Review of the Origin and Evolution of the Concept of Regionalism

1.     Introduction

Since the classical Greeks, regions have played a central role in geography as a means to collect, organize and give meaning to spatial distributions. During the 19thC, Vidal de La Blache and other figures loomed large in the formalization of regional geography. During the 1980’s, geographers saw renewed concerns for regionalism, often called the localities school.

Regionalism approach took seriously, embedding regions with in wider understanding of capitalism, uneven development and the spatial division of labor. Regionalism implied that no social process unfolds in exactly the same way in different places. From the stand point of the new localities school; causality and locations are intertwined.

It is quite difficult to define when the history of regionalism begins, since there is no single explanation that encompasses the origins and development of regional idea. The first coherent regionalism initiative, however, took place during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Criteria such as the desire by states to “make the best of their regional environment” are regarded by certain analysts as elusive; they prefer to consider the history of regionalism in terms of the rise of modern institutions. An increasing number of influential people had already advocated “escape from a theoretical and an ineffective universalism in to practiced and workable regionalism”.

This paper focuses on regionalism. The paper has 7 sections, which present the definition and concepts, origin and History, Attributes of regionalism, types of regionalism, regional integration in Africa and conclusion.

2.     Definition and Concepts of regionalism

In order to define and understand the concept of regionalism it is first fundamental what meant by region. The primary common sense usage of region connotes physical contiguity and societal homogeneity. Ken Jimbo (2006) explained, in international relation, it indicates the multilateral groupings of neighboring nations. In fact proximity seems to be a necessary condition for confident stipulation of a region, although not sufficient. This is because regions go beyond geography and cultural bonds like the East Asian Submit and EU expansion to Turkey.

For Whittlsey, the region is ‘a device for selecting and studying area groupings of the complex phenomena on earth’. ‘Any segment or portion of the earth’s surface is a region if it is homogenous in terms of such an aerial groupings’. Homogeneity based up on selected criteria. Region is not an object, but an ‘intellectual concept’ devised and used for a particular purpose. Further, ‘the approach to regional study starts with the homogenous area, which is accepted as a hypothesis. The area is then examined with a view to discovering its components and connections’.

Riamo Vayrynen (2003) states that, those often engaged in defining the concept ‘‘region’’ are content to list physical, political, and economic criteria without embarking on theory development. For example, Edward Mansfield and Helen Milner emphasize geographical proximity and specificity as the key defining traits of a region. Or, researchers such as Thompson refer to early conceptual analyses and essentially leave the concept undefined. Scholars in history and political science seem to think that they will know a region when they see one. For economists, the choice is even easier, region is coextensive with a preferential trading agreement or a customs union.

Elena Shadrina (2006) explained the term region quoting R. Ostergren who considered the region in geographical perspective states that “geographers have traditionally recognized at least three ways to characterize regions: as instituted, as objectively denoted and naively perceived”. Further explained instituted regions as, being created by authorities within some organizations that are national, state or local governments, religious denominations or business corporations. Objectively denoted regions are created by scholars, analysts, or officials in order to reduce the complexity of the real world for the purpose of practicability. In contrast to the former ones, naively perceived regions are shaped informally by a closely knit group of people identifying in their own mind a territory that belongs to them rather than to others.


  • Regionalism is the idea or practice of dividing a country in to smaller units for political, economic, social and cultural purposes.(Encyclopedia of Russian history)
  • Regionalism is the expression of a common sense of identity and purpose combined with the creation and implementation of institutions that express a particular identity and shape collective action within a geographic area.(Wikipedia)
  • Regionalism is “the proneness of the governments and peoples of state to establish voluntary associations and to pool together resources in order to create common functional and institutional arrangements”. (Arie M. Kacowicz)

Geography always relies on regional approaches since it deals with areas. However, in the last two centuries, the concept of region underwent profound changes. For long, geographers aimed at the delimitation and description of objective units on the Earth’s surface. In contrast, in the last forty years, they mainly focused on the significance of places, the meaning of territories and the role the regional approaches played in the building of identities. On this basis, Ken Jimbo defined regionalism in two ways.

