Maps as
Subjective Cultural Documents

 

There is a common misconception that maps, as a class, are somehow objective and free of bias in their creation. Perhaps because they are usually the work of scientifically-trained cartographers and often deal with rather unglamorous, mundane subjects, the perception may be that the only errors are those caused by incomplete or erroneous information. Cartographers are thought of as an anonymous but largely honest class of people, working in good faith to depict the world as accurately as possible.

In most cases this is true, but we should use maps with the same healthy skepticism we have for the written word. Inaccuracies in local history maps are most often caused by the failure of commercial map makers to keep track of changes in the community, or by their need to incorporated the newest information as it comes available, sometimes adding features that ultimately never appear on the ground. The first printed map of Cleveland, by Ahaz Merchant, contained a huge land subdivision on the west bank of the Cuyahoga River that was never actually installed.

Cartographers are subject to the same cultural biases and blind spots as ordinary citizens and may consciously or unconsciously employ the elements of their craft in ways that can lead users of the maps to incorrect impressions and conclusions. That is, the cartographers may expect the world to be ordered in a particular fashion and that assumption is carried in their maps. Or, they make decisions about which choices work best for the anticipated user and wind up habitually skewing the map presentation in ways that become institutionalized over time and carry implications not foreseen by the cartographers. One good example of this latter point was the frequent use of the Mercator Projection, for the benefits it provided ocean navigators, but which portrayed the northern, developed continents larger than the third-world continents in the Southern Hemisphere.

Other times the selection of cartographic elements is not accidental or the innocent result of conflicting needs, but rather a result of deliberate choices, often matters of statecraft. Land developers wanting to put the most favorable light on their property's value or nations trying to mislead enemies during times of war are two examples of deliberate falsehoods being incorporated into maps.

It is incumbent upon scholars to consider not only the factual basis for the information being presented, but also consider the possible biases of the cartographers that might creep into the maps.

For more on this subject, you might consult:

 


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June 21, 2003

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