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Geographers and Maps: a Relationship in Crisis

Les géographes et les cartes : une relation en crise
Edoardo Boria


Des études récentes ont souligné la tendance, chez les géographes contemporains, à réduire l'usage des cartes. Les recherches menées dans le cadre de cet article confirment cet infléchissement. Les causes et les conséquences possibles de ce déclin de l'usage des cartes sont ici évaluées. Par ailleurs, bon nombre de contradictions (ou d'incohérences) peuvent être mises en évidence notamment en ce qui concerne la relation délicate que les géographes entretiendraient avec les cartes à une époque caractérisée par la surabondance d'images.

Ce déclin de l'usage des cartes est bien entendu observable dans le champ de la géographie politique — une démarche qui a été durement touchée par la géopolitique critique et ses présupposés concernant la façon dont nous créons les cartes, nous les interprétons et les utilisons.

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This article is based on a paper presented at the conference “Borders, territory and conflict in a globalized world” organized by the IGU Commission on Political Geography at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer-Sheva, July 6-11, 2010. I would like to thank all of those who contributed to the lively discussion that ensued. Thanks also to the journal’s reviewers as well as to Simona Sermoneta, Bianca Maria Mennini and Matteo Marconi for their invaluable suggestions.

Practices in geography: the use of maps

  • 1 The contribution of Bruno Latour to this field of study has been decisive (Latour, Woolgar, 1979, L (...)

1Studies on the Sociology of science currently devote considerable attention to research practices and to the social significance of scientific results1. Thus, the study of elements such as methodologies, procedures, protocols, parameters, rules and research tools in vogue in any given scientific discipline is considered important for understanding its evolution, evaluating the level of advancement of the epistemic principles governing it and the quality of its scientific content.

2Working with maps – making them and using them - has always been fundamental for geographers and considered an essential component of their discipline (Dematteis, 1985, pp.54-68; Woodward, 1992; Farinelli, 2003). Geographers are recognized as repositories of cartographic knowledge. Indeed, the figure of the geographer and that of the cartographer tended to merge in past centuries, before the proliferation of technical skills and specialized theoretical knowledge precluded it. For the geographer, the map has always been an inseparable companion, an indispensable aid for the creation and spread of geographical culture. A famous 20th century geographer provocatively wrote: “Show me a geographer who does not need them [maps] constantly and want them about him, and I shall have my doubts as to whether he has made the right choice of life” (Sauer, 1956, p.289). Is the map still perceived by geographers as being so central?

  • 2 While the identification of a “spatial turn”, that is, of a generalized re-evaluation of the spatia (...)

3The question seems particularly relevant in light of the fact that geographical sciences are now called upon to measure themselves against a number of theses that have re-evaluated the scientific use of images, geographical maps included. We are referring to the new pathways that have been opened to research by currents such as the so called iconic turn (Boehm, 1994) the pictorial turn (Mitchell, 1992) and the spatial turn2. These currents reassess every form of graphic representation, based on the idea that the inscription of scientific facts is a fundamental step in the process of knowledge production, and on the consideration that graphic representations are indeed such acts of inscription. The new approaches reverberated through the geographical sciences, compelling them to deal with their own relationship with images (Cosgrove, Daniels, 1988; Gregory, 1994; Rose, 2003; Schlottmann, Miggelbrink, 2009; Lois, 2009). Of the images produced by geography, maps are the most representative and the most deeply rooted in the discipline's tradition. Maps have always been an essential tool for the acquisition, organization and spread of geographic knowledge.

4At such an intellectually stimulating, yet challenging moment for the discipline, I thought it useful to investigate to what extent geographers are attentive to the external calls for a renewal of cartographic epistemology. In addition, considering the degree to which graphic representation of space is rooted in geographical studies, I was interested in the extent to which geographers feel the responsibility of contributing to such renewal and are aware of the tactical advantage they may gain in taking part in it. Therefore, it would be useful to examine the relationship between geography and cartography, a relationship that will be the focus of this study.

  • 3 Today, visual culture attracts a good deal of interest. It is a phenomenon that crosses scientific (...)

