Function of Political Boundaries

If you've ever driven anywhere in the United States, you may have seen a sign next to the road saying something along the lines of, "Now entering Washington County." Believe it or not, you crossed a political boundary! 

Function of Political Boundaries Function of Political Boundaries

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    Political boundaries help us figure out who's in charge of what. Let's explore the purpose, function, and importance of political boundaries.

    Political Boundaries Definition

    Political boundaries indicate what political entity has sovereignty (governing power and authority) over a physical location.

    A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities.

    Political boundaries can be internal or international. An internal political boundary divides the authority of regional political entities; these entities are collectively accountable to a central government. International political boundaries divide countries.

    The political boundary between Forsyth County and Davidson County is an internal political boundary within the state of North Carolina. The political boundary between North Carolina and South Carolina is an internal political boundary within the country of the United States. The political boundary between the United States and Mexico is an international political boundary between two countries.

    Many of our world's political boundaries are negotiated: two or more political entities have come to an agreement about where their borders should be drawn. However, some political boundaries are not willingly agreed upon and are therefore imposed through the use or threat of violence.

    In Western culture, our modern concepts of sovereignty, statehood, and well-defined political boundaries can be at least partially attributed to the two peace treaties that ended the European Thirty Years' War in 1648. These treaties are together known as "the Peace of Westphalia." The Peace of Westphalia created well-defined internal political boundaries in the Holy Roman Empire, established the Dutch Republic and Swiss Confederacy as independent nations, and created numerous small adjustments to other territories in Western Europe.

    Purpose of Political Boundaries

    A political boundary's purpose is to establish who's "in charge" of an area. The driving factor behind the creation of a political boundary may be economic, cultural, national, or some combination of all three.

    Economic Control

    Economic factors include taxation and the preference for different economic systems. But perhaps most importantly, a political boundary allows governments and corporations to maintain exclusive access to the economic resources within the boundary. This includes farmland, fossil fuels, precious metals, lumber, fresh water, and even human labor.

    National Self-Determination

    National boundaries are politically-influenced and prioritize a group's right to political self-determination. These groups may revolve around a particular ethnicity or be rooted in a political ideology, creating a shared sense of identity. In geography, these groups are often called nations, which is not always necessarily synonymous with the more legalistic terms of country and state.

    Many, if not most, of the international boundaries we see in Europe and Asia reflect the historic "homeland" of distinct ethnic groups. This is also true for some internal boundaries.

    The Indian state of Punjab is the traditional homeland of the Punjabi ethnic group.

    Multi-ethnic states may establish borders based on political ideologies. This was especially common during the Cold War, when several Eastern European borders were redrawn in deference to a common commitment (or, in many cases, subjugation) to Marxist-Leninist socialism.

    Cultural Preferences

    Cultural and national reasons may overlap, but cultural boundaries are less motivated by political power than they are ways of life. These lifestyle preferences may be rooted in traditional hunting or farming practices, an ethnic identity, or a religious identity, and boundaries may reflect the space a group needs to express its culture.

    Creation Through Policy

    Some political boundaries are created through the policy of a foreign or international political entity. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, for example, establishes maritime political boundaries with the consent of over 160 signatories.

    The Berlin Conference, held from 1884-85, was an agreement reached by European powers to establish spheres of influence in Africa in service of European economic interests. This ultimately led to the Scramble for Africa, during which European powers largely established the borders that remain in place today. No Africans were invited to the Berlin Conference, and so they had no say in how the political boundaries of their countries were eventually drawn.

    Function of Political Boundaries, Purpose of Political Boundaries, Berlin Conference, StudySmarterFig. 1 - An 1884 conference in Berlin, Germany eventually led to the Scramble for Africa.

    Demilitarized zones, like the one between North Korea and South Korea, are boundaries that can be put in place to stop military conflict by creating a buffer zone between two belligerents.


    As you might imagine, all of the above factors can be a source of conflict. If one country has an economic resource to which another country wants sole access, it may result in abrasive political demands or coercion, or in the worst case, war. Similarly, an ethnic, political, or religious group may feel that its needs are not being met by a country's government, or that policy-created borders are unjust, and may resort to armed rebellion or terrorism in an attempt to get political boundaries redrawn.

    Primary Function of International Political Boundaries

    We've already mentioned that political boundaries help us recognize who's in charge of what area. This notion of sovereign authority has historically been fundamental to the organization of human civilization. But our international political boundaries also serve as a means to prevent external conflict. A foreign military or citizen cannot simply walk across a border, take what they want, and not expect to be accountable to the sovereign authority of the area. The idea behind an enforced border is that a sovereign political entity has the right to have some say over who can enter its territory and for what purpose.

    In this way, ideally, international boundaries encourage political dialogue and economic cooperation, while allowing a country to maintain its internal national or cultural interests as it sees fit.

    As the world has become more globalized (with immigration, rather than military invasion, as a central political boundary issue), some individuals have begun to reject political boundaries as antiquated and are in favor of "open borders." Suggested open border policies vary wildly. Some proponents have suggested easing or eliminating immigration laws and replacing them with expeditious residency approvals to encourage a wider pool of labor and a more blended global community. Since 2014, Estonia has been exploring this concept through "e-Residency," an idea that links citizenship to a digital identity rather than a physical location. Others have suggested getting rid of the very notion of a country altogether.

