Formal Regions

When you hear the word region, what do you think of? Region is a common term in geography, but what exactly does it mean? Do you think of the different regions of the United States such as New England, the Midwest, or the South?

Formal Regions Formal Regions

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    Formal Regions Definition

    Geographers seek to make sense of the world by finding patterns and spatial relationships. One tool geographers utilize is the categorization of areas into regions based on common characteristics. One type of region is a formal region. As the name implies, formal regions are well-established.

    Formal Regions: areas that share homogeneous or uniform attributes such as a political organization, language, culture, or climate.

    The borders of formal regions are well-defined areas and rarely change. There can be variation within a region, because not everyone in the entire area may speak the same language or be a part of the same culture. But for the most part, regions share a characteristic that exists throughout the region.

    Formal vs Functional Regions

    Regions are areas that share common characteristics.

    Formal regions are just one type of region. The others are functional regions and vernacular/perceptual regions.

    Formal regions are areas that share a uniform attribute, such as language, culture, or political organization. Formal regions are usually well-defined and established. Meanwhile, functional regions, as the name implies, are regions that exist due to a function. A functional region consists of the area surrounding a central node where the function happens. Examples include the function being a commercial activity, such as the region within a television tower's broadcasting zone or the area where a specific newspaper's readers reside.

    Vernacular/perceptual regions are informal regions based on perception rather than a well-defined concept. These areas do not have formal borders, and the boundaries are often debated. For example, both Southern California and the US South exist as regions, but they are ill-defined. They have no definitive borders; it depends on how an individual perceives the region. These regions reside in our "mental maps."

    For more details and examples about Vernacular, Perceptual, and Functional Regions, check out StudySmarter's explanations for those topics.

    Formal Regions Examples

    Again, formal regions are well-defined areas with uniform attributes. Examples include political boundaries, linguistic areas, and industrial areas.

    Political Boundaries

    Formal political boundaries include the borders between countries. For instance, there is a clearly demarcated border between the US and Canada. This is well-defined and agreed upon. As you pass from one border of a formal region to another, especially at a political boundary, there is a noticeable difference. At international borders, there will likely be a border station where you must stop and show a form of identification to enter.

    Formal Regions Border between Canada and the US StudySmarterFig. 1 - There is a well-defined border between the US and Canada. The borders of countries are borders of formal regions

    Even where countries have border disputes, there are still relatively defined borders between where one region ends and another begins. For instance, in Kashmir, a region in South Asia, there are border disputes between China, India, and Pakistan. Nevertheless, Kashmir is still a formal and identifiable region.

    Formal Regions Region of Kashmir StudySmarterFig. 2 - Kashmir is a formal region with a defined border, even though the borders of the countries of the region are in dispute

    Internal Boundaries

    Formal regions can also exist within other formal regions. For example, in the US there are 50 states, each a formal region. Within each state are formal regions known as counties, parishes (Louisiana), cities (Virginia), and boroughs (Alaska). Within these state subdivisions are further subdivisions, also formal regions, which go by many names: towns, (civil) townships, villages, unincorporated areas, boroughs, municipalities, and so forth.

    Linguistic Areas

    While speakers of a language can exist anywhere, there is usually a spatial relationship for a language that can be recognized as a formal region. For instance, the French-speaking region of Canada is a formal region. While French speakers can be found across Canada, there is a clear spatial relationship between language and territory because most reside in the French-speaking region of Quebec.

    For more information about how Canada has accommodated this French-speaking region, check out StudySmarter's article on the Devolution of Canada.

    Before North America was colonized by Europeans, its Indigenous populations were organized spatially by language groups.

    Formal Region North America Language Map StudySmarterFig. 3 - Language map of North America

    Though colonialism limited the use of Indigenous languages, language is still a unifying attribute for formal regions in North America and across the globe.

    Economic Activity

    Formal regions can also be defined by a shared economic activity because economic activities can be determined by the environment and its natural resources. For instance, the production area of a certain crop is a good example of a formal region. In the US, the region known for its production of corn is the Corn Belt.

    Formal Regions Corn Belt StudySmarterFig. 4 - The states in the Midwestern US that are known as the Corn Belt due to their production of corn

    The US has a formal region in the Midwest states characterized by the production of corn. The "Corn Belt" is the world's leading producer of this crop. There, the land and geographic location is best suited to produce corn rather than other crops. When you enter this region, no matter the state, you will know because you will pass through seemingly endless cornfields.