5Since the current re-evaluation of visuality3 arose in a context that is critical of any form of positivist knowledge, however, and since the quintessential cartographic model is imbued with positivist thought (Farinelli, 1992, 2009; Pickles, 2004; Casti, 2013), the traditional geographical map was subjected to a long series of bitter attacks aimed at different aspects that Besse (2008, p.1) summarized with three aphorisms: “1) la carte est inexacte par nature; 2) la carte est un instrument de pouvoir; 3) la carte est une operation rhétorique”. Geographers arrived at these convictions in the wake of critical analyses that denied the objectivity of the map underlying, instead, its partial premises, intrinsically linked to the exercise of power (Harley, 1989). This made geographers more aware of their responsibility as actors exercising considerable influence over the circulation of these very powerful instruments of mediation.

6Growing interest in the political dimension of the map necessarily involved political geography. This is because political geography – which is, by definition, concerned with how political space is divided, distributed and organized – is compelled to deal with the question of how to express this knowledge, in a situation where the most obvious graphic expression of space is precisely the map. It is thus not surprising that political geography, following recent deconstructionist trends that have brought out the discursive dimension of politics and thus also its symbols and language, had to devote attention to the map, either as an instrument by which power is exhibited (Atkinson, 1995, pp.155-183; Cairo, 2006) or as a means of exercising power (Raffestin, Lopreno, Pasteur, 1995, pp.243-276; Ó’Tuathail, 1996).

7We shall thus dedicate particular attention to political geography in this study, being a critical field in terms of the relationship between geographical knowledge and current visuality-related scientific research practices.

Long-term quantitative evidence

8A few decades ago, Richard Hartshorne was able to assert that “workers in other fields commonly concede without question that the geographer is an expert on maps, whether in making or in using them” (1939, p.247) and “geography is represented in the world of knowledge primarily by its techniques of map use” (1939, pp.463-464). Some people, however, are no longer convinced. Norman Thrower, for example, wrote: “Many geographers do not possess enough knowledge of maps to serve as advisors to those in other fields who may consult them” (2008, p.2). Was Norman Thrower right? Today, his opinion is certainly widely shared. To begin with, many have observed, and expressed concern over, a decline in the use of maps in geography (Cosgrove, 2008; Dodge, Perkins, 2008; Kitchin, Dodge, 2007; Perkins, 2004; Martin, 2000; Wheeler, 1998; Dorling, 1998). Some have also quantified the phenomenon: Martin Dodge and Chris Perkins documented a decrease from an average of 2.5 to 0.5 maps per article in the journal Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers between 1989 and 2006. In that same journal, a few years earlier, Ron Martin wrote an editorial aptly titled In memory of maps, in which he noted that, in the preceding five years, only 50 of the journal's pages had included maps. Perkins ironically points out the lack of interest in maps in Progress in Human Geography from the 80's on, categorically stating, “There are fewer maps in mainstream geographical periodical publications than was the case a generation ago” (2004, p.385). Others did not actually, investigate the matter, but were nonetheless struck and troubled by the clear drop in geographers' interest in maps (Herb et al., 2009).

9Data collected in the framework of this study show that the number of maps in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers went from 23.7 per 100 pages in the years 1958-59 to 10.2 per 100 in 2008-09. Similarly, during the same fifty-year period, the Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers went from 29.3 maps per 100 pages to only 3.3, while the Geographical Journal went from 11.3 maps per 100 pages to 5.7. There is a clear drop in the number of maps published.

10The phenomenon in question does not seem attributable to national differences. To ascertain the situation in a non-English-speaking context, I examined the presence of maps in Italy's foremost journal of geography - Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana. Even this journal, that published relatively few maps to begin with - in the two year period 1963-64 only 3.8 maps per 100 pages – between 1993-94 and 2008-09 further reduced the average number of maps published from 3.5 to 2.4 per 100 pages.

11Surely, the scientific output of a discipline does not consist only of journals. There are monographs, textbooks, compilations, conference proceedings and many other kinds of publications, which do not lend themselves as easily to a mechanical quantitative comparison with the past. Here too, however, the impression is that geographers feel less of a need to employ maps than before.

