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Classification criteria are the principles by which categories are aggregated to form broader categories in a classification structure. Three classification criteria are used in the SACC to form the categories of the main classification structure:
Geographic proximity is the basic criterion used to group countries in the SACC. In its most fundamental sense, geographic proximity means countries being contiguous, that is, sharing a common border. In the main classification structure, geographically contiguous countries are added together so that a group of countries is formed. Although not all countries in the resultant group are contiguous, they form a continuous mass without any country not included in the group intervening. Geographic proximity can therefore describe countries that are contiguous, or countries that are linked one to the other to form a continuous unbroken landmass. Such countries may be described as neighbouring countries. It should be noted that the intervention of international bodies of water between countries is not considered to impede this principle. Thus the Caspian Sea lying between the countries of the Caucasus and the countries of Central Asia does not preclude these countries being regarded as neighbouring or geographically proximate countries even though there is a large area of water between them.
Similarity in terms of social and cultural characteristics is based primarily on religion(s) practised and language(s) spoken in a group of countries. However, other factors such as historical links, similarity of national aspirations, and even factors such as type of food, or similarity of art, serve as indicators of cultural and social similarity.
The lowest level of the classification consists of separately identified countries as described above (see Definition of Country). Neighbouring countries are combined to form the minor groups of the main classification structure on the basis of their similarity in terms of social, cultural, economic and political characteristics. In a very few instances this principle of combining neighbouring countries is not strictly adhered to because the interests of practicality and usefulness are better served by a more stringent application of the second criterion. For instance, Spain and Portugal are included in a group with other similar southern European countries even though the southern part of France lies between Spain and Italy. As well as being geographically proximate, the countries of minor groups must all lie within a single geographic continent. Although the countries in a minor group category are not necessarily identical in respect of any particular characteristic, the groups formed are relatively homogeneous in terms of the set of classification criteria.
While geographic proximity is the principal criterion employed in grouping countries, in instances where a country could fit into more than one minor group on the basis of its geographic location, its placement in the classification is made primarily on the basis of its characteristics and those of its neighbours. For instance, on the basis of location, Mexico could be included in either a group of countries comprising Northern America or a group of countries comprising Central America. It is included in Central America because it is more similar in terms of social, cultural, economic and political characteristics to countries such as Honduras and Guatemala than to the United States and Canada. Where a country could fit equally into more than one minor group on the basis of all the classification criteria, it is classified on the basis of factors such as practicality, usefulness, and statistical balance between groups (see Design Constraints). For instance, on the basis of the classification criteria, Italy would fit comfortably in either Western Europe or Southern Europe. It is included in Southern Europe on the basis of the aforementioned factors.
At the first and most general level of the main classification structure, major groups are formed by aggregating geographically proximate minor groups. The aggregation of minor groups was undertaken, as far as possible, so that the major groups formed consist of minor groups which have a degree of similarity in terms of social, cultural, economic and political characteristics. This creates distinct and geographically coherent groups comprised of countries which are, generally speaking, similar in terms of their characteristics. In principle, major groups are formed so that they lie entirely within a single geographic continent. This is not the case in two instances. The Major Group North Africa and the Middle East lies across the boundary separating the continents of Africa and Asia, and the Major Group Americas includes the continents of North and South America.
The countries of North Africa are included in a major group with the Middle East because they are socially and culturally similar to many Arabian countries. To include them in a group with Sub-Saharan countries from which they are geographically, environmentally and culturally removed would not be in harmony with the principles of the classification or useful for social and population statistics. In many economic statistics, however, the continental classification of Africa and Asia is appropriate and is adopted as an output view of the data.
The classification criteria and the way they have been applied has produced a main classification structure that can be described in conventional terms: countries grouped to form minor groups on the basis of geographic proximity and similarity in terms of cultural, social, economic and political characteristics; and minor groups aggregated to form major groups on the basis of geographic proximity and a degree of similarity in terms of their characteristics.
The SACC also includes a number of alternative groupings which are not based on the criteria used to form the groups of the main geographically based classification structure. The alternative groupings are, in the main, conventional, internationally recognised associations or organisations of member countries or economies which serve economic and political purposes. For example, the SACC includes the following groupings of countries: Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC), ASEAN, European Union (EU), etc. (see Alternative Country Groupings).