Critical cartography

Critical cartography is a set of mapping practices and lenses of analysis grounded in critical theory, specifically the thesis that maps reflect and perpetuate relations of power, typically in favor of a society's dominant group.[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] Critical cartographers contend that, 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. Counter-mappers work in reaction to what they describe as encroachment by colonial influences.[5] Counter-maps have been used to press indigenous 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.

Critical cartography originated in the 1960s through the works of ways and others.[7] Organizations such as Counter-Cartographies Collective (USA), Iconoclasistas (Argentina), and Bureau d’Etudes (France) have since emerged. [8][9][10]

Critical cartographers

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

"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

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's control of the cartographic representation of a given region.


"Maps anticipated empire." – John Brian Harley

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] Later in the Middle East, British colonial authorities in Palestine enforced a property mapping regime to replace local practices that negotiated borders and land use, shifting power from peasants to colonial institutions.[15]

Mercator projection

In 1569, Gerardus Mercator introduced a map projection of the Earth which is now known as the Mercator projection, with the purpose of preserving compass bearings at the cost of distorting other aspects of size and shape. 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.

The purpose of the Mercator projection

The purpose of this change in spacing is to assure that if one measures how many degrees east of north a certain direction is, it will always appear on the map as just that many degrees clockwise from a line that points upward, regardless of where it is on the map. In other words, the one thing that the Mercator projection does not distort is compass bearings.

An adverse effect of the Mercator projection

However, this has the effect that areas farther away from the Equator seam to be disproportionately large.[16] 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.[17] Some hold that the Mercator projection promotes a “subtle Eurocentrism.”[18] Web mapping applications use a version of the Mercator projection known as the Web Mercator. Any effects of the Mercator projection will no longer be felt due to atlases and textbooks but from the digital maps and GPS on our phones and computers.


The rising popularity of digital mapping systems (such as Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Microsoft Bing Maps) highlights the role of cartography in representing occupied territories. 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.[19]

Many critical cartographers have engaged in counter-mapping to rewrite the narrative of the history of Israel’s expansion into territories contested with Palestine. One example is the Counter Cartographies Collective’s map of how much of the land belonged to which country since 1948. Another example is how Palestinian refugees themselves used Google Earth to map the original Palestinian villages Israel destroyed in the aftermath of its independence in 1948.[20] These maps are attempts at showing a Palestinian perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Benefits of mapping

Cartographic censorship

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.[21] 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

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.[22] In 2011, Penn State produced a documentary about the story of mapping Kibera.[23] 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”.[23] 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.[according to whom?] 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.[according to whom?]

Google Maps biases

Critical cartographers emphasize that maps carry the internal biases of their creators, holding Google Maps' "places of interest" feature as an example. [24]

Spatial citizenship

Spatial citizenship is 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


  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 978-1462509980.
  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 978-0801870903. OCLC 45024500.
  4. ^ Harley, J. B. (1992). "Deconstructing the map". Passages. 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". jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  7. ^ "Critical Cartography | Making Maps: DIY Cartography". makingmaps.net. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
  8. ^ "(no title)". www.countercartographies.org. 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". Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
  14. ^ a b "Maps and the Beginnings of Colonial North America: Digital Collections for the Classroom". dcc.newberry.org. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
  15. ^ Quiquivix, Linda (2013). "When the Carob Tree Was the Border: On Autonomy and Palestinian Practices of Figuring it Out". Capitalism Nature Socialism. 24 (3): 170–189. doi:10.1080/10455752.2013.815242. ISSN 1045-5752.
  16. ^ "Mercator projection | cartography". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
  17. ^ Battersby, Sarah E. (2014). "Implications of Web Mercator and its Use in Online Mapping". Cartographica. 49 – via USGS.
  18. ^ "Are your maps racially biased?". The Concordian. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  19. ^ Quiquivix, Linda (2014-04-29). "Art of War, Art of Resistance: Palestinian Counter-Cartography on Google Earth". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 104 (3): 444–459. doi:10.1080/00045608.2014.892328. ISSN 0004-5608.
  20. ^ Quiquivix, Linda (2014-04-29). "Art of War, Art of Resistance: Palestinian Counter-Cartography on Google Earth". Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 104 (3): 444–459. doi:10.1080/00045608.2014.892328. ISSN 0004-5608.
  21. ^ "How to Lie with Maps". iRevolutions. 2009-06-16. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  22. ^ "Map Kibera Project". mapkiberaproject.yolasite.com. Retrieved 2017-06-15.
  23. ^ a b wpsu (2011-05-02), Geospatial Revolution / Episode Four, Chapter Four: Mapping Power to the People, retrieved 2017-06-15
  24. ^ 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.

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