The Politics of Mapping

Ross Holland examines the political consequences of mapping and using certain projections on maps, and the colonial history behind the maps we use everyday.

Geography and politics are intrinsically linked. The amount of land a country owns is, more often than not, a huge factor in determining a country’s political power, as well as the valuable geographic features and resources that are within their borders. We represent ‘who owns what’ with maps. Since most maps are a representation of globe on a flat surface, some real-world characteristics are inaccurately represented or distorted. Decisions about what gets distorted and to what extent is largely down to the mapmaker. These mapmakers are rarely politically neutral. Consequently, the way that mapmakers choose to represent places on a map can have huge political implications.

Size (and position) matters

As mentioned before, one of the key indicators of political power is the size of a country. There are a few notable exceptions to this rule, but you only have to look at Russia, China and the USA to see that there is a large amount of truth to this. The easiest and most accessible way we have of comparing the size of countries is to view them on a map. This is usually done on a flat, rectangular surface which is where the first problem arises. It is physically impossible to 100% accurately represent our spherical Earth, on a flat rectangular surface. Therefore, decisions about how best to represent it have to be made. In doing this the size of countries relative to one another will change. The particular way a sphere is translated onto flat rectangle is called a projection. The most common type of projection used to represent the Earth on a map is ‘the Mercator projection’. This is the one used by Google Maps and many others. To create a map using the Mercator projection, the sphere is projected onto a cylinder which is then essentially cut lengthways and flattened. Imagine putting a ball into a cylinder and inflating it until it was so distorted that it completely filled the cylinder. Where the ball touched the inside of the cylinder, its surface would imprint onto the corresponding part of the cylinder. In this example, the ‘equator’ of the ball would be the least distorted, with the distortion increasing towards the poles. In most Mercator projections however, the cylinder bisects the sphere at the mid latitudes (see diagram below). In order to fit this sphere onto the cylinder, the equator has to be ‘squashed inwards’, which acts to reduce the area of its surface, relative to the mid-latitudes. Therefore, the mid-latitudes are the most accurate with distortion acting to decrease the area of the surface towards the equator and increase it towards the poles.

In either case, a decision has to be made about where the cylinder bisects the sphere and therefore which area is most accurately represented in terms of its size. The original Mercator was created in 1569 at a time when Europe was attempting to colonise and dominate the world. This map made the ‘rest of the world’ at the lower latitudes appear smaller relatively towards Europe and therefore less superior in a time where size really did matter more than anything.

A diagram showing how the Mercator projection is created and how this affect the scale on the flat map. Notice how the scale is reduced around the Equator, reducing the size of land here, and true scale in mid latitudes.

 A great illustrator of this the website ‘thetruesizeof.com’ where users can select and drag countries around the map, where they change size along the projection enabling you to compare how big countries are compared to one another.

Added to this apparent size superiority, is the fact that the Britain is almost always in the centre of the map. This has its roots in colonialism when Britain was the largest colonial power. Therefore, within the British empire, most maps had Britain at the centre, as they used the Greenwich time meridian. This time meridian was eventually adopted as an international standard after a conference between just twenty-six countries. Consequently, Britain was placed at the centre of world maps, illustrating its colonial superiority. Britain is still often placed at the centre of maps. This a relic and reminder of a colonial past; one which many countries are keen to forget.

A map from thetruesizeof.com showing how large Greenland (in pink) would appear if it were at a similar latitude to Africa.
A map from thetruesizeof.com showing how large Indonesia would appear if it were at a similar latitude to Europe and North America.

The UN logo

One much more recent example of where the political importance of map projections and positioning is in the UN logo. The UN in all its activities, seeks to remain as politically neutral as possible. If it appears to show favourability towards over another, it can have disastrous political consequences. The UN logo is a world map in an azimuthal projection, where the North Pole is at the centre, and Antarctica is around the edges of the map.

This version of the world map is used as it shows greater political neutrality than projections such as the Mercator as there is no land directly in the centre and all the continents have a more even level of distortion from the reality as a result of the chosen projection.

Not just the projection had to be considered in the UN logo. Orientation was also important. The UN actually altered the initial proposal from designer Oliver Lundquist, which had North America and Europe down the vertical centre. The orientation was altered for the final design so that it was mainly oceans down the vertical centre with no land mass dominating any central position, hence more political neutrality. This is important for an organisation aiming to maintain International peace and cooperation.

The original proposed UN logo. Note the different orientation of the map
The current UN flag is a map representing an azimuthal projection with an olive branch wreath around it representing peace

Border disputes

Border disputes have existed ever since we first drew them. When two or more countries claim the same part of land, and an international consensus cannot be reached as to who actually owns the land, then the land widely is regarded as disputed. In order to remain neutral in this regard map makers usually represent these disputed borders as dotted lines. A good example of this can be seen on Google Maps in the heavily disputed land between China, India and Pakistan. However, this can be dependent on where you are searching from. In most countries, the borders will appear as dotted lines, yet, if viewing Google Maps from India, the Arunachal Pradesh region, which both India and China claim, appears as part of India, whereas searching in China will Google Maps will show it as part of China. Elsewhere both borders are dotted. The same is true in the disputed borders of Bhutan. This demonstrates just how much political influence the largest companies in the world like Google have gained.

These examples demonstrate how the decisions taken in the creation of a map can influence, and be influenced by, global politics.

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