  • 4 The first 2009 issue dedicated an editorial to the use of visual tools, announcing a new editorial (...)

12The focus of the present article is political geography, which, apparently, is no exception to this general tendency. Based on a preliminary examination of the journals Political Geography and Geopolitics, it certainly cannot be said that the presence of maps has increased, nor - more generally – that they abound. Between the years 2007-2009 the number of maps per 100 printed pages in Geopolitics was 2.1, and only 19 of 108 articles included maps. As far as Political Geography is concerned, although commendably, the editors are aware of the importance of maps4, a comparison between the periods 1995-1997 and 2007-2009 shows that the number of maps published remained essentially unchanged (4.2 and 4.3 per 100 pages, respectively).

Geography: a non-visual discipline in the visual age?

13A number of contradictions emerge with regard to the reduction in quantity:

  1. Geographers seem reluctant to use maps precisely in a period characterized by the proliferation of images. Our everyday lives, in the private as well as the public spheres, are pervaded by images. Our attention and our gaze are constantly targeted by images. Maps are also everywhere today: on public transportation and bus stops, in shopping centres, newspapers, on television etc. This gap between common uses and the tendency of geographical research may be the sign of a dangerous phenomenon: “there is a divide between academic practice and the public” (Crampton, 2009, p.844).

    • 5 See also the debate initiated by the journal Antipode in its 35/2 (2003) issue, spilling over into (...)

    While, as we have seen, social scientists are engaged in heated debates and theoretical discussions regarding the visual, geographers, whose field has always had a strong visual component, do not seem very interested in participating, barring some promising beginnings (Tuan, 1979), and a few commendable recent exceptions5.

  2. Many geographers avoid the use of maps precisely at a time in which, thanks to technological progress, producing them is certainly faster and easier than ever before.

  3. We geographers produce fewer and fewer maps, but we continue to be fascinated by them: the walls of our offices are decorated with them, the invitations we print for our conferences often include maps to render them more attractive, many departments of geography choose to have a map, preferably antique, as the background for their official web pages, and as individuals we like to be represented there by a photograph showing us against the backdrop of a map. Have we been reducing the map to little more than a pretty accessory, acknowledging only its aesthetic qualities while, at the same time, rapidly losing our ability to use maps and "think cartographically"?

  • 6 Piers Fotiadis (2009, p.13) supplied unequivocal quantitative data showing this increasing trend in (...)

14The above contradictions hold true not only for geography but also for political geography, for which I would like to add a further, more specific, contradiction. While few maps appear in scientific publications in the field of political geography (as shown above), lay and popular science publications - when addressing geographical-political topics - tend to employ maps more often than before6. These tools are, thus, welcomed by the public as well as by the world of mass communication.

15In political geography it almost seems as though the geographical map were no longer useful in the representation of the territorial dimension of politics; as if politics were somehow detached from the spatial element and has become completely disembodied. This risks blurring the distinction between political geography and other disciplines, such as international relations theory, political science or political sociology with far-reaching negative consequences for a long tradition of scholarship.

Possible causes

16If, indeed, maps are attractive and rhetorically powerful tools, why then have geographers been snubbing them, and in some cases even giving them up altogether? Useful clues may be found by reconstructing the discipline's evolution in a wider perspective. This is because the crisis suffered by the map is part of a more general crisis involving numerous scientific tools, which has deeply affected the modern way of producing knowledge. As noted by Peter Galison and Lorraine Daston (1992), the widespread use of atlases of every sort (in fields such as geography, botany, anatomy, palaeontology, astronomy etc.) in the second half of the 19th century was closely linked to the objectivist scientific paradigm.

17Indeed, mentality saw the atlas as a quintessentially scientific tool, one that is as unencumbered as possible by the “unscientific” arbitrary interference of the scholar. It is a tool able to reproduce the real world and the objects in it in a simplified, standardized fashion. A dot of specific dimensions on a map does not portray a city that exists in real life but an abstraction. The map thus substitutes, as it were, a reality composed of diverse objects with a normalized reproduction of this reality using standard categories to group together cities sharing certain characteristics. In the course of the 20th century, the positivist model was superseded, and scientific tools such as the geographical map were inevitably affected.

