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Today we’re going to talk about borders. Borders can bring people together, evoke passion and war, divide, conquer, and solidify power. We’re going to focus on the tyranny of the map which is what happens when those in power draw boundaries in ways that conflict with how people in that place want to be grouped. We’ll look at the repercussions of the Berlin Conference of 1884 on boundaries within Africa, take a closer look at continued political unrest in Mali, and look at how this can even happen at a local level like when gerrymandering occurs within a US state.


In general
CIA Factbook:
Getis, Bjelland, and Getis. Introduction to Geography, 15 ed. McGraw-Hill Education. 2017. ISBN: 978-1-259-57000-1
Gregory, Derek, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, eds. 2009. The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Willey-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-4051-3288-6
Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam: 2020 edition. The Princeton Review.
For a free and open source option for Intro to Human Geography, see:
For a free and open source option for World Regional Geography, see:

Democracy versus the People by Andy Morgan:


South Sudan

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#CrashCourse #Geography #Borders
By the late 1800s, the continent of Africa was considered a major frontier and largely unexplored by European leaders, traders, and colonizers. Squabbles were breaking out over who would control the vast resources and trade networks, so leaders from 13 European nations plus the United States came together for the Berlin Conference of 1884.

Deals were brokered before and after the Berlin Conference in the scramble for Africa, but by the time everyone was heading home, these 14 world powers had divvied up most of the continent, paying almost no attention to where different national, language, cultural group, or empire boundaries already existed, or even bothering to include anyone from Africa at all. Basically, they'd created a tyranny of the map.

As geographers, using and making maps is almost our superpower, but like every superhero feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders, we have to recognize that with great power comes great responsibility. Tyranny of the map happens when those in power draw boundaries in such a way that different cultural groups are grouped in ways that put them at odds with each other, so what the Berlin Conference attendees ended up with was a map that looks fairly similar to the political map of Africa we see today but nothing like the map of ethnic groups and nations of Africa.

Tyranny of the map still exists today, because wherever there are borders, there are power dynamics. On a map, they look like the edges of wonky shapes, but in real life, those borders have a great impact on the people inside and outside those shapes. Borders have the power to bring people together to evoke passion and war, to divide, conquer, and solidify power. In many ways, borders can have more drama and action than the latest superhero movie.

I'm Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course: Geography.

(intro music)

Modern maps of Africa are a legacy of that lack of political power Africans had in the 1800s and of the way European colonial powers showed a complete disregard for the cultural identity and human dignity of the people who lived in Africa by drawing maps and conducting governments that were manipulative at best and destructive at worst.

So much of the human experience of governance and power is related to who is inside and outside of power structures, so over the next few episodes, we'll explore different aspects of political geography, which is a subdiscipline within human geography that examines how power is organized and moves across space, which definitely shapes the story of the world. In particular, there is a great interest in the countless ways power shapes spaces and moves unevenly.

Power is the ability to achieve certain ends by directing the actions of others, and maintaining control of power is often done through force, manipulation, persuasion, and even consensus building. Power is a spectrum, so we can talk about different people or groups having different amounts of power rather than treating it like an on-off switch, and it's often understood as relationships between different types of networks and that those with more influence than others can also have more power.

In particular, thinking about borders can lead us to thinking about state power, or the relationship between a government and the people under that government. In geography, a state is any independent area with a defined and populated territory with sovereignty, or control, over its internal and external affairs, so think Canada, the United States as a whole, India, Indonesia, or Mali.

Political geographers will often use the term "country" interchangeably with the word "state," and it's used more vaguely to identify an area of land. Like, this spot on the globe corresponds to a country we call Mali, in order to distinguish this bit of land from the rest of North Africa or sub-Saharan West Africa, but the land plus the government and the people the government has power over together form a state called the Republic of Mali.

But we could just focus on the people and the cultural boundaries they fit into. States like Iceland are often given as examples of nation-states, or a state that is only governing over one nation or a people who share the same cultural or ethnic identity. That's a little misleading, because people of different identities have lived in Iceland, but overall, there's a fairly uniform cultural identity. There haven't been any permanent invasions or mass immigration from other cultural groups in its recent history. Essentially, the cultural and state boundaries mostly match up, which we know from the Berlin Conference of 1884 isn't the case for any state within Africa.

Like, the people who live in Mali are made up of at least 10 different nations. That makes Mali one of the most common kinds of state, called a multinational state, or one that governs over two or more groups of nations. We see that dramatically in places with settler colonialism histories like the United States.

So in addition to studying how power moves outside and between states, cultural and political geographers also study the power dynamics between nations within a state. Those 10 or more nations of Mali, they don't always agree on how to govern their state. We know from our cultural and migration episodes that people move and mix for a host of reasons, like to gain access to resources, knowledge, or better job opportunities, but in the case of Mali, all of those nations came to be in one state in large part because of the nefarious tyranny of the map.

Before the Berlin Conference of 1884 and European colonization in Africa peaked at the turn of the 20th century, we thought of states differently. There were more empires and loosely held governing structures, and many places within Europe and Africa were considered frontiers, which in this case means areas acting as a buffer between two territories.