    Climate zones can also be formal regions, because climate is determined by location.

    Formal Regions US Climate Zones StudySmarterFig. 5 - US climate zones as formal regions

    In the US, California is known for its mild, year-round Mediterranean climate, the South is known for its heat and humidity, and the Northeast is known for experiencing all four seasons each year. Thus, there are well-defined climate zones in the US that are examples of formal regions.

    Formal Region Characteristics

    Formal regions are defined by a shared attribute such as language, culture, climate, territorial boundaries, or political organization.

    Formal regions can also be defined by natural physical features. For instance, part of the border between the US and Mexico is formed by the Rio Grande. Another example is the Alps mountain range, forming the border between Switzerland and Italy. Thus, physical features play a role in both creating and defining formal regions.

    Formal Region Map

    Because there are numerous examples of formal regions, it is helpful to visualize them on maps.

    Natural Features

    Natural features can be formal regions. National parks have borders defined by governments to protect the natural environment within the borders of the park. The US has many iconic and well-known national parks, for example, Yellowstone.

    Formal Regions Map of Yellowstone StudySmarterFig. 6 - Yellowstone National Park as a formal region

    Middle East and North Africa

    The Middle East and North Africa (MENA), also known as the Arab World, is one of the regions of the world that geographers have defined. MENA shares certain characteristics that make it a formal region. It traverses two continents and consists of 22 countries. In all these countries, the dominant spoken language is Arabic.

    Formal Regions MENA The Arab World StudySmarterFig. 7 - Map of the Middle East and North Africa, also known as the Arab World

    Additionally, MENA is unified by its Islamic religious identity. This region also has an arid climate and desert biome. Thus, there are numerous shared characteristics that unify these states as a formal region.

    Southeast Asia

    This region of the world has immense diversity, but as a formal region, it has shared characteristics. For instance, the languages of Southeast Asia are related. There are also shared cultural values among these countries, such as beliefs about family and social structure.

    Formal Regions Southeast Asia Map StudySmarterFig. 8 - Map of the region of Southeast Asia

    Ten of the countries of the region are organized into a supranational organization: ASEAN. With a population of 668 million, the organization seeks to facilitate the integration and shared success of this formal region.

    Formal Regions - Key takeaways

    • There are three types of regions: formal, functional, and perceptual/vernacular.
    • Formal regions are well-defined areas that share a common attribute such as language, culture, religion, or economic activity.
    • Formal regions can be defined by political boundaries, such as the border between US and Canada or by physical boundaries, such as a river or mountain range. Internal borders can also exist.
    • Linguistic areas are examples of formal regions as well as areas with a shared economic activity. Climate zones are also formal regions.
    • Other examples of formal regions include national parks, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and Southeast Asia.


    1. Fig. 1 - Border between US and Canada ( by chucka_nc licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (
    2. Fig. 2 - Map of Kashmir Region ( by Rr016 licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    3. Fig. 3 - North America Linguistic Map ( by 맛좋은망고 licensed by CC BY-SA 4.0 (
    4. Fig. 6 - Map of Yellowstone ( by Ryan Holliday licensed by CC BY-SA 1.0 (
    Frequently Asked Questions about Formal Regions

    What are formal regions?

    Formal regions are areas that are well-defined and share common attributes and characteristics.

    What are 5 examples of formal regions?

    5 examples of formal regions include the French-speaking area of Canada, Southeast Asia, Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Kashmir, and climate zones.

    What are differences between formal, functional, and perceptual regions?

    Formal regions are well-defined and share a common attribute, such as a linguistic area. Functional regions consist of the area of activity surrounding a node, such as a sports team and its fan base. A perpetual region is a region that is not well-defined in physical space but rather exists in mental maps, such as Southern California. 

    What are the characteristics of a formal region?

    Formal regions are well-defined areas that share a common attribute. They also may be defined by a physical feature or border, such as the Rio Grande River that divides Texas from Mexico. 

    Is Mexico a formal region?

    Mexico is a formal region as it is an area of land with a defined border and shared internal attributes. 

    Is China an example of a formal region?

    China is an example of a formal region as it is an area of land with a defined border and shared internal attributes. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The American South is an example of a formal region.

    Which is an example of a formal region?

    All formal regions are formed by physical boundaries.

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