Political Boundaries

Do you have one of those neighbours who looks at you funny when your frisbee lands in his yard? You know, the type of fellow with the perpetually barking dogs and the "Keep Out" signs? And you better hope your apple tree doesn't fall onto his prize lilac bush! 

Political Boundaries Political Boundaries

Create learning materials about Political Boundaries with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Boundaries are serious business, whether at the scale of a neighbourhood or the entire planet. In this explanation, we'll be focusing on the latter, but it's helpful to keep in mind what you already know about how people behave in and around their own boundaries, whatever the scale.

    Political Boundaries Definition

    The geography of political territories means that each separate, sovereign state and its subdivisions control a physical territory with limits, known as boundaries.

    Political Boundaries: lines on land and/or water separating the territories of countries or sub-national entities such as states, provinces, departments, counties, and so forth.

    Types of Political Boundaries

    Geographers distinguish between several different types of boundaries.

    Antecedent Boundaries

    Boundaries that precede human settlement and the cultural landscape are called antecedent boundaries.

    The lines dividing up Antarctica are antecedent boundaries because the location of human settlements did not need to be taken into account when they were drawn.

    Political Boundaries Antarctica StudySmarterFig. 1 - Antecedent boundaries (red) in Antarctica. The red-coloured wedge is Marie Byrd Land, a terra nullius

    Antecedent boundaries are drawn first at a remote location, based on geographic data, then (sometimes) surveyed on the ground.

    The US Public Land Survey System, beginning after the Revolutionary War, surveyed unoccupied lands in all new territories where prior survey systems didn't exist. The resultant Township and Range system was based on square-mile townships.

    Were 1800s US frontier land parcels really based on antecedent boundaries, though? In reality, they were superimposed (see below). The US Public Land Survey System didn't take into account Native American territories.

    Indeed, in most cases, "antecedent boundaries" refer to no prior settlements of colonizers and land takers. Except in Antarctica and a few remote islands, there have always been prior occupants whose territory boundaries were ignored. This happened when boundaries were drawn in Australia, Siberia, the Sahara, the Amazon Rainforest, and elsewhere.

    Subsequent Boundaries

    Subsequent boundaries exist where the cultural landscape predates the drawing or redrawing of boundaries.

    In Europe, many subsequent boundaries have been imposed based on high-level treaties that end wars. Boundaries are shifted to transfer territory from one country to the other, often without the say-so of the people who inhabit the area.

    The Sudetenland was a term for land inhabited by Germans in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I, when the Empire's territory was dismembered, it became part of a new country called Czechoslovakia. The Germans living there had no say. It became an early focus of Hitler's move to change borders and absorb German-inhabited territories on the eve of World War II. Numerous other border changes after World War I also led to hostilities in World War II and then adjustment again after that war.

    Consequent Boundaries

    Consequent boundaries are drawn with the cultural landscapes of ethnic nations in mind. They are a type of subsequent boundary often drawn collaboratively with affected parties. This is not always the case, however. Sometimes, consequent boundaries involve the movement of people, either voluntarily or forced. At other times, people remain in ethnic enclaves or exclaves rather than move, and these areas can frequently become the source of conflict.

    In Australia, the boundaries establishing the modern constituent states and territories of the country were largely drawn as if they were antecedent, though, of course, they were superimposed on Aboriginal territories thousands of years old. More recently, however, a collaborative process has involved the drawing of consequent boundaries to define Indigenous territories, carefully following Aboriginal land claims.

    Geometric Boundaries

    Lines on maps are geometric boundaries. Curvilinear forms, though less common (e.g., the northern border of Delaware, US), are also types of geometric boundaries.

    Geometric boundaries may be antecedent, consequent, or subsequent.

    Relict Boundaries

    Relicts are leftovers from the past. They are traces of old borders. The Great Wall of China is a famous example of a relict boundary because it is no longer a border between two distinct regions.

    In many cases, ancient boundaries are recycled or still in use. This is the case in western US states, where certain boundaries from the time that they were US or Mexican territories were retained as state or county boundaries.

    Artificial boundary lines at the scale of sovereign states were quite uncommon until modern times. You are unlikely to find a true relict boundary of an ancient empire unless a defensive wall was built, or it followed a natural feature that still exists. However, you can easily find relict boundaries at the scale of cities (in many parts of the world, these had defensive walls) or individual properties.

    Superimposed Boundaries

    You've probably already realized that the different categories of boundaries are not exclusive of each other and that they can all end up being conflictive. Superimposed boundaries are perhaps the worst offenders in the latter case.

    European colonialism established territorial boundaries without consulting affected local people.

    Political Boundaries Africa StudySmarterFig. 2 - Africa's international boundaries were mostly superimposed by Europeans without input from Africans

    The result, in Africa, was 50+ countries stuck with colonial boundaries often drawn right through the middle of ethnic nations that had never been divided. Though free movement between some countries continued into the independence period, in many cases neighbouring countries reinforced borders and people could not cross easily.

    In the worst case, split groups were a poorly-treated minority in one country, blocked from going to the neighbouring country where they were politically and economically more advantaged. This has resulted in numerous conflicts, some genocidal.

    Superimposed boundaries in post-colonial Africa also resulted in ethnic groups that were traditional rivals being in the same country together.

    One of the most devastating examples of the above is the division of Tutsis and Hutu between Burundi and Rwanda. Hutus are the vast majority in each country, and Tutsis the minority. However, there has been significant animosity between the groups as Tutsi traditionally had higher status as pastoralists and warriors, while Hutu were primarily lower-caste farmers. In post-independence Rwanda and Burundi, rule by Tutsis or by Hutus has led to genocides. The most famous case was the attempted elimination of all Tutsis by Hutu in the 1994 Rwanda genocide.