Cognitive definition

Regionalism is a complex of attitudes, loyalties and ideas which concentrates the individual and collective minds of people(s) upon what they perceive as ‘their’ region.

Functional definition

Regionalism is a relation that bundles multiple nations with their political, economic and cultural inheritance, often based on the geographical advantage.

As Samuel S. Kim (2004) puts it, “like globalism, regionalism is a normative concept referred to shared values, norms, identity, and aspirations” He denotes regionalism as being “state-led projects of cooperation that emerge from intergovernmental dialogues and agreements”, setting thus regionalism forth by its intergovernmental nature of collaboration.

According to Edward and Helen, “A region is often defined as a group of countries located in the same geographically specified area.” They explained, however, exactly which areas constitute regions remains controversial. Some observers, for example, consider Asia-Pacific a single region, others consider it an amalgamation of two regions, and still others consider it a combination of more than two regions. Furthermore, a region implies more than just close physical proximity among the constituent states. For instance, the United States and Russia are rarely considered inhabitants of the same region, even though Russia’s eastern coast is very close to Alaska.

Regarding regionalism, they noted that some analyses define it in terms of economy stating “regionalism as an economic process whereby economic flows grow more rapidly among a given group of states (in the same region) than between these states and those located elsewhere.”

This being the case, recent literatures identify between regionalism and regionalization. The former define as a political process characterized by economic policy cooperation and coordination among countries and the later refers to the regional concentration of economic flows. (Fishlow and Haggard 1992)

In a broader sense, Michael Shultz referred regionalism as “the general phenomenon, denoting formal projects as well as processes in the broadest possible sense and represents the body of ideas, values and concrete objectives that are aimed at creating, maintaining or modifying the provision of security and wealth, peace and development within a region: the urge by any set of actors to reorganize along a particular regional space.”

To Alan Winters (1996), regionalism is as any policy designed to reduce trade barriers between a subset of countries regardless of whether those countries are actually contiguous or even close to each other. On the contrary, he discusses in detail the concept of multilateralism and takes regionalism as its counterpart.

According to the dictionary of human geography 5th edition, regionalism is a term referring to both a form of political identity and sub-national economic integration. Attempts have been made to clarify the definition to delineate the ‘old’ regionalism of a political identity seeking autonomy or separation from the state and the ‘new’ regionalism of economic integration at the sub-national scale, which may include governmental administrative functions. Regionalism is seen as a theoretical and methodological vehicle to analyse new forms of governance within the context of neo-liberal policies and supra-state institutions.

The authors, quoting Jones and MacLeod (2004, p. 435), further distinguish between regional spaces and spaces of regionalism. Regional spaces are regional economic geographies of technological spillovers and inter-firm agglomeration that produce a regional clustering of economic assets. Spaces of regionalism are the ‘(re)assertion of national and regional claims to citizenship, insurgent forms of political mobilization and cultural expression and the formation of new contours of territorial government’.

3.     Origin and History of regionalism

It is quite difficult to define when the history of regionalism begins, since there is no single explanation that encompasses the origin and development of regional idea. Until the 18th century the only available spatial information related to topographical unit and ethnic, religious or administrative affiliations. This explained the poor quality of most of the regional descriptions which were then written.

At the beginning of the 18thc, the German school of pure geography demanded that geographer’s cease rely in their analysis on more of less arbitrary divisions. Modern geography sprang from this new requirement, attention rapidly focused on natural region, which was clearly identified in France by Jean Luis Giraud-Soulavie. Geographers were not interested in the territorial divisions which sounded really significant for local people. However, administrative divisions were not built on scientific foundations, the ambitions of most geographers from the 18thc were to provide rulers with systems of regional divisions more efficient for public action, allowing for better expression of cultural realities, and offering better opportunities for fulfillment for the various social and ethnic groups.

