Is There a Difference Between a Country, a Realm, and a Region?

Updated 5/3/2021 as this pet peeve still stands. I’m working on helping people correct their geographical knowledge, sometimes one person at a time. I recently finished evaluating reports written for my world geography course, hence the update today.

One of my pet peeves is the misidentification of a realm or region as a “country.”

For example, what raised my ire was an Apple iTune podcast description for the show, “travel geography.” The premise of the show invites people who have traveled abroad to discussion their journey. A description of the show is posted to help the listener decide what to listen to.

In one case, a two-part episode description invited listeners to learn about the travels of a few people who had traveled across the “country” of Asia.

The “country” of Asia? You’ve got to be kidding me. And, associated with a podcast called, “travel geography,” no less.

Maybe they meant “China” or “South Korea;” or maybe they meant to say the “realm of Asia,” rather than “country.”

A country typically is thought of to be a political area on the landscape, where the area is governed by the people that inhabit the area, and others outside the area recognize the sovereignty of the area. Our planet is covered with examples, such as Germany, Vietnam, Portugal, or Uruguay.

A ‘realm‘ is a large area that typically encompasses many different countries, contains a great number of people, and is a mostly inhabitable territory. Examples can include such as places as Western Europe, East Asia, Sub-saharan Africa, or Latin America. Latin America creates another example, one of a cultural realm. Realms do not necessary require adjacent physical geography. Sometimes, geographers might talk about the “Spanish-speaking world,” or they might refer to the “Muslim realm.” In these cases, people are grouped by a common language, or a common religion.

A ‘region‘ can be defined by a number of subjective characteristics. Regions can also vary by scale. A region could exist at a very local scale, such as around a town or city. A region could exist at a national scale. US states that receive a good deal of sunlight and also receive a number of retirement migrants are part of the Sunbelt. States that are perceived to have strong religious faith fall into the Bible Belt. These are perceptual regions. They encompass a number of administrative units, i.e. states, and are a subset of the larger “realm.”

When geographers talk about a “place,” make sure to understand the context.

I typically ask my world geography students to write a report about a place they would like to visit. The writing assignment arrives about week 13 in our 17 week semester. Waiting several weeks allows us time to get a few details out of the way, like vocabulary words, terminology, and more than a few countries to provide an idea. I give them fairly specific instructions about format, plus the given instructions about grammar and citations. Finally, I specifically tell them I want to have a report about a city, region within a country, or a specific country. “If you write, “Of all the countries we have studied so far, I choose Europe,” I will give you a zero on your report,” is included on the instructions as a warning. “Europe is not a country. Neither is Africa. However, Australia is both a country, and a continent.” Invariably, I give at least one zero per semester precisely because a student, or 3 or 4 students, will choose “Europe,” as their country to visit.

Reading is fundamental. “RIF” was a common adage in the 1970s and 1980s. Also fundamental is paying attention to instructions. My mindset is I want students not to think in broad terms but to think specifically about a place – the food, the music, the language and culture, and to really consider what they might enjoy to experience.

I want to give them some freedom to choose. I do not use a scoring rubric. Scoring rubrics are a crutch used by students to check boxes in order to ensure a grade yet don’t really improve understanding or creativity. “Professor, I fulfilled all of the obligations of the rubric, so can you explain why I got a B-, please?” And, then we have academic appeals, grading by a independent observer, and stuff goes sideways irritatingly fast, all because one student wants a 90% versus 83%. This is perhaps a conversation for another day, though.

By the way, one of the best iTunes podcasts is The Amateur Traveler. The guy, Chris Christensen, that does this website does an amazing job.

Thank you for reading!

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