  • 7 A 1961 article by David Lowenthal is usually identified as the seminal work in this context

18An interest in subjective experience arose with the advent of humanistic perspectives in geography in the 1960's7 in reaction to the then-dominant quantitative geography and to descriptivism, which was still practised by many. This tendency undermined the idea of the neutral Cartesian space and consequently the status of the map, a tool based on Euclidean geometry that, for decades, had been presented as impartial and objective. The wish to study space as experienced by those who inhabit it, including its cultural and psychological aspects, rendered the traditional map not only misleading but even treacherous. The era of mental maps and the application of cognitive studies to cartography represented implicit criticism of the thoroughly positivist geographical map.

19It should also be remembered that, in recent years, the use of maps has been rendered less compelling by the decline in quantitative orientations which, through the emphasis on the measurement and localization of phenomena, had previously favoured their use, both in the analysis and in the presentation of results. The repercussions were far-reaching: the production of maps declined sharply in a number of applied fields, such as regional geography, or the training of academic geographers. Today, they receive much less GIS training, and thus lack the technical abilities necessary to use these systems. The result is that while GIS mapping is increasingly the exclusive domain of experts, geographers get out of the habit of using cartographic language.

20The advent of postmodernist sensibilities and the spread of post-structuralist thought also resulted in a violent attack against the map and, ultimately, in its delegitimization. “Postmodern geographers often find maps, with their categories and symbols, downright inimical to their core agendas” (Wheeler, p.2). Feminist and postcolonial geography are two cases in point. Viewed as an inevitable outcome of its context, the map was criticised in radical circles as “male chauvinist” and “colonialist” (Cosgrove, 2005, p.31). Another, particularly instructive example is political geography. Here, a reduction in the use of maps is observed precisely among the more critical currents of the discipline, while traditional, mainstream currents continue to use them regularly, as noted by Herb: “There seems to be a tendency among critical theory informed geographers to simply deconstruct maps, rather than to construct them”. (Herb et al., 2009, p.332). Harley taught us to unmask the map, but as we, following his teachings, were all intent on disclosing the map's bias and deceit and the ideologies and interests it conceals, we became instinctively inhibited from trying to imagine new kinds of maps. “Deconstruction might reveal what the map was not (i.e., innocent, scientific, optimal), but what is left to say about what the map is? Here we face several obstacles” (Crampton, 2001, p.241).

21The advent of another theory based on the post-structuralist approach - non-representational theory (Thrift, 1996), which has exerted considerable influence on the field of human geography – further discredited the ontology of the map by attaching importance to practices and multisensory experiences rather than to objects (Kitchin, Dodge, 2007; Gerlach, forthcoming). From this standpoint, the map is “guilty” of not being a spatial practice, but rather the visual product of a representation of a geographical area. “Like a street geometrically defined by urban planning, and created by urban planners, is transformed into place by walkers (de Certeau, 1984), a spatial representation created by cartographers (the coloured ink on the paper) is transformed into a map by individuals. As each walker experiences the street differently, each person engaging with a spatial representation beckons a different map into being. Each brings it into his or her own milieu, framed by that individual’s knowledge, skills and spatial experience” (Kitchin, Dodge, 2007, pp.338-339, italics in the original). The map should thus be seen as a process rather than as a product, as mapping and not mapmaking. By denying that the map has any ontological value, the non-representational approach undermines the comforting certitudes of the positivist interpretation of the map. The result is a direct attack on cartographic epistemology itself.

22The current debate in the field of cartography outlines a number of fundamental changes in the way we are likely to perceive, produce and use geographical maps in the near future, be it as an object of study, a tool for the interpretation of phenomena, or an instrument for the communication of results. Geographers, for whom maps can be, and have always been, an extremely powerful empirical tool, should not remain indifferent to all of this. Yet, many geographers remain uninterested in the problems pertaining to the nature of the map. For a closer look into the matter, I decided to examine the situation in the field of political geography which, for the reasons mentioned in the introduction, was particularly affected by geographers' discomfort with maps.