Vidal de la Blache 1888-1889 cited in Paul, 2006 A true regional revolution occurred during the last years of the 19th century and the first of the 20th. Vidal de la Blache played an important role in this mutation, being well aware of the research developed in both physical and human geography and relying on their results. Thanks to the progress of thematic cartography, he discovered that it was possible to draw several systems of regional differentiation in a country like France. He developed a whole set of regional conceptions during his career: Some areas were homogeneous thanks to their topography, vegetation, climate, geological outcrops and environments: they constituted natural regions (Vidal de la Blache 1888-1889).

Specific forms of sociability characterized the different parts of a country: the North of France had an open and progressive society, which differed much from the self-enclosed one of the Western part of the country, and from that of the South, where relations were active, but in a more conservative atmosphere (Vidal de la Blache,1903).

The last decade of the 19th century and the first of the 20th were a time in which the regional approach progressed greatly—as did the whole of human geography: open curiosity, the systematic use of the new methods then available to detect the existence of homogeneous or nodal areas, and the discovery of the multiplicity of territorial divisions in any country all gave many indications as to the complexity of regional organization. The conflict which then developed between French geography and sociology had important consequences for the dynamism of our discipline. Sociologists considered that geographers often moved out of their proper domain (i. e. the study of the relations between man and his environment), and invaded that of social morphology, which could be correctly analyzed only by sociology.

Their critiques were harsh. One of the followers of Vidal de la Blache, Lucien Gallois, took them seriously. In his book on Régions naturelles et noms de pays (1908), he invited geographers to deal only with natural regions and their transformation into humanized (or ‘geographical’) ones. Most geographers did not conform exactly with his advice, but the curiosity for the theoretical foundations of regional analysis disappeared for almost fifty years. The result was an impoverishment of reflections on the idea of the region until the late 1950s.

The first coherent regionalism initiative, however, took place during the 1950s and 1960s. Criteria such as the desire by state to “make the best of their environment” are regarded as by certain analysts as elusive; they prefer to consider the history of regionalism in terms of the rise of modern institutions. If a formal organization at the regional as opposed to the international level is to be the yardstick for the onset of regionalism, it is difficult to place its origin much before 1945. By the 1940s, an increasing number of influential people had already advocated “escape from a theoretical and an ineffective universalism in to practiced and workable regionalism”.

 4.     Attributes of regionalism

Regionalism generally thought to have the following attributes that are assumed as it peculiar features. These features are the basis for classifying regions in their characteristics of physical, cultural and amalgamation of the two variables. Majid Husain (Revised, 1995).

  • Regions have Location

All regions, physical or cultural, are often expressed in the regional name such as the Middle East, the South East Asia, the North West Europe, and the Far East etc.

  • Regions have Boundaries

The homogeneous physical and cultural attributes of the earth surface have spatial (areal) extent. For example, the Thar Desert, the Sahara Desert, the Latin America and Anglo-America cover certain areas of the earth surface. Thus, regions are not in abeyance, they have a personality on the ground.

  • Regions have Spatial Extent

Each region, physical or cultural, has a boundary. The boundary of a region is drawn at the outer edge where the phenomenon (feature) no longer occurs or dominates.

  • Regions may be either formal or functional

Formal regions are areas of essentially uniform throughout in one or limited combination of physical or cultural features.

  • Regions are hierarchically arranged

Although regions vary on scale, type and degree of regionalization, none stands alone as the ultimate key to a real understanding.

  • Regions have transitional boundaries

Generally, regions do not have sharp boundaries. In most of the cases their boundaries are transitional. It means there is some overlapping of one phenomenon over the other.

