Guest Column: Flags, Continents, & Other Filters for Understanding Our World

This is a guest column from faculty member Jason King who teaches geography and math. Professor King contributes semi-regular posts to this blog.
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by Jason King

If you know what to look for, you can learn a lot about a country by looking at its flag. Take the flag of the former Soviet Union:

There are some clear motifs going on here: the use of the color red, the hammer, the sickle, and the star. For our purposes, let’s talk about the hammer, sickle, and star – the hammer referred to industrial workers, the sickle to agricultural workers, and the star referred to Communism spreading to the five continents of the world.

Wait … five continents of the world? Aren’t they forgetting some? Not according to the Soviets. (Today, the Russians normally teach there are six.)

So – America teaches there are seven continents, the Soviets taught there were five, but now there are six, There’s a saying I heard from one of my Geography professors, long ago – “all models are lies, but some models are useful.”

Most Americans (and a lot of the world in general) learn there are seven continents and five oceans
*Our seven continental model is mostly used to describe landmasses.

Most of the time our filter for understanding our planet isn’t actually the land – it’s people. Most of the time we care about the location of natural resources because people use them. Most of the time we care about climate patterns because they inform us where human beings live (and you can see a big drawback to that human-centeredness when talking about climate!) So, when talking about seven continents there are some very obvious shortcomings – cross over the Isthmus of Panama and not much changes culturally. (In fact, Panama was once a part of Colombia and was only separated to give the United States a legal ability to build the Panama Canal!) Crossing over the Sinai Delta and most people continue to speak Arabic, practice the same faiths, and have a largely shared history. Crossing over the Ural Mountains – which ain’t all that mountainous – doesn’t change much culturally at all.

Human beings usually don’t feel borders as much as transition zones. You’ll never find a sign that says “You are leaving the Midwest” – you might slowly realize that elements of Midwestern Culture have begun to wane and eventually disappear as you leave the core of the Midwest. We normally speak about human cultural borders as transition zones today. Cross the Sahara, or travel through northern Kazakhstan, or the Appalachian Mountains in Pittsburgh, and you will begin to feel elements of this change.

At first glance this looks like another way geographers justify having jobs – having a meaningless thing to argue about – but there are some very real implications in our modern era. Central Asia is currently, through a rise in Chinese economic and soft power, transitioning from being in a Russian to a Chinese sphere of influence. Turkey, set between Europe and the Middle East, has pivoted strongly towards the Middle East as it was snubbed entrance to the European Union. Before the Global War on Terror, the Afghan Civil War was largely set between factions that sought to include Afghanistan into either a Middle Eastern or an Indian sphere of influence. (Today, it appears as though it will likely fall into a Chinese orbit in the fullness of time.)

When I teach Geography here are the “continents” I teach: North America, Central America, South America, Europe, The Commonwealth of Independent States, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Australia and New Zealand, and Oceania. We’ve went from seven to eleven, but even then that’s just because we need some way of breaking up things into units.
So when people ask me, “How many continents are there?” I usually shrug and say, “Beats me!”

*Did you learn there were five? If you’re old like me you probably learned about the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic. Since then, we’re added one – the Southern Ocean – based mostly on currents and water temperature, rather than its relationship to landmasses around it.

So when people ask me, “How many continents are there?” I usually shrug and say, “Beats me!”

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For further readings, check out these sources:
Ebook: The Soviet Union : a short history by Mark Edele

Ebook: Russia on the edge : imagined geographies and post-Soviet identity by Edith W. Clowes