What's the Difference Between Relative Location and Absolute Location?

Distance Sign Shows Relative Location
This directional sign in Los Angeles shows the relative location of L.A. to cities around the world. Getty Images

Both relative location and absolute location are geographic terms used to describe the location of a place on the Earth's surface. They are each unique in their ability to pinpoint a location on Earth.

Relative Location

Relative location refers to locating a place relative to other landmarks. For example, you could give the relative location of St. Louis, Missouri as being in eastern Missouri, along the Mississippi River southwest of Springfield, Illinois.

 

As one drives along most major highways, there are mileage signs indicating the distance to the next town or city.  This information expresses your current location relative to the upcoming place. So, if a highway sign states that St. Louis is 96 miles away from Springfield, you know your relative location from St. Louis.  

Relative location is also a term that is used to indicate a place's location within a larger context.  For example, one could state that Missouri is located in the Midwest of the United States and is bordered by Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. That is the relative location of Missouri based on its location within the United States.  

Alternatively, you could state that Missouri is south of Iowa and north of Arkansas. This is yet another example of relative location.

Absolute Location

On the other hand, absolute location references a place on the Earth's surface based on specific geographic coordinates, such as latitude and longitude.

Based on the previous example of St. Louis, the absolute location of St. Louis is 38°43' North 90°14' West.

One can also give an address as an absolute location. For example, the absolute location of St. Louis City Hall is 1200 Market Street, St. Louis, Missouri 63103. By providing the full address you can pinpoint the location of St.

Louis City Hall on a map. 

While you can give the geographic coordinates of a city or a building, it is difficult to provide the absolute location of an area such as a state or country because such places can't be pinpointed. With some difficulty, you could provide the absolute locations of the boundaries of the state or country but most of the time it's easier to just display a map or describe the relative location of a place like a state or country.