5.     Types of regionalism

Three types of regionalism in the history of the twentieth century

5.1  Open Regionalism

The resurgence of regionalism must be placed in a broader historical perspective, including three waves of regionalism during the twentieth century. The world experienced the tragedy of both an aggressive nationalism and an imperial regionalism during the inter-war period. The international economy was characterized by the crucial fact that the British-centered hegemonic multilateral stability came to an end, which was already perceptible in nuce with the consequences of the Great Depression of 1873 and the Age of Empires. The crisis publicly crashed with the First World War and the international system came to its demise in August 1931, with the end of the Gold Standard’s basis for the pound being one of the direct consequences of the Great Depression of 1929.

After the failure of the International Economic Conference in 1933, it was finally realized that the UK could no longer play the role of hegemonic power and that the US could not, as yet, take over the role. The end of the long era of the self regulated market and of free trade was an international event. The American economic crash of 1929 had a huge global impact. It undermined the apparent economic boom of the 1920s, which J. M. Keynes had warned of ten years earlier, in The Economic Consequences of Peace. International economics shifted from open trade order and the first seeds of international liberalization (including the Most Favoured Nation Clause, MFN) to state protectionism, discriminatory and regionalist imperialisms. The parallel crisis in the fragile League of Nations peace system, the breakdown of the first steps towards a farseeing European unity design, namely the Briand-Stresemann dialogue, and the parallel Japanese expansion in East Asia, heralded the end of the first attempt to construct a modern multilateral collective security system able to cope with the challenges of the twentieth century.

During the 1930s and the early 1940s, the world experienced the difficult times of both economic and political ‘malevolent regionalism’, as a result of German and Japanese attempts to become regional hegemonic powers. The military and fascist regimes of Japan and Germany replaced the former ‘pax Britannica’, holder of a cooperative king of balance of power, with new conflicts for regional domination, in Asia/Pacific and Europe respectively, provoking the outbreak of the Second World War. Until then, in spite of its financial and economic strength, the US was not able to take the place of the declining UK as the hegemonic power in the international system. Post-war American hegemony took the form of an accelerated move towards a more institutionalized multilateralism, whose domestic roots are to be found in the New Deal pattern of regulated capitalism.

Despite the evolving global system having its centre in European colonialism for four centuries, the main globalization tendencies no longer come from Europe since the Second World War. The 1944/47 multilateral political and economic institutions – the new monetary system based on the convertibility of the US dollar, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the GATT, the United Nations and so on – provided an effective framework to overcome the catastrophic instability of the inter-war period. Between 1944 and 1947, these institutions attempted to include both former and potential enemies.

5.2  Economic Regionalism

A second type of regionalism, an economic regionalism, was set up during the 1950s and 1960s, which was compatible with such American-centered hegemonic stability and its vision of multilateralism. Particularly important was the regional integration of the European Community, which was inconceivable without taking into account the huge impact of American hegemony. Even if less successful elsewhere in the ‘free world’ and in the third world, regionalist experiments took place, for example in Asia, Africa and Latin America. During these decades the US, in spite of free trade ideology, tolerated many forms of national and regional protectionism abroad, which is clearly proven by the EC (for instance, Customs Union, Common Agricultural Policy, Lomé Convention, and so on), and the Latin American (supported by CEPAL and its ideology, and so on.) examples. With the exception of the EC, the results have been very poor.

Too many inward-looking economic policies, too weak institutional settlements, the legacy of colonialism and the weight of underdevelopment do explain the failure or the marginal impact of such a second type of regionalism. As far as the EC is concerned, the harmony between transatlantic stability, which was centered on the trading state, the open market and national growth, started to decline with the end of the Bretton Wood Gold Standard system (1971) and the two oil crises of the 1970s. There is no doubt that the end of the dollar as an international factor of stability undermined the American hegemony and also the idea of a ‘Trilateral’ Directorate of the capitalist world. This Directorate, the famous ‘triad’, including Japan, Europe and the USA, was supposed to rescue the former stability path but only announced the coming epoch of transition.

The first plans for a European regional monetary union (the ‘Werner Plan’) began in the early 1970s, even though the single European currency was not established before 1999. Step by step, a new regionalism is emerging and not only in Western Europe. However, the question of the relationship between American leadership and new regionalism seems to be crucial in the new era of transition in the current international system. On the one hand, the scientific and public debate of the 1980s on the declining role of the US, though overemphasized, allowed one to speak of a ‘post-hegemonic’ international system from then on.

