Maps as reality?

This is a bit of longer post than usual, but recently I came across some of my older reflections on maps.  As a geographer, I find them interesting, but also find them problematic in that they are often politically loaded or not designed to present an accurate reflection of the world.

Maps in a multiplicity of forms, and created for a range of purposes, attempt to document different aspects of the world. It can be contested to what extent these maps are an accurate reflection of the world around us, but then accurate reflection may not have been their primary purpose. The traditional map of the world (see below) would usually be considered a good indicator of how the world looks, but as Monmonier states ‘maps are massive reductions of the reality they represent, and clarity demands that much of reality be suppressed’ (2005:215) suggesting that any map is fundamentally flawed. This is supported by the fact that physical boundaries ‘are drastically distorted in some fashion when coastlines and other features are transferred from a spherical earth a flat map’.

Europe Centred Map

Pacific Centred Map

These maps show two different representations of the world map and highlight how there is still an element of ‘ethnocentricity’ in the construction of world maps’ (Harley, 1992: 236). The first map shows a conventional world map (which in it self illustrates other inherent biases) with Europe in the centre, in reality as earth is a sphere there is no other reason that this should be the case than this was the preference of cartographers who produced it.

The other map (immediately above) shows an alternative Pacific centred map of the world showing a different perspective. Both maps show the same physical outlines of the world but by placing different areas in the centre it indicates ideas of differing importance. This is similar to many historical maps which wished to show that their country or empire as the centre of importance in the world (Harley, 192: 236). In addition to this, many historical maps displayed their own territories as larger than reality, as in indicator of power and importance, ‘the more powerful, the more prominent’ (Harley, 1992: 237).

  • At this point I’m reminded of the 1956 film the King and I where a map of Siam is displayed as a giant kindgom and the English teacher Anna Leonowens states that actually a very small country, much to the distaste of the crown prince.

These are prime examples of how maps do more than merely document how the world is, but act as a political tool.

Maps have been used throughout history for a variety of political purposes, many were censored for military purposes but others were used as propaganda, as seen in map below. This maps shows a relatively accurate reflection of landmass size of Europe, and attempts to depict the location of German people. The impression given is that there are large number of Germans living all over Eastern Europe, but the maps fails to provide a key for the populated size of the shaded areas. It has been found that although the spatial distribution of people is relatively accurate the actual number of Germans in these areas is exaggerated by the size of shaded areas (Harley, 2001: 64). This is a prime example of how a map does not accurately document reality, but reflects the interest of its creators. It also shows how maps can be seen as ‘technology of power’ (Harley, 1992: 24), they outline boundaries, aid administration and can be used in military action, and used to control lives by powerful institutions. This map goes some way to explain why maps do not always present the world as it actually exists.

German Population Distribution in World War II in German Textbook

Maps are themselves socially constructed and only displayed what the map maker views to be relevant and important, and can even mean the distortion of physical land masses, which is best displayed in the cartograms developed by the Worldmapper maps. Maps are no longer just ‘inert records of morphological landscapes or passive reflections of the world of objects, but are regarded as refracted images contributed to dialogue in a socially constructed world’ (Harley, 2001: 52). It has been argued that some maps have paid little attention to the social world (Harley, 1992), but the efforts of the Worldmapper team have made great progress in representing the many social situations of people around the world and not just how it is seen physically.

Total Population

Total Population

The image above is a cartogram which shows the landmasses according to the size of the population. It greatly distorts the shape of physical boundaries, this could be considered to be a much more accurate reflection of the real situation, highlighting where there are distribution problems. These principles have been applied for many other phenomena These maps have highlighted that maps can be used for a specific purpose and this can drastically affect how the information they can contain is displayed. They represent the ‘changing nature of mapping practice’ (Pickles, 2004: 29) whereby maps are now being used to document socio-spatial situations as well as physical attributes. If you like this kind of map, I’d highly recommend you visit the research website of the worldmapper geographer Ben Hennig:

The example of tourist maps shows how maps can greatly simplify reality, providing a biased view of a settlement. It displays the key roads and sites to see, using enlarged buildings and symbol to aid interpretation, it draws attention to particular sites but does no document the real situation to a high level of detail. The map is not always to scale, it does not always highlight all sites in the area, which reflects the purpose of the maps creation – the help the lost tourist!

Tourist map of London

It has been said that the ‘map is a mirror of nature’ (Rorty, 1979) but the examples mentioned here have highlighted that this is not necessarily the case. Some maps can display the worlds physical features and resources such as the Petroleum Economist map of the world (see below), while others can reflect aspects of society.

Petroleum Economist World Gas Map

Next time you look at a map, just think about who created it, why it was created, and what it is designed to show. Maps are tools to present the world in a variety of forms and to stress particular interests, depending on the culture and time period. In essence maps are the ‘new fictions of factual representation’ (White, 1978). To understand to what extent a map is showing the world as it is, it needs to be deconstructed paying greater attention to the social context of its creation, scale, symbols used, its purpose and how it can be interpreted.

Other works mentioned in this post:

  • Harley, B. (1992) Deconstructing the Map, in Barnes, T. and DUncan, J. (eds.) Writing Worlds. London: Routledge, 231-247.
  • Harley, J. (2001) Maps, knowledge and power, in Laxton, P. (ed.) The New Nature of Maps: Essays in the history of cartography. London: John Hopkins University Press, 51-81.
  • Monmonier, M. (2005) Lying with maps, Statistical Science, 20(3): 215-222.
  • Pickles, J. (2004) A History of Spaces: cartographic reason, mapping, and the geo-coded world, London: Routledge.
  • Rorty, R. (1973) Philosophy and the mirror of nature, Princeton University Press. Princeton: NJ.
  • Worldmapper (2011) Worldmapper: the world as you’ve never seen it before.
    Available at:
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