mised on the rising significance of broad-scale religious identity as an organizing force in the contemporary world. Proponents of his thesis point to the growing salience of geopolitical movements with an explicitly religious agenda (most obviously Al-Qaeda). Critics argue that Huntington has ignored the long history of divisions within religious realms (see Bassin, 2007). The stakes in this debate are high because geopolitical framings can greatly influence policy and practice (Gregory, 2004).
Moving the debate forward requires consideration of the extent to which identity constructs based on generalized notions of religious or cultural continuities are challenging national and local loyalties. Even though the state system does not have deep historical roots in most parts of the world, states play an extraordinarily influential role in defining contemporary identity communities (Murphy, 1996; Wimmer, 2002). At the same time, in many places localized ethnic identities have a powerful grip on the collective imagination. To what extent do nationalist and localized ethnic identities—along with the institutions and arrangements that support them—represent a serious obstacle to the formation of the kinds of civilizational blocs posited by Huntington? Addressing this question requires empirical research focused on where, and under what circumstances, commitments to large-scale religious-cultural communities are superseding national and local identities, and where they are not. Of particular importance are intensive field studies focused on the institutional arrangements, spatial networks, and cultural practices that are shaping senses of place and identity in particular places and regions (see Carnegie, 2008, for a discussion of the utility of this kind of research in the effort to understand conflict). Those in the best position to undertake such studies are researchers with significant regional knowledge and linguistic skills who are interested in investigating geographical patterns and variations, both at the local scale (e.g., Secor, 2004; Mills, 2006) and at broader scales (e.g., Leitner, 2003).
The Huntington thesis is just one example of an influential geopolitical conception. Such conceptions are formulated by international organizations, think tanks, insurgency networks, and militaries; initiatives such as the National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project (NIC, 2004) shape decisions that can have sweeping social, economic, and environmental impacts. What do such initiatives include and ignore? What is the relationship between the visions set forth in them and underlying patterns of economic activity, cultural interaction, resource access, and territorial ideology? Which cultural, economic, or environmental circumstances are highlighted or obscured? Geographically grounded explorations of such questions can foster informed reflection on the often-unexamined geopolitical assumptions that guide policy making and scholarly analysis. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq prompted an outpouring of scholarship on U.S.-based geopolitical visions (see e.g., Flint, 2005b; Bialasiewicz et al., 2007; Dalby, 2007), but much work remains to be done to assess the advantages and limitations of different geographical framings of this and other geopolitical issues (see Elden, 2009). It is also important to extend research beyond the major global powers of the 20th century. As Cutter et al. (2003), Flint (2003), and others make clear, to date relatively little attention has been paid to the assumptions and goals of emergent global actors, whether they be states (e.g., China or India), regional blocs (e.g., the European Union or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), or extrastate religious and ethnic movements (e.g., Hezbollah or the Tibetan Autonomy Movement).
Research by geographical scientists along the lines outlined above will deepen our understanding of some of the fundamental geopolitical forces shaping the security landscape of the 21st century. What is needed is a sustained effort to investigate the spatial character of geopolitical developments and conceptualizations and to analyze their relationship to key political-economic, environmental, and social patterns. Without studies in this vein, our understanding of key sources of geopolitical stability and instability will be impoverished.