On the other hand, the collapse of the USSR in 1991 and the consequences of 9/11 confirmed the strength of the tendency towards a sole superpower. The successful New Economy of the 1990s and the ‘wars against terrorism’ confirm the leadership of the US as far as European Union and New Regionalism military, politics, economy and technology are concerned. Nevertheless, limits of unipolarism are evident and no new international order has yet been established. The parallel and opposing tendencies towards the decentralization and globalism of the world economic and political system are continuing within this uncertain framework.

Regionalism shows as resilient to global changes and is about to evolve in many areas of the world, according to new patterns, trends and agendas. In continuity and discontinuity with the past, it is a matter of a third, post-hegemonic, regionalism as a component in a new turbulent and heterogeneous world system. This volume focuses on this complex phenomenon and its theoretical implications. The current globalization process entails a broader and deeper (even if highly differentiated) new type of regionalism.

During the last twenty years the world has witnessed, in parallel with the boom in international trade and foreign investments, the simultaneous development, or revival, of numerous and varied regional arrangements and regional organizations: the most well-known are the EU, NAFTA, ASEAN, Andean Community, MERCOSUR, SADC, SAARC and so on.

5.3  The New Regionalism

It is recognized that the “third wave of regionalism”, or the “new regionalism” as it is called, is radically different from that of the post-war period. The concept of new regionalism goes beyond that of “open regionalism”, usually utilized to portray integration efforts in the context of open and market-oriented economies. A comprehensive discussion of the new regionalism goes beyond the purpose of this paper. However, it is important to highlight the major features identified as they are relevant for the discussion of its possible systemic and developmental implications.

According to Luis Abugattas (2004), in the 1960s and 1970s, regionalism normally involved countries at more or less similar levels of development, usually in close geographical proximity and focused predominantly on the liberalization of trade in goods by dismantling tariffs and border measures affecting trade between the parties. Regionalism was conceived of basically as an instrument supporting national developmental policies, as it was mainly oriented to overcoming market-size limitations faced by import-substituting industrialization policies at the national level.

Another feature of the new regionalism is the introduction of “third generation agreements” that are highly intrusive in the realm of domestic policies. The nature of the renovated and new Regional Trade Agreements (RTAs), both North-South and South- South, defies the sequence and the classical levels of economic integration ranked by scope and deepness of the commitments adopted by members. RTAs increasingly include “deep integration” measures covering, inter alia, standards, sanitary measures, trade facilitation, liberalization of trade in services, investment and competition disciplines, government procurement, and also the movement of natural persons with a set of related disciplines.

Another distinctive feature of the new regionalism is the simultaneous participation of countries in various RTAs, each one, in many cases, with highly differentiated trade rules (usually also being implemented over different periods). This phenomenon introduces new complexities at the systemic level, generating also new domestic requirements for the administration of the multiple and varied commitments. The panorama is increasingly turning more complex because of the proliferation of agreements worldwide and the increasing cross-cutting membership between different agreements.

An interesting emerging feature of the new regionalism is the attempts to negotiate RTAs between regional integration groupings. Such “bloc-to-bloc” negotiations constitute a relatively novel exercise, bringing new challenges and additional rule-making requirements for successful integration.