Maps in political geography

23A number of years ago, Virginie Mamadouh wrote: “Political geographers need to re-appropriate mapping as a method. The use of GIS is to my knowledge merely limited to electoral geographies, and then more applied than critical, while critical geopolitics, feminist geography, postcolonial geography, etc., tend to prefer narratives” (2003, p.673).

  • 8 What was said regarding the small number of maps in political geography today may seem disconcertin (...)

24A few years later, a similar exhortation was published in the Political Geography editorial mentioned above (O’Loughlin, Raento, Sidaway, 2009). In it the editors expressed their deep concern over the limited use of maps. The article touched upon all of the most important aspects of the issue: first, the journal's aim, which can hopefully be extended to political geography as a whole, to “have more space for maps, diagrams and photographs”; then the novelty, in that “visualization takes new forms in contemporary popular, media and political cultures”; the acknowledgement that “the emphasis on the visual is also evident in the growing body of literature on political pop culture and banal nationalism, including studies about films, comics, newspapers and postage stamps”8; the fact that “the view on the visual is increasingly critical” and, lastly the conviction “that political geographers need to go back to the maps (in the widest sense) and more actively seek ways to visualize”.

  • 9 By “geopolitical maps” I mean those maps conceived of and produced explicitly in order to describe (...)

25The authors conclude by setting an example, “in order to encourage authors to think visually and to call for more discussion about the place and role of maps”. They analyze two maps: the first taken from the Spanish daily El Pais, and the second based on maps published in The Economist, Time and Foreign Affairs. The choice of sources is significant, inasmuch as these are leading publications that regularly address international affairs, but are not scientific journals. The authors, therefore, showed no prejudice against maps that, in scientific circles are sometimes, somewhat disparagingly, called journalistic maps. This choice indicates greater openness than in the past to non-traditional cartographic products that are all too often regarded with suspicion by the academic community, as in the case of “geopolitical maps”, for example9.

26Such openness may have very important positive consequences. Indeed, traditional political maps present a number of general conformist tendencies resulting in a perpetuation of inadequate, outdated standards. This hampers the map's ability to effectively portray possible new elements and actors on the political scene. The attraction of consolidated mental schemes is strong, as can be seen, for example, in the recurrence of standard choices regarding projections and the centre of the map. The state, marked by toponyms, colours, and signs, is omnipresent. This reflects a state-centred approach which conceals the role of other political actors such as political and civil society movements, private economic actors, supranational entities, etc. Indeed, commercial and cultural globalization has challenged the spatial and temporal categories used thus far to study and explain social phenomena, with the multiplication and diversification of geopolitical actors and the changed significance of borders.

27Jacques Lévy has been insistently expressing his disappointment with the quality of recent maps for some time now: “A growing number of phenomena appear to be poorly served by maps. One may be tempted to propose the following assertion: the map was useful in serving and representing a rural world, anchored to the ground, bellicose and authoritarian. Seen from the standpoint of today's developed world, what remains of its advantages in an urban and mobile context [such as this], far away from war, in which democracy allows new liberties?” (Lévy et al., 2004, p.14). Political cartography should thus no longer be limited to the study of the “space of places” but should also be extended to the “space of flows”, as Manuel Castells (1996) put it.

28Instead, in the decisive operation of object-selection, political maps insist on giving considerable weight to elements that, today, seem to be less important than in the past. Borders marked on the ground, for example, are often and easily crossed by financial or economic, religious or cultural relations. The perpetuation of obsolete models causes mapmakers to continue to highlight the symbols for state borders on maps. The significance of the border - portrayed as a natural element despite its artificial essence - is thus rendered seemingly unproblematic. A direct effect of this is an emphasis on issues such as sovereignty and the control of territory. Exaggerated attention continues to be placed on the ostensibly fixed and static character of the border, while neglecting to consider it as the constantly evolving fluid and mobile space that it is.

29Meanwhile, adequate tools to portray increasingly important explanatory factors have not been developed. Serious attempts have yet to be made, for example, to include in maps the space above and below the Earth's surface (Elden, 2013).

  • 10 Against the backdrop of a discipline where cartographic innovation is rare, I would like to mention (...)

