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Region: North America

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The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states, one federal district, and fourteen territories. The country is situated almost entirely in the western hemisphere: its forty-eight contiguous states and Washington, D.C., the capital district, lie in central North America between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, bordered by Canada to the north and Mexico to the south; the state of Alaska is in the northwest of the continent with Canada to its east, and the state of Hawaii is in the mid-Pacific. U.S. territories, or insular areas, are scattered around the Caribbean and Pacific.

At 3.7 million square miles (9.6 million kmē) and with over 300 million people, the United States is the third or fourth largest country by total area, and third largest by land area and population. The United States is one of the world's most ethnically diverse nations, the product of large-scale immigration from many countries. Its national economy is the largest in the world, with a nominal 2006 gross domestic product (GDP) of more than US$13 trillion.

The United States is a culturally diverse nation, home to a wide variety of ethnic groups, traditions, and values. The culture held in common by the majority of Americans is referred to as "mainstream American culture," a Western culture largely derived from the traditions of Western European migrants, beginning with the early English and Dutch settlers. German, Irish, and Scottish cultures have also been very influential. Certain Native American traditions and many cultural characteristics of enslaved West Africans were absorbed into the American mainstream. Westward expansion brought close contact with the culture of Mexico, and large-scale immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries from Southern and Eastern Europe introduced many new cultural elements. More recent immigration from Asia and especially Latin America has had broad impact. The resulting mix of cultures may be characterized as a homogeneous melting pot or as a pluralistic salad bowl in which immigrants and their descendants retain distinctive cultural characteristics.

While American culture maintains that the United States is a classless society, economists and sociologists have identified cultural differences between the country's social classes, affecting socialization, language, and values. The American middle and professional class has been the source of many contemporary social trends such as feminism, environmentalism, and multiculturalism. Americans' self-images, social viewpoints, and cultural expectations are associated with their occupations to an unusually close degree. While Americans tend to greatly value socioeconomic achievement, being ordinary or average is generally seen as a positive attribute. Women, formerly limited to domestic roles, now mostly work outside the home and receive a majority of bachelor's degrees. The changing role of women has also changed the American family. In 2005, no household arrangement defined more than 30 percent of households; married childless couples were most common, at 28 percent. The extension of marital rights to homosexual persons is an issue of debate, with more liberal states permitting civil unions and Massachusetts recently having legalized same-sex marriage.

Since the early twentieth century, the U.S. film industry has largely been based in and around Hollywood, California. The major film studios of Hollywood are the primary source of the most commercially successful movies in the world, such as Star Wars (1977) and Titanic (1997). American screen actors like John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe have become iconic figures, while producer/entrepreneur Walt Disney was a leader in both animated film and movie merchandising. Director D. W. Griffith was central to the development of film grammar and Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941) is frequently cited in critics' polls as the greatest film of all time. The products of American cinema and other mass media now appear in nearly every nation.

Americans are the heaviest television viewers in the world, and the average time spent in front of the screen continues to rise, hitting five hours a day in 2006. The four major broadcast networks are all commercial entities. Americans listen to radio programming, also largely commercialized, on average just over two-and-a-half hours a day. Aside from web portals and search engines, the most popular websites are eBay, MySpace, Amazon.com, The New York Times, and Apple. Twelve million Americans keep a blog.

Writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Edgar Allan Poe, and Henry David Thoreau established a distinctive American literary voice by the middle of the nineteenth century. Mark Twain and poet Walt Whitman were major figures in the century's second half; Emily Dickinson, virtually unknown during her lifetime, would be recognized as America's other essential poet. Eleven U.S. citizens have won the Nobel Prize in Literature, most recently Toni Morrison in 1993. Ernest Hemingway, the 1954 Nobel laureate, is often named as one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. A work seen as capturing fundamental aspects of the national experience and character-such as Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (1851), Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby (1925)-may be dubbed the "great American novel." Popular literary genres such as the Western and hardboiled crime fiction developed in the United States.

Mainstream American culinary arts are similar to those in other Western countries. Wheat is the primary cereal grain. Traditional American cuisine uses ingredients such as turkey, white-tailed deer venison, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, squash, and maple syrup, indigenous foods employed by Native Americans and early European settlers. Slow-cooked pork and beef barbecue, crab cakes, potato chips, and chocolate chip cookies are distinctively American styles. Soul food, developed by African slaves, is popular around the South and among many African Americans elsewhere. Syncretic cuisines such as Louisiana creole, Cajun, and Tex-Mex are regionally important. Fried chicken, which combines Scottish and African American culinary traditions, is a national favorite. Iconic American dishes such as apple pie, pizza, hamburgers, and hot dogs derive from the recipes of various European immigrants. So-called French fries, Mexican dishes such as burritos and tacos, and pasta dishes freely adapted from Italian sources are widely consumed. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, Americans' daily caloric intake rose 24 percent, as the share from food consumed outside the home went from 18 to 32 percent. Frequent dining at fast food outlets such as McDonald's is closely associated with what government researchers call the American "obesity epidemic." The popularity of well-promoted diets such as the Atkins Nutritional Approach has sent sales of "carb-conscious" processed food soaring.

Apart from professional business attire, U.S. fashions are eclectic and predominantly informal. While Americans' diverse cultural roots are reflected in their clothing, particularly those of recent immigrants, cowboy hats and boots and leather motorcycle jackets are emblematic of specifically American styles. Blue jeans were popularized as work clothes in the 1850s by merchant Levi Strauss, a German immigrant in San Francisco, and adopted by many American teenagers a century later. They are now widely worn on every continent by people of all ages and social classes. Along with mass-marketed informal wear in general, blue jeans are arguably U.S. culture's primary contribution to global fashion. The country is also home to the headquarters of many leading designer labels such as Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Labels such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Ecko cater to various niche markets.

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