6.     Regional Integration in Africa

Regional integration in Africa is still an active agenda item for African nations and pan- African institutions such as the African Union. Regional integration is motivated by the need for larger markets in order to grow trade and investment. Intra-regional trade is central to the drive for integration which, among other things, requires infrastructural development to reduce some of the supply-side constraints that African countries face, which hinder their production capacity and ability to supply goods and services to regional and international markets. Infrastructure development is therefore one of the most urgent challenges facing the continent, particularly for projects that promote regional linkages. Africa’s traditional partners, mainly the EU and the US, have long supported the regional integration agenda through various sector policy and institutional support initiatives. Nonetheless, the past decade has also seen the emerging economies arise as new players in Africa, and their impact on regional integration has stimulated much discussion. In their trade, aid and investment engagements these new participants, typified by China, India and Brazil, have developed their own ways of interacting with Africa, different from the norms established by the US and the EU. (Memory Dube, 2013)

Dube explained, regional economic integration, which is widely regarded as a central element in Africa’s development, has been moving ahead in some form since the 1960s. The ultimate aim is an African Economic Community (AEC). This was the first of many steps towards full integration. The African Union (AU) currently recognises eight subregional economic communities (RECs) as the building blocks of an eventual AEC. They are the Arab Maghreb Union, the Common Market for East and Southern Africa (Comesa), the Community of Sahel-Saharan States, the Economic Community of Central African States, the East African Community (EAC), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Inter-Governmental Authority for Development, and the Southern African Development Community (SADC). (There are other groupings in place, including the Southern African Customs Union [SACU], but they are not identified as leading towards the AEC.) The RECs themselves are at different stages in their progress towards integration and there is also a major problem of overlapping membership. The Tripartite Co-operation Framework, launched in 2008, aims to eliminate overlap and streamline the regional integration process, particularly in Eastern and Southern Africa, by bringing together Comesa, EAC and SADC. This tripartite strategy, in turn, relies on market integration, infrastructure development, and industrial development as its three strategic pillars. 

7.     Conclusion

Regionalism is a complex concept to have a conclusion. The idea (concept) had different definitions from different scholars, of different background. We have tried to assess all the definitions given by the scholars, attributes, types of regionalism, and regional integration in Africa. We have come up with conclusions including:-

Regionalism is the expression of a common sense of identity and purpose combined with the creation and implementation of institutions that express a particular identity and shape collective action within a geographic area.

It is quite difficult to define when the history of regionalism begins, since there is no single explanation that encompasses the origin and development of regional idea. But the idea of regionalism evolved from: Topographical unit and ethnic, religious or administrative affiliations (until 18th C) ==> Administrative divisions were not built on scientific foundations (start of 18th C) ==>Environmental homogeneity using cartography (19th C) ==> Make the best of environment-escape from a theoretical and an ineffective universalism in to practiced and workable regionalism (1950s -1960s).

In the 21st century we are witnessing the dominance of Globalization over regionalism. But still regionalism is an existing concept, showing the strong bases.

Regional integration in Africa is making the continent more powerful. The economic, political, and social integrations of the region are leading to development. Geographers are expected to study more on the regionalism in Africa and its effects.

Further Reading

  1. Alan Winters (1996), L. Alan Winters (1996): Regionalism versus Multilateralism. The World Bank International Economics Department International Trade Division
  2. Arie M. Kacowicz Arie M. Kacowicz, Regionalisation, Globalisation, and Nationalism: Convergent, Divergent, or Overlapping? The Helen
  3. Barney Warf (2006), Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Sage publication ltd.
  4. Edward D. Mans. eld and Helen V. Milner: International Organization 53, 3, Summer 1999, pp. 589–627. The NewWave of Regionalism
  5. Elena Shadrina (2006); Regionalization and Regionalism: featuring North East Asia
  6. Encyclopedia of Russian history
  7. Majid Husain (1995), Evolution of Geographic thought. Revised
  8. Kellogg Institute for International Studies, 1998// (accessed June 6, 2006).
  9. Ken Jimbo (2006): Overview and Introduction: What is Regionalism? Regional Anatomy I. ppt presentation
  10. Samuel S. Kim (2004) Regionalisation and Regionalism in East Asia// Journal of East Asian Studies 4 (2004), pp. 39-67
  11. Paul Claval (2006) Regional geography: past and present (a review of ideas/concepts, approaches and goals)
  12. Riamo Vayrynen International Studies Review (2003) 5, 25–51. Regionalism: Old and New