Critical cartography

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Critical Cartography is a set of new mapping practices and theoretical critique grounded in critical theory. It differs from academic cartography in that it links geographic knowledge with political power.

Critical cartographers do not aim to invalidate maps. Instead the critique is careful analysis of maps identifying attributes of the maps that are taken for granted. The eventual hope is to better understand the maps and gain more knowledge.

Critical cartography is the idea that maps are not neutral. They reflect and perpetuate relations of power. And these reflections are usually in the interest of dominant groups. Maps project our desires onto the landscape, they can map our hopes for the future, what we desire to see and that which we wish to ignore. The process of mapping can bring new ways of being and relating into the world.[1]


Critical cartography developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s in opposition to the dominant tradition of mapping as a progressive and neutral reflection of the environment.[2] Since ancient historical times, maps have been produced to benefit the visions of the ruling class.[3] Advocates of critical cartography aimed to reveal the “‘hidden agendas of cartography’ as tools of socio-spatial power”.[4] Critical cartographers put forward new mapping practices, called Counter-mapping, that challenge formal maps of the state. Counter-mapping mostly refers to maps made by indigenous cartographers but can include maps from other sources as well. Indigenous cartographers engage in counter-mapping in an attempt to represent their land to reduce threats posed by external forces.[5] Counter-maps are especially important because they demonstrate community claims for rights over land.[6] The aim of Critical Cartography is to reduce the gap between a more technically oriented map design and a more theoretical analysis of power in society.

Activists have always used maps as a way of resistance. A series of maps from the 1960s to 2010 demonstrate various ways maps have been used as a tool of defiance.[7] Organizations such as Counter-Cartographies Collective (USA), Iconoclasistas (Argentina), and Bureau d’Etudes (France) work to change the way people think about maps and power.[8][9][10]

Critical Cartographers[edit]

Since the 1991 death of John Brian Harley, formerly a professor in Geography at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, the field of cartography has flourished with theories and writing that identify maps as social issues and expressions of power and knowledge. Leading figures that have picked up where Harley left off include Denis Cosgrove, Denis Wood, Jeremy Crampton, John Krygier, and Kevin St. Martin. Maps are now viewed as potential sites of power and knowledge. They are sources of knowledge of geography, places and people.

John Brian Harley[edit]

"Maps are never value-free images" - John Brian Harley

John Brian Harley (1932-1991) was a geographer, cartographer, and map historian. He lectured at the universities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Exeter, and Wisconsin Milwaukee. Some of his works include Christopher Greenwood, County Map-Maker (1962), Maps for the local historian (1972), Ordnance Survey Maps: a Descriptive Manual (1975), Concepts in the History of Cartography (1980), and The New Nature of Maps (2001) which was a combination of his essays and was published after his death[citation needed] His work for critical cartography included incorporating ideas of power, ideology, and surveillance into the understanding of mapping. He considered maps to be social documents that need to be understood in their historical contexts which include the situations in which they were made and used.[11][3] While they can be interpreted at face value, maps also possess symbolism that can communicate political power.[3] Cartography allows for power to be inscribed on the land.[3] Harley discouraged people from believing maps to be “above the politics of knowledge”.[12]

Denis Cosgrove[edit]

Denis Cosgrove (1948-2008) was a professor of geography at UCLA who was concerned with the role of spatial images and representation in the making and communicating of knowledge. He was also interested in the physical world and the limits it placed on human progress.[13] He differentiated between dominant and alternative cultures, noting that the dominant culture in a region creates most of what you see in that region. Maps show what the dominant group and culture want you to see.


"Maps anticipated empire." - John Brian Harley

Maps created by explorers, settlers, and colonialists were complicit in colonialism and its consequences on indigenous people. In his book Maps, Knowledge, Power, Harley states that maps “were used in colonial promotion” because they claimed lands “before they were effectively occupied”.[3] During early exploration there were no maps of the Americas for the settlers to utilize so they had to create their own. By doing this, early settlers defined the political, economic, and cultural shapes of colonial North America.[14] They legitimized the reality of conquest and empire.[3] Many explorers, including Christopher Columbus renamed places in the Americas with Western Christian names. These names helped create a new space that was compliant with Western beliefs and therefore could be governed and controlled.[12] For example, English colonists took possession of an area Powhatan Indians called Tsenacomoco and turned it into an English colony named ‘Virginia’. They exploited the indigenous community to create the maps that helped them establish colonies.[14]