30Why have empirical endeavours to renew cartography been sporadic and isolated so far10? Is it because some of the factors that have become crucial for the understanding of political events, such as financial and cultural exchanges, have no well-defined spatial dimension, making graphic representations pointless? I doubt it. I do not believe that a virtual flow is intrinsically less traceable than a physical one; that, for instance, a telecommunications network is any less traceable than a transportation network. Rather, I believe that the problem lies in the fact that we have not yet been able to identify the rationale underlying the spatiality of these phenomena. We should, therefore, proceed to rethink the rationalistic conception of political space derived from Euclidean geometry, characterized as continuous and isotropic, and seek alternative modes of representation, based on a heterogeneous and multidimensional perception of space, and on topological metrics.

  • 11 Descartes saw space, in its pure form, as a combination of metric relations, the knowledge of which (...)

31For too long, both geography and cartography have been held hostage by metric reasoning, which has led them to confuse geographical and geometrical space and substitute one with the other. This tendency originated from the concern with objectivity imposed by an approach to knowledge creation dating back to the Age of Enlightenment, that is, from the fear of confusing the researching subject with the object under study11. Due to globalization, however, the time is now ripe for the acceptance of other ways of measuring and representing space. I share Jacques Lévy's criticism of our rigid cartographic model: “The cognitive context of our geopolitical, and more generally geographical culture, is one in which we are accustomed to using our topological tools as nothing more than mere auxiliary devices” (Lévy, 2008b).

32Therefore, the reason why political geography has not yet followed the path of innovation with determination is that, ultimately, the crisis of the map reveals a more fundamental problem affecting the very discipline of political geography, namely, an insufficient understanding of the spatiality of political phenomena and a heuristic inadequacy of the discipline.

33Clearly, something has been obstructing the adjustment of cartographic tools applied to political geography. I believe that the persistence of conventional graphic solutions, and our difficulty in introducing innovations in this field, are mainly attributable to “cartographic inertia”, the entrenchment of consolidated conventions, mental schemes and models, accepted practises and procedures, which we unconsciously and mechanically repeat when attempting to represent and conceptualize political reality cartographically. This consideration brings to mind Harley's concept of “internal power” pertaining to cartographic processes and practise: “Compilation, generalization, classification, formation into hierarchies, and standardization of geographic data, far from being mere neutral activities, involve power-knowledge relations at work” (Harley, 2001, p.112). In other words, the procedures involved in the preparation of maps are based on a series of conventionally accepted schemes and models prompting implicit assumptions decisive for one's reading of the political situation.

34The persistence today of the cartographic model that dominated the modern era can thus be interpreted as a form of what could be labelled “scientific resilience”, a reaction to the calls for epistemological innovation aiming to minimize their impact. Specifically, it prevents the emergence of alternative forms of graphic representation of space and territory that would be legitimized by official science. Resorting to cartography conceived and produced in non-academic contexts, as suggested in the above mentioned Political Geography editorial, is an attempt to fill the gap by drawing on work done in contexts where images are allowed to proliferate without being subjected to deconstructivist demolition.


35Despite the recent attention devoted by the social sciences to the perception of images referred to in the introduction, the debate that followed has not benefited the map. This was partly due to the fact that geography was only marginally involved. “In contrast to the ‘fundamental visual disciplines’ such as philosophy, psychology, cognition studies, communications science and art history, which explicitly study the typology, use and functions of images, geography has so far produced practically no systematic attempts to develop a visual theory. Geography is primarily a discipline that uses images” (Schlottmann, Miggelbrink, 2009, p.1, italics in the original).

36Despite some interest in specific visualization-related issues, such as the iconography of landscape (Cosgrove, Daniels, 1988), travel (Schwartz, 1996), surveillance technologies (MacDonald, R. Hughes, K. Dodds, 2010), or tourism (Crouch, Lübbren, 2003), it cannot be said that the discipline is dedicated to an in-depth consideration of the nature of the map and its role. “Research throughout the 1990s has charted the changing significance of vision in geographical thought and explored methodologies for investigating the visual. Mapping has clearly also not been immune from the deconstructive turn. However these contexts and the diverse roles that mapping plays remain the focus of a narrow group of researchers, often isolated from the mainstream of social and cultural geographic practice” (Perkins, 2004, p.384).