    Contested Political Boundaries

    Sometimes the borders themselves create conflict. Countries that share political boundaries may claim ownership over a region along their borders, often because these border regions have some economic or cultural significance to both sides.

    Function of Political Boundaries, Primary Function of Political Boundaries, Contested Political Boundaries, China India Border, StudySmarterFig. 2 - India and China have several contested areas along their border.

    When political entities cannot agree on a border (either through negotiation or imposition), that border is said to be contested. Contested borders can provoke the use of military force.

    De Facto and De Jure Political Boundaries

    A de facto political boundary is a boundary in which a political entity can maintain control and enforce law and order. A de jure political boundary is a boundary that is legally recognized by foreign political entities.

    Ideally, de facto and de jure political boundaries line up, but that is not always the case. For example, the de jure political boundary of the Federal Republic of Somalia is not congruent with the territory that the Federal Republic of Somalia actually has under its control; the northwest portion of the country is under the de facto control of an unrecognized state called Somaliland.

    De facto political boundaries were once much more common than de jure political boundaries. For example, the Comanche exercised control over a large portion of North America during the 19th century, but their borders were never formally defined or legally demarcated.

    Importance of Political Boundaries

    How do political boundaries impact you as an individual?

    It starts at the lowest level of political power. If you live in the United States, the political boundaries that make up your town, city, or county will determine which local elections you will be allowed to participate in; which police precinct or fire department will attend to you in the event of an emergency; which local post office will deliver your mail; how much you will need to pay in sales tax; and where you (or your children) will be able to attend public school.

    The political boundaries that define the United States as a country—and your existence in it—determine similar factors, but on a larger scale. You have no say in who gets to become the president of Argentina, for example, if you are politically bound to the US. International political boundaries determine which national or federal political system you can participate in; which military will defend you in a war; which government will respond in the event of a natural disaster; which laws you have to follow; what national or federal taxes you have to pay; and which economy you participate in.

    Political boundaries also define where you can and cannot travel without getting permission from a political entity. For example, people living in the United States or the European Union may cross internal borders freely, but have to receive permission to cross international borders.

    In other words, these political boundaries, created through economic, nationalistic, or cultural forces, will help determine almost every superficial civic aspect of your life. They will determine which political entities you are accountable to, and which polities entities are, in turn, accountable to you.

    Political Boundaries Examples

    Political boundaries are a human construct—a tool for our use. Some of the boundaries we have in place conform closely to physical geography; mountains, rivers, and oceans can serve as natural barriers between areas and can serve as logical political boundaries, as seen with Cuba or Jamaica. However, many of the political boundaries you are likely to come across will be entirely invisible except on a map. When crossing through different counties in the United States, for example, there may be little more than a roadside sign demarcating a transition into a different political territory, if that.

    Function of Political Boundaries, Political Boundaries Example, US Counties Map, StudySmarterFig. 3 - There are over 3,000 counties in the US. How many political boundaries have you crossed in your lifetime?

    Some political boundaries are more obvious. Many international political crossings are fenced and guarded by border security, with signs and flags and traffic patterns that you simply cannot miss.

    Function of Political Boundaries, Political Boundaries Example, Sultan Iskandar complex, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Malaysia's Sultan Iskandar border complex, funneling international traffic from Singapore, is impossible to miss.

    The Singapore-Malaysia border is one of the busiest international political boundaries in the world and is easily demarcated by large customs buildings and huge flags. An estimated 300,000 travelers cross the border daily, mostly for work.

    Function of Political Boundaries - Key takeaways

    • A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities.
    • There are both internal and international political boundaries.
    • Political boundaries may form around economic, national, or cultural causes. They may also form through the political policy of a foreign or international entity.
    • Political boundaries delineate sovereign authority and may deter conflict, although sometimes the borders themselves provoke conflict.
    • Political boundaries help determine almost every civic aspect of your life.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Function of Political Boundaries

    What are the significance and function of international political boundaries?

    Political boundaries delineate sovereign political authority over an area. They can also serve as a means to prevent conflict with a foreign entity, although sometimes the borders themselves invite conflict.

    What is the purpose of political boundaries? 

    A political boundary's purpose is to establish who's "in charge" of an area.  

    What are examples of political boundaries? 

    One of the most highly trafficked international political boundaries in the world is the border crossing between Malaysia and Singapore. Many internal political boundaries, like the boundaries between the counties throughout the US, are entirely invisible except on a map. 

    How do political boundaries impact us? 

    Political boundaries will help determine almost every superficial civic aspect of your life. They will determine which political entities you are accountable to, and which polities entities are, in turn, accountable to you. 

    What is the meaning of political boundaries? 

    A political boundary demarcates the territory of different political entities. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Following World War II, the military administration of the Korean Peninsula was managed by which two countries?

    Which Korean politician attempted to establish the People's Republic of Korea?

    By what year were there functionally two separate Korean nations? 

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