Mercator Projection[edit]

In 1569, Gerardus Mercator introduced a map projection of the Earth which is now known as the Mercator projection. This projection maintained equally spaced longitudinal lines but spaced out the latitudinal lines. These lines were spaced farther apart as their distance from the Equator increased. This means that areas farther away from the Equator seam to be disproportionately large.[15] Greenland, for example, appears to be larger than the continent of Africa. In reality, Africa’s area is 14 times greater than that of Greenland. Due to its common usage, the Mercator had and continues to have a great influence on people’s view of the world. By making countries near the equator appear smaller than those of Europe or North America, it caused people to consider those countries as less important. The powerful countries seemed larger while the other nations seemed to shrink. This also causes people to think of those regions (such as Africa or South America) as a single place or country rather than continent containing vast diversity and a multitude of cultures and languages.[16] The Mercator projection promotes a “subtle Eurocentrism.”[17] Unfortunately, Web mapping applications use a version of the Mercator projection known as the Web Mercator. The biases formed from the Mercator projection will no longer be due to atlas and textbooks but will come from digital maps and GPS on our phones and computers.


Military occupation is a situation in which a territory is “placed under the authority of a hostile army”. The occupation is referred to as such even if the occupying army is met with no armed resistance from the citizens of the territory. The law of occupation starts to apply in a situation once it “factually amounts to an occupation” regardless of whether the occupation is considered lawful or not. There are many principles incorporated in the law of occupation including a) the occupying power must respect the laws in the occupied territory b) the occupying power must take measures to ensure public order and safety and c) the occupant does not acquire sovereignty over the territory.[18]

The following territories are currently under military occupation by a foreign nation:

The rising popularity of digital mapping systems (such as Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Microsoft Bing Maps) pose a unique question about the role of cartography in representing occupied territories. These maps are used every day by a wide variety of people. The Google Maps mobile application itself sees an average of 79 million users per month. As seen with the Mercator projection, maps influence the way people view the world. Should these popular digital maps represent the perspective of the occupying countries or should they represent the occupied territories and countries? Do they change people’s worldview by representing the occupying countries? While parts of the occupied territories are labeled on the maps (for example, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip), the name of country associated with these territories is not always labeled on the map (for example, Palestine). Can this change someone’s worldview of who deserves to be on that land?


The country of Palestine has been occupied by Israel since 1948 when Great Britain, the occupier of Palestine at the time, gave the land to Zionists to occupy. Over time, the country of Israel was established and took more and more land from Palestine while cartographers documented this expansion. Eventually, the borders between the two countries were established although Israeli citizens continue to settle past their allotted land to this day.

Many critical cartographers have engaged in counter-mapping to rewrite the narrative of the history of Israel’s land which once belonged to Palestine. One example is the Counter Cartographies Collective’s map of how much of the land belonged to which country since 1948. These maps are attempts at showing a different perspective to the Israel-Palestine conflict, a struggle that is always shown as being evenly matched and two sided.

Benefits of Mapping[edit]

Cartographic Censorship[edit]

There are two types of cartographic censorship. One is the censorship of secrecy to serve military defense and the other is to enforce social and political values.[19] Censorship as a way to enforce values is highlighted in the section of this page labeled “Colonialism”. Censorship of secrecy to protect military sites is a strategic attempt at keeping these spaces safe.

Cartographic censorship describes the way of handling the appearance of potential strategically important objects like military bases, power plants or transmitters towards their censorship on maps. The appearance of such objects on maps available to the public may be undesirable, so it is often attempted to conceal these locations on the map.

The issue of safety with regards to this form of censorship is also interesting if applied to other fields. The military sites of a country are hidden to reduce the risk of these sites being attacked by foreign enemies. Do other sites in the world not deserve the same consideration for safety? Are these digital maps a neutral power in situations of war and conflict?