But throughout the 1700s, revolutions and a push for democracy in the brand new United States shifted governance in Europe, so how territory was conceptualized also changed, and treaties began to consistently refer to boundaries. This marked a change in how leaders saw where their power could exist and prompted Europeans to map the world in earnest, plotted out all the land they held power over and drawing lines through it regardless of who had lived there.

Since then, we've lived in a world where, increasingly, all land is connected to some sort of state power. Take Mali, which was a colony of France until 1960. Over the decades, they'd had different governments, and in 1992, they held democratic elections and functioned as a democracy, but there was dissatisfaction among the northern populations.

In Mali, there's a divide between the northern and southern part of the country. Mali spans three landscapes, all of them hot. The Sahara encompasses most of the northern parts of the country, while the Sahel is the semi-arid region just south, but far southern Mali is a tropical savanna with more rainfall and rivers.

People across the Sahel traditionally were nomadic pastoralists, moving herds of livestock such as cattle across the region, following wet and dry cycles. This region also had been part of the historic Mali and Songhai Empires, with places like Timbuktu developing along major trade routes and Islam spreading along those routes and throughout the Songhai Empire.

So over the years, the Tuareg people who live across and outside of Mali felt more and more isolated. They've traditionally been a more nomadic people, identifying more with North African customs and traditionally having territories that spanned from Burkina Faso to Libya. In many ways, the boundaries of Mali established by France in the scramble for Africa were arbitrary to them, but many Tuareg, which is also a group made of several different cultural groups, were fine with identifying as part of Mali, though, in return, they wanted a government that would invest in the North, which is poorer than southern Mali.

As the economic conditions of the north declined due to drought, many Tuareg traveled to other countries to find work. Then, when Libya went through uprising and unrest in 2011, the Malian Tuareg living there returned home. With no work and no prospects, they began to plan for a rebellion, and not for the first time, but this time, before the Tuareg could enact their full plan, factions of the group began to partner with outside Islamic extremists. This led Malian military leaders to overthrow the Malian government in an effort to control the North, which increased southern resentment towards the Tuareg, who were already discriminated against in the South.

Between 2012 and 2021, the governments of Mali shifted to focus on creating internal stability in the South and pushing extremists out, but the people of the North still feel marginalized, some of whom side with and sympathize with outside extremists. Others are looking for a peaceful solution, and one that involves a government who will help provide infrastructure, like education and healthcare, to help their communities thrive. In both 2020 and 2021, there have been coups in Mali. Its political situation is far from stable.

Post-colonial states ended up with nations joined in governance, not due to common culture, beliefs, or goals, but because of the limits of European colonial treaty boundaries. It creates governing tensions, because one group is often exerting power over another, so decisions made almost 150 years ago still have significant implications in Mali and throughout the rest of Africa.

For example, post-colonial tensions in Sudan eventually came to a head in 2011, when South Sudan formed separately from Sudan. When a state is no longer in control of its internal and external affairs, it can be considered a failed state. So even though a map can seem very official and permanent, we have to remember it's still just snapshot of a particular moment. South Sudan is the newest state in the world as of 2021.

Ultimately, there's no agreed upon number of states in the world, because different groups have different definitions, and actually, the number of states has been trending upward in the post-colonial world. Europe had approximately 30 states in the 1820s, but today has about 51, according to the UN, and the number of states in the world will likely keep growing as nations seek to have their own states. We'll look at the process of a state fragmenting along national lines and other border conflicts in a future episode.

Tyranny of the map shows up in other places and at smaller scales, too, not just in forming states. In the United States, every 10 years, voting districts get redrawn based on demographics from the national census, and these districts are redrawn by whichever party is in power. Gerrymandering, or drawing voting districts to solidify power through the use of boundaries and borders, occurs when districts are drawn in ways that ensure one party will have the majority vote.

In Wisconsin, they saw this in 2012 when, despite Democrats getting the majority of the votes, they only won 39 out of 99 seats in their state assembly, so representation doesn't match the population because of how the districts are drawn. The way these maps are drawn is another spatial aspect of power, and the study of the organization and outcomes of elections, including how voting districts are drawn, is actually a whole field called electoral geography.

So whether it's colonial Africa or present-day North America, how we draw borders matters. It helps signal who is a part of the group, who should have representation, who doesn't, and what social norms are legitimized at the time the map was drawn. As a result, drawing maps, and who draws maps, is seen as a political act, and there can be distrust in maps made from outside of a community because of the way maps have been used to suppress marginalized groups of people.

As people who use maps, we can use best practices and ask ourselves, "What is the intent of the map?" And then, "Am I using this map for its intended purpose?" Borders often have current consequences for past decisions, as we saw in former European colonies, and as we'll explore in the next episode, how states maintain their power and the different types of governance they include impact how individuals interact with the state.

Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants. Many geographical place names also don't reflect the indigenous or aboriginal people's languages. So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these people's traditional and ongoing relationship with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like and by engaging with your local indigenous and aboriginal nations through the website and resources they provide.

Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course: Geography, which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pier Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, you can join our community on Patreon.