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Understanding the Concept of Relative Location

What is relative location? How is it different from absolute location? Read to know all about it.
Omkar Phatak
Geography was one of my favorite subjects, for the singular reason that we studied so many wonderful places around the world. It was a journey around the globe, through the medium of an atlas which we used to refer. It is an observational science and there is a lot of description involved, which includes detailing of physical features and specification of the distance and directionality. Of the many questions that one could ask about a geographical location, the most important one is - 'Where?'. That is where the concept of relative location comes in.
I am sure that you will be familiar with the Cartesian coordinate system. On a graph paper, you draw two perpendicular axes and measure the perpendicular distance of points from the two axes. The distance from the Y-axis, becomes the 'x-coordinate' and the distance from the X-axis becomes the y-coordinate of a point. It is easier to measure the distance between two points when you know their coordinates.
You can specify the location of any point on that graph, with respect to the two axes, in terms of coordinates. Thus the X and Y axes make a 'Reference Frame', with respect to which you specify the 'location' of a point.
What is Relative Location?
This concept evolved out of a need to answer the question of 'Where' some place is on a map. Relative location is the specification of the position, with respect to other known reference points or positions. It describes the direction and distance of a place, in relation to places surrounding it.
The epithet - 'Relative' is crucial. It means that the specification will be different for people describing the same place, depending on where they are situated. That is because every person defines the location, according to his or her frame of reference.
On the other hand, absolute location is the specification of latitude and longitude of a place. The latitude describes the location of the place with respect to the Earth's equator, while the longitude describes it with respect to the Greenwich Meridian or Prime Meridian.
The absolute location is 'absolute', because it is a specification of distance and direction of a location, with respect to a fixed universal frame of reference. Thus unlike, relative location, its absolute counterpart will be the same with respect to any place.
Examples
Relative location helps you understand where some place is, in relation to known landmarks. When describing a new territory, a city or a country, both relative and absolute location are quoted. The specification makes it simpler for you to provide directions to anybody. Here are some examples:
  • Nevada lies in the northeast of California.
  • Palmdale is southeast of Bakersfield.
  • Utah is situated in the Northern region of Arizona.
  • Albuquerque is on the southwest of Santa Fe.
  • Missouri is situated towards the north of Arkansas and east of Kansas.
To put it in simple words and to sum it all up, when you provide help to anybody who stops you on the road to ask for directions, you are essentially providing a relative location, but when you quote the latitude and longitudes of the place, you are providing the absolute location.