due to civil war. Since economic factors do play a huge role in the statistics gathered by the Index, Yemen was hard to group with other countries on the Arabian peninsula, since they are some of the wealthiest in the world. Despite the fact it was clustered with Sub-Saharan Africa, the data shows on average it has much more in common with the Middle East.


Sub-Saharan Africa is a relatively well defined region. Nine of ten maps studied separate Sub-Saharan Africa from North Africa. However, there is definitely some debate about which countries should be included in North Africa. Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Egypt are the obvious ones, the same ones that the Country Similarity Index includes. A few maps show Sudan and Mauritania as part of North Africa as well. The data shows the Sahel is a transitional region between the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Unlike other maps studied, one country that is classified as a Sub-Saharan African country in the Index is Haiti, despite it being located in the Caribbean Sea. Like many Sub-Saharan African countries, it was colonized by France and the majority of its people have African ancestry. It also has extremely poor infrastructure, an disproportionately young population, and its people have a low literacy rate. On the other hand, its people natively speak French Creole, not languages belonging to the Niger-Congo family of languages like most African countries. Its population is also mostly Catholic, like most Latin American countries.


South Asia is a region that appears in all ten of the maps studied. India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka are always included in it. Eight of ten maps also include Pakistan as part of South Asia. The Country Similarity Index places Pakistan as a mixed region between South Asia and the Middle East. However, according to the Index, it has slightly more characteristics of a Middle Eastern country.
Like other Middle Eastern countries, Pakistan is mostly desert. Because of its climate, unlike the other South Asian countries, its predominate crop is wheat not rice. Although most people in Pakistan natively speak Indo-European languages, they use the Arabic script, not Indic scripts like in all other South Asian countries. Since it is a predominately Muslim country, alcohol is prohibited for Muslims and over 90% of its males are circumcised in stark contrast to all countries in South Asia, except Bangladesh.


Central Asia is not consistently on regional world maps. Only three of ten maps have Central Asia as its own unique region. Three group it with Russia and while four other maps group it in with the Middle East. The data used in the Country Similarity Index supports treating it as its own region. Although it is worth noting that if countries were split into only eight regions, then Central Asia and the Middle East would be grouped together. Not only is there debate to whether it should even be a region or not, the countries that make it up are not always consistent. While Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan are almost always considered to be in Central Asia, sometimes, Mongolia, Turkey, and Azerbaijan are not included.
Turkey is an especially difficult country to put into a specific region. It is at the intersection of Central Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. Most often it is grouped with the the Middle East. However, the data supports Turkey being classified as a Central Asian or even a European country more than a Middle Eastern one. Perhaps before Ataturk’s reforms, Turkey did make more sense to be grouped with the Middle East. Like Central Asian countries and unlike most Middle Eastern countries, Turkey’s laws are more secular. The sale of alcohol is not restricted and polygamy is criminalized. Abortion is also not restricted. Furthermore, its legal system uses Civil Law, not Muslim Law. More importantly, Turkish is now written in the Latin alphabet and its language is highly related to the other Turkic languages spoken in Central Asia. From a geography standpoint, its climate is not as hot and dry as many Middle Eastern countries.


All ten maps studied recognized East Asia as well, although three lump Southeast Asia in with it. Like the Country Similarity Index, all of them include China, Taiwan, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea in this unique group.
One key difference is that Mongolia is also included in East Asia in nine out of ten maps. The data shows this is the biggest mistake geographers make. The Index clearly groups Mongolia in with Central Asia instead of East Asia for a variety of reasons. Some linguists believe that the Mongolian language and the Turkic languages of Central Asia are part of the same language family. No matter if it is or not, there is no debate that the Mongolian language and the Turkic languages have shared characteristics, far more than with any language in East Asia. Furthermore, the Mongolian language currently uses the Cyrillic script, like many countries in Central Asia. Even the origins of traditional Mongolian script come from the West not the East. Looking at the cuisine of Mongolia, it far more resembles other Central Asian countries than the core East Asia countries. The Mongolian diet is heavy in beef, lamb, and wheat products. Unlike East Asian countries they don’t eat much rice. According to the Lewis Model, Mongolians tend to be more outgoing than East Asians and have a similar personality to Central Asians. Although Mongolia was never part of the Soviet Union, like most Central Asian countries, its railroads use the Russian gauge, Type C electrical outlets are standard, and the country is even part of Russia’s electrical grid. Furthermore, its dry climate and landlocked geography is more in line with Central Asian countries. While East Asian countries are densely populated, Mongolia is literally the least densely populated in the world.
So why is Mongolia being consistently grouped with East Asia? One reason may be that since Mongolia does not border other Central Asian countries, so geographers are biased against grouping it with them. Another problem is that Central Asia is not even recognized as its own distinct region on many maps. There are also a few things that make Mongolia different from Central Asian countries. It is mostly Buddhist, although its people practice Vajrayana Buddhism, not Mahayana Buddhism like other East Asian countries. A further factor might be that Mongolians have mostly East Asian ancestry, not mixed East Asian / Caucasian ancestry like in Central Asia. However, Bhutan is similar in all these respects, but is almost never grouped with East Asia.


Southeast Asia is another region that is recognized in all ten of the maps studied, although three lump East Asia in with it. Like the Country Similarity Index, all of them include Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia. However, it is a little surprising that no maps divided Southeast Asia between Mainland Southeast Asia and the islands of Southeast Asia, since there are massive cultural differences between them. All of the countries in Mainland Southeast Asia are predominately Buddhist, while the people in the islands of Southeast Asia follow Abrahamic religions. There is also a split in the writing systems used, as most Mainland Southeast Asia use Indic scripts, while countries in the islands of Southeast Asia have largely adopted the Latin script. In fact, if the Country Similarity Index divided the world up into ten macro-groups instead of nine then they would have been considered different regions.
East Timor is one country that could be classified as either in Southeast Asia or the South Pacific. Unlike other countries in the South Pacific, it is mostly Catholic like the Philippines. Since the country was once part of Indonesia, it still has Muslim holidays along with Christian ones, on its national holiday calendar. However, people from East Timor have more Melanesian ancestry than the rest of Southeast Asia. It is also unique since it is the only former Portuguese colony in the region.


Another aspect where the Country Similarity Index regional map differs from most other regional maps is its treatment of Oceania. Most maps group Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia in with Australia and New Zealand. Australia and New Zealand are the largest landmasses in proximity to Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia, but there are extreme differences between them.
Australia is mostly desert, while countries in the Pacific Ocean have some of the highest rainfall totals in the world. The people in Australia and New Zealand are mostly of European ancestry. They are also wealthier and have more years of education. While English is the official language of most countries in the South Pacific, most of its people do not speak English natively. Austronesian languages are commonly found in this region instead. Although most people in Oceania are Christian, Australians and New Zealanders are far less religious. Their diets are significantly different as well. The consumption of coconuts is much higher in Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia. Another difference is their laws. The laws in Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia are far less liberal. Most do not allow same sex marriage or the possession of pornography. Furthermore, abortion is much more restricted.
It is understandable that most geographers do not group Australia and New Zealand in with the European region, since they are literally on the opposite side of the planet, but Australia and New Zealand should at least be treated as a separate region from Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia.


Combining the findings from the Country Similarity Index with the traditional regions defined by many geographers, the Country Similarity Index map may be improved by splitting the Western World into Europe, North America, and Australasia, due to vastly different geography. In addition, the map would be further improved by splitting up Southeast Asia into two different regions. The map below is a simplified version of the world, resulting in 12 distinct regions with no transitional regions.

12 Macro-Regions of the World, by Country Similarity Index

1 Comment

Leave a Reply