"Geography" – Example Political Science Literature Review and Research Design

Note: This is part of an example political science literature review and research design. An abstract and table of contents are also available.

Before the ample literature on economic and political freedom in post-Communist societies is examined, some work on geographic determinism will be reviewed. Specifically, an overview of geographic determinist viewpoints will be presented, examples of geographic determinism with respect to democracy earlier in the literature will be highlighted, and an interesting synthesis on geography, democracy, and war will be examined.

Without getting bogged down into the morass of terminology that Lewthwaite (1968) explores, it is important to say that geography is an important factor in development without being the only factor. As Spykman (1938) writes

It should be emphasized, however, that geography has been described as a conditioning rather than as a determining factor. The word was chosen advisedly. It was not meant to imply that geographic characteristics play a deterministic, causal role in foreign policy. The geographical determinism which explains by geography all things from the fourth symphony to the fourth dimension paints as distorted a picture as does an explanation of policy with no reference to geography. The geography of a country is rather the material for, than the cause of, its policy, and to admit that the garment must ultimately be cut to fit the cloth is not to say that the cloth determines either the garment’s style or its adequacy. But the geography of as state cannot be ignored by the men who formulate its policy. The nature of the territorial base has influenced them in that formulation in the past and will continue to do so in the future.


Understanding the conditioning effect of geography, one may look at previous studies of how geography impacted the development of certain states.

The field is limited for detailed geographic-political examinations of specific states. Williams (1927) is an example of this literature. While not ignoring the effects of illiteracy, ethnicity, regionalism, and political culture, Williams examines geographic factors that led to corruption and lack of freedom for the east coast of Nicaragua. “[O]ne of the prime purposes of thus making the [east coast]’s head an appoint of the central government is to overcome the centrifugal influence of difficult transportation and so to furnish a federal or national “safety-first…”. After some further exposition, where he looks at a geographic-taxation nexus, Williams looks at corruption:

From this same geography of isolation there follows another factor which causes discontent and instability not only in Bluefields and on the coast, but in many other isolated parts of the almost roadless nation. His usual remoteness from the capital not only permits but practically forces the Commandante or district governor to demonstrate the absolutism of a Spanish regent, rather than the leadership of a republic’s civil servant. All the difficulties of the jungle forbid his getting daily orders, just as they make extremely unlikely any sort of check-up of his actions by the distant federal powers which appointed him. The natural result is that every province is likely to feel — and fell in proportion to the square of the distance — the pressure of the Commandante’s belief that his services are wroth considerably more than his regular monthly salary.

An inspiration for this paper is a comment made by Ricardo Hausmann in 2001. While outlining his theory of latitude dependency in development, Hausmann notes:

Nations with populations far from a coastline also tend to be poorer and show lower rates of economic growth than coastal countries. A country whose population is farther than 100 kilometers from the sea grows 0.6 percent slower per year than nations in which the entire population is within 100 kilometers of the coast. That means, for example that the post-Soviet republics will experience as much difficulty battling their geographical disadvantages as they will overcoming the aftereffects of communism…

This study will look at the absence of sea borders, or being landlocked, instead of the more precise measure of distance from a coastline. However, the theory is the same: lack of access to the ocean retards commercial interchange with the rest of the world, slowing growth and reducing a population’s exposure to political norms such as democracy.

While looking at earlier research on the development of Democracy, Midlarsky (1995) highlights the importance of sea-borders on the development of democracy. These reasons are relevant, because they point to problems that states without sea-borders, those that are landlocked, would have. Midlarsky relates that an earlier quantitative study has demonstrates that democratic outliers, that is “those countries least well explained by domestic variables” were highly connected to the sea. States like Sri Lanka, Jamaica, Ireland, and Greece were much more democratic than predicted by existing models. However, these same states were islands (and so the opposite of land-locked) or peninsulas.

Another argument is that sea borders minimize the threat of war. That is, the more land borders a country has the more its chances of war are maximized (Starr and Most 1978). Summarizing the first study that found this, Lewis Richardson‘s Statistics of Deadly Quarrels, Starr and Most explain:

Although Richardson reports a positive association between borders and war and eventually concludes that the relationship operates from frontiers toward war, he fails to develop explicit hypotheses or a theoretical explanation about why this relationship should be expected to exist. And an explicit level, however, Richardson’s argument appears to develop in two stages. First, he conceptualizes frontiers as creating opportunities for internation interaction. Quite simply, nations with large numbers of borders have greater opportunities for interacting with other countries than those countries which have only a few borders. Going a step further, Richardson then draws an analogy between war and murder. Asking why nationals tend to slay each other rather than foreigners, he concludes that the explanation lies in the very simple fact that nationals have few contacts with foreigners. One is most likely to be murdered by one’s close relatives and friends because close contacts and high levels of interaction provides opportunities for such actions. Returning to the problem of the border / war relationship, Richardson then makes the obvious linkages: if frontiers create opportunities for interaction, and the greater the opportunities the greater the level of actual interaction, then the greater the number of frontiers the greater the probability of war.

To demonstrate his theory of geographical influences on development, Midlarsky first gives the standard explanations or why Britain developed a democratic culture, including high average rainfall, geographic safety, industrialization, and land inequality:

England may be the archetypical example of a country that experienced very early democratization and that also embodies the four principal variables examined here. Average rainfall is consistently high. As an island nation, especially after the subjugation of surrounding peoples such as the Irish, Scots, and Welsh, she was relatively free from the threat of war. At the very least, she had leeway in choosing her time of entry into continental wars and with force sizes pretty much at her own discretion. The English economy, of course, industrialized earlier than any other, leading to a very high gross domestic product (GDP) / capita (CAP) and consequent impact on democracy. Also, land inequality, especially in terms of land holdings by the nobility, was substantial. … “No Continental landed elite in the nineteenth century owned so large a part of its nation’s territory as did the English” … His explicit comparisons are with the French, Spanish, Prussian, and Russian elites, all of whose societies, of course, democratized at much later dates than did the English.”

Midlarsky also cites another state that also had high rainfall, geographic safety, and industrialization yet veered towards authoritarianism. This demonstrates the role of another important factor that is central to this paper: land borders

One of the closest counterparts to the English-landed elite in terms of residence patterns, political dominance of the local countryside and thence of the state, and inheritance laws that tended to maintain entire estates intact over time was the Prussian. And here, this basic similarity that might have led to a similar democratic evolution is vitiated strongly by the Prussian military tradition. Where as the English-landed elite opposed standing armies and evolved a strong libertarian tradition, it was said of the Prussian, “What they loved best next to their estates was an army and all that went with it — splendid uniforms, military pomp, and chivalric codes of honor”… What is obvious here is the critical role of the maximization of the threat of war by many land borders and its diminution of th positive impact of other variables on the evolution of democracy.”

This study seeks to go one steep beyond Midlarsky’s earlier work. Midlarsky was looking at land-borders from the perspective of being surrounded by the sea (either through being on an island or a peninsula). Other geographic-conditioning studies, such as Enterline (1998), also looked at neighboring states. This research, by contrast, will examine sea-borders from the perspective of being surrounded by land (that is, being landlocked). In order to make the examination more readily testable, the economic and democratic fate of the ex-Communist states will be compared with respect to their being landlocked or not