Maps as Politics

By Christine Leuenberger, Cornell University

Maps have long been used as tools to dispossess the colonized, establish sovereign control over territories and help make states. National maps are ‘logos’ – not unlike commercial logos that encourage people’s loyalty to the national brand.

Flag map of Israel (including Palestinian territories) Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
“Flag map of Israel (including Palestinian territories)” Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

When map-making came into vogue with the rise of the nation-state in the 17th century, government officials and academic experts were tasked with mapping its lands. Yet, by the 1980s, map-making became transformed from a domain of experts to a ‘people’s cartography’. With access to new GIS technologies and web-based software, including Google Earth, anyone with a computer and Internet access can make and disseminate maps. Maps are no longer just ‘top-down’, but also ‘bottom-up’.

"Flag map of the land of Palestine" Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)
“Flag map of the land of Palestine” Source: Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not only states, but also NGOs, political parties, social activists, the media, and corporations have access to map-making technologies that can be used to make geopolitical claims. In a post-cold War era in which territorial and national disputes have again come to the forefront of public attention, whether in the Ukraine, in Congo, or in Israel-Palestine, we need to inquire what are maps, who makes them, and for what purpose?

We commonly assume that maps are objective, accurate, and representative of a world ‘out there’. Yet maps always omit as much as they include. They are subject to selection, classification, abstractions, and simplifications.

By emphasizing certain sites, yet deemphasizing others, colonizers may implant their geopolitical vision onto the land whilst cartographically eradicated the topography of the colonized. Such territorial battles can turn into what myself and co-author Schnell (2010) call ‘map wars’ with protagonists using different types of visual rhetoric to battle over ethno-territories.

Yet with the democratization of mappings, do their makers really have the power to persuade wider publics of geopolitical visions? Hardly. In our article in Transactions (Schnell and Leuenberger 2014) we point out that sociology matters. We investigate the rise of a people’s cartography in Israel that is fuelled by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, territorial disagreements provide map-makers with fodder for their cartographic warfare in the midst of the cold peace that prevails between the Palestinians and Israel.

While blanket assertions that the ‘other’ doesn’t recognize the latter’s territories and is erasing them from the map abound, Israel-Palestine exemplifies the diversity of maps. Like literary genres, maps follow different visual genres so as to engage with geopolitics. These maps differ in terms of their ‘authority’ and institutional legitimacy, their ‘substance’ and visual and textual complexity, and their ‘function’ for governance or navigation. In other words, state-sanctioned maps have an institutional legitimacy unmatched by cartographic geeks disseminating their maps via blogs. Both states and geeks, however, may incorporate cartographic conventions, but science is not immune to politics.

Maps hardly mirror an objective birds-eye view of the world. Rather, as maps omit as much as they include, they reflect the culture and politics that gave rise to them. In a post-Cold war era, in which geopolitical visions are shifting, and nationalism and territoriality have again become tools to forge identities, we have to remember that maps do not represent, but instead create geopolitical realities.

 About the author: Christine Leuenberger is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Science & Technology Studies,  Cornell University

books_icon Schnell, I. and Leuenberger, C. (2014), Mapping genres and geopolitics: the case of Israel. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. doi: 10.1111/tran.12052

books_icon Leuenberger C. and I. Schnell (2010) “The Politics of Maps: Constructing National Territories in Israel”, Social Studies of Science 40/6: 803–842.

60-world2 Ruggeri, A Beyond the Headlines: The politics of making maps 05 June 2014 (available outside the UK)

60-world2 Covant, E. How Should Crimea Be Shown on National Geographic Maps? National Geographic 19.03.2014


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