Absolute and Relative Location

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Geographers can describe the location of a place in one of two ways: absolute and relative. Both are descriptives of where a geographic location is.  

Let’s learn about the difference between absolute and relative location.

Absolute Location

Absolute location describes the location of a place based on a fixed point on earth.  The most common way is to identify the location using coordinates such as latitude and longitude or by the use of a street address when available. Absolute location can also be the name of the city or region or postal code a point is located in although this is less precise than using coordinates or an address.

Latitude is used to mark the north-south position of a location on the Earth’s surface and ranges from 0 degrees at the equator to 90 degrees at the North and South Poles.  There are 180 degrees of latitude and the distance between each degree of latitude is roughly 69 miles (111 km).

Longitude lines run north-south and indicate the location of a point east-west. Latitude is therefore the angular distance east or west of the Prime Meridian. There are 360 degrees of longitude (+180° eastward and −180° westward.).

Latitude and Longitude. Image: Djexplo, WikiMedia Commons, public domain
Latitude and Longitude. Image: Djexplo, WikiMedia Commons, public domain

Lines of longitude and latitude crisscross the Earth. A location that is being described using latitude and longitude will have a set of coordinates. Latitude is always written first and latitude and longitude are composed of degrees, minutes, and seconds (DMS). Latitude and longitude coordinates can also be written as decimal degrees.

(Watch an extended version of this video about absolute and relative location).

An Example of Absolute Location

An example of an absolute location using latitude and longitude is the United States Capitol in Washington D.C. which is located at 38° 53′ 35″ N, 77° 00′ 32″ W.   In decimal degrees, the absolute location of the U.S. Capital Building is 38.89012259750874, -77.00907196001525.

A cropped map of the U.S. Capitol.
A cropped map showing the location of the U.S. Capitol. Map: U.S. government, public domain.

Absolute location can also refer to an address, the street address of the US State Capitol is First St SE in Washington, DC 20004.  In both instances, absolute location refers to a fixed point based on an abstract network of imaginary locations.  

(You might also be interested in reading about: Relative Direction Versus Compass Direction)

Relative Location

Relative location refers to the position of a place or entity based on its location with respect to other locations.  Relative location, unlike absolute location is not a fixed reference. Relative location will therefore change based on the secondary location.

For example, the United States is located south of Canada. If the location of the United States is described based on its relative location to Venezuela, then it would be described as being north of that country.

 In the map below, a person would describe the relative location of Broad River, which flows through North Caroline and South Carolina, differently.

A person living in Hickory, North Carolina would describe the location of Broad river as flowing south and slightly west of them.  A person in Charlotte, North Carolina would describe the river as flowing west of them.  A person living in Spartanburg, South Carolina would describe the river as being located north and east of them.

Map showing the relative location of Broad River.  Map: Caitlin Dempsey.
Map showing the relative location of Broad River. Map: Caitlin Dempsey.

Relative location can also be expressed in terms of distance, travel time, or cost.

An Example of Relative Location

We can again look at this map of the area around the U.S. Capitol. The north arrow in the upper right hand corner lets the user know the cardinal directions. As a relative location, the U.S. Capitol can be described as being due west of the U.S. Supreme Court or southwest from the Russell Senate Office Building.

Map showing the area in Washington D.C. around the U.S. Capitol. Map: U.S. Government, public domain.
Map showing the area in Washington D.C. around the U.S. Capitol. Map: U.S. Government, public domain.

Relative Distance and Absolute Distance

The location could also be desired in terms of how long it would take to travel to the U.S. Capitol Building along specific routes. For example, the U.S. Capital Building is a roughly six minute walk southwest from the Russell Senate Office Building using Constitution Avenue.

As with absolute location, absolute distance involves describing the distance from one point to another using units of measurements. For example, the U.S. Capitol is 0.3 miles from the The location could also be desired in terms of how long it would take to travel to the U.S. Capitol Building. For example, the U.S. Capital Building is a roughly six minute walk southwest from the Russel Senate Office Building walking along NE Constitution Avenue.

Locator Maps

Relative location can also be used to provide geographic context.  For example, overview or locator maps show the relative location of a place or entity based on a larger geographic view.  For example, the inset map below, shows the relative location of the state of Texas within the United States.

Examples of Absolute and Relative Location

More examples of absolute and relative location can be found here.

Video: Absolute and Relative Location

This article was first written in 2016 and has since been updated.

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