Geography of Beliefs

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Whether it is religion or other beliefs, we are influenced by the cultures and regions we are from. Perhaps unknowingly, geographic factors can shape our beliefs not only in our early life and development years, but they can also affect us as we move and change where we reside throughout our lives. However, we are not hapless victims of our geography and other factors have been shown to shape beliefs about a variety of topics. 

Geography does not only affect where particular religions or belief systems, such as the world’s major faiths, are located but it can affect how specific beliefs are practiced and behaviors that it encourages. For example, a study in Nigeria showed that clergymen wanting to build or have access to a library were influenced not only by their wider religion but others around the clergymen, including other clergy, would influence attitudes on what is appropriate for a library or information access for clergymen. In other words, specific beliefs can be influenced by local, geographically-bound networks and those networks can create a wider cultural understanding where people live in a relatively closed community practicing given beliefs that are localized to that community or area.[1]

While beliefs in general and religion even specifically have been seen to be affected by geography, other geographers are also critical of using geography as a primary driver of beliefs. Agency, that is actions and choices originating from individual initiative, they argue, could be a powerful influencer in beliefs, including choices individuals make and different form of social and geographical networks individuals may become associated with. Some cultural geographers argue that beliefs are more complex and factors that include communities and our geography as well as personal agency shape the types of beliefs that ultimately emerge.[2] Other studies have showed that communities, including online rather than physical, geographically local communities, that actively share knowledge are more likely to influence beliefs, such as about how to design software among programmers, where behaviors mimic what may have previously been more geographic-related interactions. In other words, geographic factors could be replaced and networks or communities that form virtually could also be a major factor that shape certain belief systems.[3]

In a work looking at political beliefs and leanings, researchers demonstrated how geography, rather than what one person states as his or her political identity is, has a greater influence. In fact, it has been shown that in the United States people who identify as having a set of political leanings, such as supporting a left-leaning candidate, may actually have political beliefs or leanings that are more closely aligned to right-leaning candidates. In other words, people are generally more heavily influenced by their surroundings in their voting or political behavior rather than what they think they identify with. This is true despite the presence of online communities and virtual interactions that many people now have. For instance, in more conservative regions of the United States, left-leaning voters may more closely align with right-leaning candidates, even if they self-identify as being more left-leaning. Such work demonstrates that pollsters should depend less on political identify and look at proximity of voters to others who tend to vote in a given direction to identify likelihood on what someone believes a candidate should characterize. Interestingly, the results also show that animosity voters sometimes feel towards others with different political identity is often misplaced and many voters, even those who vote for very different candidates, share more common beliefs then they realize.[4]  

Graph showing the effect of location on policy positions.  From the author:  SC = strong conservative identity; SL = strong liberal identity. Red Texas symbols represent people in the 100 reddest counties in America; Blue New York symbols represent people in the 100 bluest counties in America.  Source: Feinberg et al., 2017.
Graph showing the effect of location on policy positions. From the author: SC = strong conservative identity; SL = strong liberal identity. Red Texas symbols represent people in the 100 reddest counties in America; Blue New York symbols represent people in the 100 bluest counties in America.  Source: Feinberg et al., 2017.

What is evident from the literature about beliefs and geography is that geography can be a powerful influence on our lives. Many people do believe in something based on where they are born. This continues in later life as well. However, there are other powerful factors that influence one’s life, including their own agency and actions and communities that we are now forming online and in other formats and platforms. Nevertheless, for certain beliefs, such as voting behavior, geography can be demonstrated to be a powerful influence. 


References

[1]    For more on how geography influences beliefs on what types of reading materials and information is appropriate for clergy in a Nigerian community, see:  Dankasa, J. 2017.  The Effects of Cultural, Geographical and Religious Factors on Information Seeking: A Contextual Study. International Journal of Information Science and Management. 15. 127-147. 

[2]    For more on how geographic factors and also agency by individuals influences beliefs, see:  Dwyer, C., 2016. Why does religion matter for cultural geographers? Social & Cultural Geography 17, 758–762. https://doi.org/10.1080/14649365.2016.1163728.

[3]    For more on how networks and online communities replicate what may occur based on geographic factors, see:  Passerini, K., Osatuyi, B., Stipe, W., 2020. Giving and Taking in Online Communities of Practice: The Role of Geography and Culture in Knowledge Sharing and Innovation. Presented at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences. https://doi.org/10.24251/HICSS.2020.581.

[4]    For more on political beliefs and its contrast to political identity in the United States, see:  Feinberg, M., Tullett, A.M., Mensch, Z., Hart, W., Gottlieb, S., 2017. The political reference point: How geography shapes political identity. PLoS ONE 12, e0171497. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0171497

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