Kibera, Kenya[edit]

In 2008, a team of cartographers worked with the residents of Kibera, Kenya to map the city. Since then, a trained team of locals have gathered census data of over 15,000 people and mapped 5000 structures, services (public toilets, schools), and infrastructures (drainage system, water and electricity supply) in the village of Kianda, one of the 13 villages in Kibera. From the data gathered in Kianda, the Map Kibera Project team estimated that Kibera could be inhabited by a total population ranging from 235,000 to a maximum of 270,000 people.[20] In 2011, Penn State produced a documentary about the story of mapping Kibera.[21] The mapping of Kibera is an example of counter-mapping in action. The indigenous people of Kibera participated in the mapping of their own land rather than have their land mapped from strictly outside sources. Before the residents mapped their city, the city’s area was a blank space on Google Maps noted with only the label of “Kibera”.[21] This counter-mapping added significantly more detail on Google Maps for the residents and the rest of the world to see, demonstrating a wonderful benefit to mapping.


We can all participate in critical cartography and counter-mapping. It is all of our duties to voice our discontent with biases and injustices when we see them occurring. We can all help promote the voices of those engaging in counter-mapping as they challenge the status quo.

Google Maps Biases[edit]

All maps are biased. They were all created by humans who all naturally act on the biases we’ve acquired throughout our lives. For example, Google Maps demonstrated its biases when it updated its digital map in 2016 to incorporate “areas of interest”. The areas in a town that are “of interest” are represented in beige while the rest of the town is shown in a gray color. As you zoom into the “areas of interest” the names of different places (shops, parks, restaurants) pop up depending on the degree in which you zoom. Google Maps uses a mysterious algorithm to decide which places get a spot on the map and which don’t. By doing this Google Maps is trying to capture the experiences of map users with its choices, but it also helps shape their experiences.[22] The map chooses which places get to have more of a presence on the digital map which represents a clear bias for certain sites over others.

Spatial Citizenship[edit]

Spatial citizenship describes the ability of individuals and groups to interact and participate in societal spatial decision making through the reflexive production and use of geo-media (geographic media such as maps, virtual globes, GIS, and the Geoweb). Spatial citizenship is an educational approach at the intersection of citizenship education and geography education. Citizens can use spatial citizenship as a method of acting on their engagement in critical cartography. The skills learned in studying critical cartography can help citizens with this.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Firth, Rhiannon (15 April 2015). "Critical Cartography". The Occupied Times of London (27). Retrieved 16 February 2018. 
  2. ^ Wood, Denis; Krygier, John (2016). "Cartography: Critical Cartography". Making Maps: A Visual Guide to Map Design for GIS. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1462509983. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Paul., Laxton, (2001). The new nature of maps : essays in the history of cartography. Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801870909. OCLC 45024500. 
  4. ^ "Deconstructing the map". Retrieved 2017-06-15. 
  5. ^ Rundstrom, R. (2009). Kitchin, Rob; Thrift, Nigel, eds. International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Oxford: Elsevier. pp. 314–318. ISBN 9780080449104. 
  6. ^ "The New Nature of Maps". Retrieved 2017-06-15. 
  7. ^ "Critical Cartography | Making Maps: DIY Cartography". Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  8. ^ "(no title)". Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  9. ^ "Iconoclasistas - Mapeo colectivo y herramientas de código abierto". Iconoclasistas (in Spanish). Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  10. ^ "Bureau d'études". Bureau d'Etudes. Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  11. ^ Crampton, Jeremy W.; Krygier, John (2005). "An Introduction to Critical Cartography". ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies. 4 (1): 11–33. ISSN 1492-9732. 
  12. ^ a b Crampton, Jeremy W (2010). Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS. United Kingdom: Wiley-Blackwell. 
  13. ^ "Denis Cosgrove". Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  14. ^ a b "Maps and the Beginnings of Colonial North America: Digital Collections for the Classroom". Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  15. ^ "Mercator projection | cartography". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-06-09. 
  16. ^ Battersby, Sarah E. (2014). "Implications of Web Mercator and its Use in Online Mapping". Cartographica. 49 – via USGS. 
  17. ^ "Are your maps racially biased?". The Concordian. Retrieved 2017-06-15. 
  18. ^ "Occupation and international humanitarian law: questions and answers - ICRC". 2004-08-04. Retrieved 2017-06-15. 
  19. ^ "How to Lie with Maps". iRevolutions. 2009-06-16. Retrieved 2017-06-15. 
  20. ^ "Map Kibera Project". Retrieved 2017-06-15. 
  21. ^ a b wpsu (2011-05-02), Geospatial Revolution / Episode Four, Chapter Four: Mapping Power to the People, retrieved 2017-06-15 
  22. ^ Grabar, Henry (2016-07-27). "All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps' New Redesign Doesn't Hide It". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Retrieved 2017-06-15.