  • 12 Was ist Ein Bild? (What is an image?) is also the title of a collection of writings by Gottfried Bo (...)

37This is surprising, especially in light of the fact that this small group of researchers – through their writings - have gone a long way in developing this subject (Crampton, 2003; Pickles, 2004; Dodge, Perkins, Kitchin, 2009; Lois, 2009). They revolutionized the way in which we understand maps, engendering a re-examination of the theoretical foundations and a number of stimulating suggestions for its epistemological redefinition. Surprisingly, compared to only 30 years ago, as art historians today ask themselves what an image is12, so too scholars engaged in the study of the geographical map rediscovered the appeal of a question which, until recently, appeared useless and seemingly surpassed: “What is a map?”.

38As noted by Dodge, Perkins and Kitchin in the conclusion to their book “Rethinking Maps” - a true manifesto for cartographic studies - this opens up a number of very stimulating avenues for discussion: “We would argue that a new and critical engagement with visual studies could usefully inform research into mapping…Surely dialogue between visual studies and cartography would yield richer and more complex insights into the nature of mapping” (2009, p.224-5).

39Such avenues, however, have not been fully explored. Therefore, with reference to the issues raised in the introduction, we may conclude that, with few notable exceptions, geographers' interest in visuality has not translated into an analogous interest in and commitment to a renewal of cartographic epistemology. The reasons for this reluctance, analyzed above, suggest, I believe, that geographers' infrequent use of maps today is attributable not only to cartographic inertia, and to the limits inherent to traditional cartographic representation itself (limits that are due to the difficulty in representing reality in a geometrically rationalized space), but also, and above all, to the diffidence engendered by the critical currents. According to this viewpoint, it is methodologically incorrect to conceive of the spatialization of contemporary phenomena in cartographic terms, for the geometric language that it imposes is anything but neutral. Rather, it responds to a specific view of knowledge (modern positivist epistemology) and, above all, to very specific power relations (those that led to the formation of the modern nation-state). This situation can affect our reading of space – regarding the hierarchy of places, for example. Cartography would thus tend to discipline reality, simplify it and confine it to interpretive cages that risk being highly misleading.

40Postmodern critical analysis has amply exposed the limits of traditional cartography, demolishing its theoretical basis and provoking a distrust of mapping, which should be overcome. The above position is certainly acceptable, but it should not inhibit us from attempting to represent space graphically. The fact that graphic representation of space is rooted in geographical studies and the fact that this prerogative of the discipline is acknowledged by other sciences makes it opportune for geographers to try to contribute to a complete re-examination of the map's underlying theoretical basis and epistemological principles.

41Having ascertained that rationalist cartography is unsuited to the task of interpreting our globalized world, and having accepted the post-structuralist assumption that representation itself is problematic (entailing moral as well as epistemological limitations), we are left with the challenge of devising a new visual way of translating space in order to better understand its mechanisms. In other words, rather than giving up on the map's heuristic value, we should try to re-elaborate its hermeneutical qualities.

42Obviously, geographers can hope to meet this challenge only if they arise from the map's deathbed – to which they themselves contributed, and where they are still sitting, some sincerely contrite, some disinterested, some satisfied for having favoured the map's demise.

43Looking around me I see three different attitudes to the current crisis in the relationship between geographers and maps:

  1. Nostalgia: “I ignore the problem, fondly recalling the good old days when nobody criticized maps”;

  2. Satisfaction: “I have stopped using maps, satisfied that postmodernism has freed me from the constraints of a deceptive tool”;

  3. Determination to take up the challenge: “I am open to innovative techniques of spatial representation, and aim for an increasing, and more diverse use of such techniques”.

44The third attitude is undoubtedly the most desirable for the future of geography.

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1 The contribution of Bruno Latour to this field of study has been decisive (Latour, Woolgar, 1979, Latour, 1987).

2 While the identification of a “spatial turn”, that is, of a generalized re-evaluation of the spatial dimension in the social sciences can be attributed to several contemporary scholars, such as Frederic Jameson (1991) and Edward Soja (1996), the roots of this phenomenon can be traced back to the foundations of post-structuralist thought, to theories such as Henri Lefebvre's on the production of space, and to concepts such as Michel Foucault's heterotopia. The very metaphor of the panopticon (Foucault, 1975) is a spatial image.