    Culturally Defined Political Boundaries

    Consequent boundaries, in the best case, involve the participation of the people who are to be joined or separated. In Africa, despite Rwanda and several other examples, post-independence countries have kept their superimposed boundaries at all costs rather than engage in the kind of consequent boundary drawing seen elsewhere in the world. Thus, we have to look elsewhere to find culturally-defined political boundaries.

    Many Asian and European countries have a close match between cultural boundaries and political boundaries, though these have often come at a great cost. One of these costs is ethnic cleansing.

    Ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia of the 1990s was part of the effort to put people into proximity with others of the same culture. Boundaries that were drawn prior to, during, and after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, in places like Bosnia, reflect the idea that political borders should follow cultural borders.

    International Political Boundaries

    International political boundaries, i.e., the boundaries between sovereign countries, may be any one or several combinations of the above categories.

    The Peace of Westphalia, referring to two treaties signed at the end of the 30 Years' War in 1648, is often seen as the modern origin of fixed boundaries. Indeed, the devastation caused by this war was enough to lead Europeans in the direction of better decision-making on what constituted the territorial rights of states. From there, the Westphalian system expanded worldwide with European colonialism and the Western-dominated world political, economic, and scientific systems.

    The need to have fixed boundaries between sovereign states has generated untold hundreds of border conflicts, some escalating into full-scale war. And the process of establishing exactly defined borders using the latest technology (GPS and GIS, now) is not over. Many African countries, for example, do not have adequately surveyed borders, and the process of doing so can drag on for years or even decades, even if neighbouring countries are allies. This is because, if the process is collaborative, which it often is now, local people's concerns need to be taken into account. People may want to be in one country or the other, not be separated from their relatives, or have little regard for the boundary regardless of where it goes. And then there are considerations such as strategic importance and potential resource access. Sometimes, border areas end up being so contentious or strategic that they are either ruled jointly by more than one sovereign nation.

    The Abyei area, a pocket of land between Sudan and South Sudan, was never divvied up by the two after the latter became independent and split from Sudan in 2011. It has remained a condominium under joint rule. The reason is that Abyei contains valuable natural resources that neither country is willing to cede to the other.

    The only cases where international political boundaries are not either settled or in dispute are where they do not exist (yet). Excepting Antarctica and a few remaining terra nullius (no one's lands) in Africa and Europe, this only applies to the high seas and the seabed under them. Beyond their territorial waters, countries have certain rights, except ownership, in their EEZs (Exclusive Economic Zones). Beyond that, political boundaries do not exist.

    Of course, humans have not divvied up the surface of the Moon or nearby planets either...yet. Given states' proclivities to control territory, however, geographers may one day be concerned with this.

    Political Boundaries Examples

    Meanwhile, back here on Earth, we are not lacking examples of the trials and tribulations that political boundaries put us through. Two brief examples, both involving the US, demonstrate the pitfalls and possibilities of boundaries.

    US and Mexico

    Partly geometric and partly based on physical geography (the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo del Norte), this 3140-kilometre (1951-mile) political boundary, the busiest in the world, is also one of the most politicized, despite the fact that it divides two countries that are staunch allies.

    Political Boundaries US and Mexico StudySmarterFig. 3 - A border fence is the boundary of the US and Mexico on the edge of the Pacific Ocean

    For many who live on both sides, the border is an inconvenience because they share a Mexican-American culture and an economy. Historically, it was originally superimposed on Native American territories when both sides were the territory of Spain, then of Mexico. Before strict border controls, the boundary had little effect on the movement of people back and forth. Now, it is one of the most heavily patrolled borders between allies in the world, the result of both governments' desire to stem the flow of illegal substances back and forth, as well as the movement of people from Mexico to the US who avoid border controls.

    North Korea and South Korea

    The DMZ is a buffer zone dividing the two Koreas, and the most heavily militarized political boundary in the world. Demonstrating how politics divides culture, Koreans on both sides are ethnically and culturally identical except for differences emerging since the border was imposed as a subsequent boundary after the Korean War in 1953.

    Political Boundaries - Key takeaways

    • Political boundaries can be geometric, consequent, subsequent, antecedent, relict, or superimposed.
    • A boundary can be of more than one type: for example, both geometric and superimposed.
    • The dominance of fixed political boundaries to separate territories is a 17th-century European innovation part of the Westphalian system.
    • African countries had their boundaries superimposed on them as a result of European colonialism.
    • Two famous boundaries in the world are the US-Mexico border and the DMZ separating North and South Korea.


    1. Fig. 1, Antarctica map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Antarctica,_unclaimed.svg) by Chipmunkdavis (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Chipmunkdavis) is licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    2. Fig. 2, US-Mexico border wall (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:United_States_-_Mexico_Ocean_Border_Fence_(15838118610).jpg) by Tony Webster (https://www.flickr.com/people/87296837@N00) is licensed by CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Political Boundaries

    What are political boundaries?

    Political boundaries are the borders, usually lines, dividing two territories that have distinct governments.

    What is an example of a political boundary?

    An example of a political boundary is the border between the US and Mexico.

    How and why have political boundaries evolved?

    Political boundaries have evolved out of the need to define territory.

    What processes influence political boundaries?

    Political, economic, and cultural processes such as colonialism, the search for resources, the need for ethnic nations to be united, and many others.

    What physical features help to define political boundaries?

    Rivers, lakes, and watershed divides, for example, the crests of mountain ranges, often define political boundaries.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    The DMZ is a _______ boundary.

    The Abyei Area is a _______.

    The lines that divide states' claims to Antarctica are

    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Political Boundaries Teachers

    • 12 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App