3 Today, visual culture attracts a good deal of interest. It is a phenomenon that crosses scientific disciplines and national contexts. The same tendency to refocus and organize knowledge around visual paradigms can be found in diverse spheres of contemporary Western thought, albeit under different labels. “Western philosophy and science now use a pictorial, rather than textual, model of the world” (Mirzoeff, 1999, p.5). In English-speaking countries, “visual studies” developed around W.J.T. Mitchell's work (1994). In German-speaking countries, Bildwissenschaft is the term used to refer to the field, some of the most prominent theorists of which are Klaus Sachs-Hombach, Horst Bredekamp, Hans Belting and Gottfried Boehm.

4 The first 2009 issue dedicated an editorial to the use of visual tools, announcing a new editorial policy on the matter (O’Loughlin, Raento, Sidaway, 2009).

5 See also the debate initiated by the journal Antipode in its 35/2 (2003) issue, spilling over into the subsequent issue - 36/5 (2004).

6 Piers Fotiadis (2009, p.13) supplied unequivocal quantitative data showing this increasing trend in The Economist.

7 A 1961 article by David Lowenthal is usually identified as the seminal work in this context

8 What was said regarding the small number of maps in political geography today may seem disconcerting, but political geography is not immune to the recent attraction to visual products. In the past few years, many studies have drawn on the documentary value of images and considered their various functions. The increase in the number of images (photographs, films and frames, cartoons, stamps, illustrations) in the journals studied here is staggering: Political Geography went from 18 to 66 images between 1995-1997 and 2007-2009; in the Bollettino della Società Geografica Italiana, photographs alone went from 9 in 1993-94 to 76 in 2008-09.

9 By “geopolitical maps” I mean those maps conceived of and produced explicitly in order to describe and offer interpretations for political phenomena. In the English-speaking world this expression - although sometimes used in this sense (Culcasi, 2006) - may sound strange and a little puzzling. It is, however, widely used in geographical studies in other countries. Certainly in my own country, Italy (Boria, 2008), but also in France, a country with a history of internationally recognized geographical studies of the highest level. There, expressions such as “cartographie géopolitique” (geopolitical cartography) or “carte géopolitique” (geopolitical map) or “atlas géopolitique” (geopolitical atlas) are common, the publications that use them abound, and tend to be very innovative. Other terms used to refer to this genre are “Atlas des Relations Internationales” and “Atlas Géostrategique”. It is thus not surprising that the two publications that have promoted geopolitical cartography most in the past few years have been an Italian periodical (Limes) and a French one (Le Monde Diplomatique).

10 Against the backdrop of a discipline where cartographic innovation is rare, I would like to mention three geographers who, for years, have been working on new proposals for cartography: Daniel Dorling (2008), Emanuela Casti (2004) and Jacques Lévy (2008a, 2012) from Britain, Italy and France, respectively. The fact that their atlases have aroused much interest among lay readers is meaningful.

11 Descartes saw space, in its pure form, as a combination of metric relations, the knowledge of which is gained through meticulous classification, numeration, measurement and evaluation (this propensity of his to classify has been noted by many, including Michel Foucault, 2004). Space, as described by Descartes, then, is homogeneous and isotropic. Such a perception corresponds to what Maurice Merleau-Ponty termed (from his phenomenological viewpoint) geometric space, as opposed to anthropological space, that is, space as experienced by the subject (Merleau-Ponty, 1945, pp.324-344). These two concepts are bound to give rise to two radically different ways of representing space graphically.

12 Was ist Ein Bild? (What is an image?) is also the title of a collection of writings by Gottfried Boehm (1994), one of the most prominent theoreticians in the field of visual studies.

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Edoardo Boria, « Geographers and Maps: a Relationship in Crisis »L’Espace Politique [En ligne], 21 | 2013-3, mis en ligne le 12 décembre 2013, consulté le 25 mai 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Edoardo Boria

Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science, Sapienza – University of Rome

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