Historical Cartography

Uri Friedman at the Atlantic has a nice piece entitled "12 Maps that Changed the World." It's based on a book by Jerry Brotton, professor of Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University. It's worth checking out if you haven't seen it already. This article is interesting for a few reasons. First, it gives you some sense as to how views of the earth have changed over time. Second, Friedman's snippets for each map help to show how politics, culture, and religion all influenced the evolution of these views. And related to that previous idea, it points to that ever-present issue of measurement. Social scientists aren't the only ones who confront these kinds of issues, and information we now tend to assume away as being relatively objective and simple to define/convey (e.g. geography) can actually be more complicated that we might first think:

"All cultures have always believed that the map they valorize is real and true and objective and transparent," Brotton, a professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, told me. "All maps are always subjective…. Even today’s online geospatial applications on all your mobile devices and tablets, be they produced by Google or Apple or whoever, are still to some extent subjective maps."

There are, in other words, no perfect maps—just maps that (more-or-less) perfectly capture our understanding of the world at discrete moments in time. 

At this point in time I suspect the subjectivity associated with cartography is probably less a matter of relative size and space, and more a matter of content (i.e. borders, landmarks, etc.). Friedman addresses this a bit when he talks about Google's map-making efforts in #12.

Map #4 also stood out to me:

What's most striking about this Korean map, designed by a team of royal astronomers led by Kwon Kun, is that north is at top. "It's strange because the first map that looks recognizable to us as a Western map is a map from Korea in 1402," Brotton notes. He chalks this up to power politics in the region at the time. "In South Asian and Chinese imperial ideology, you look up northwards in respect to the emperor, and the emperor looks south to his subjects," Brotton explains.

There's also a clip from the West Wing attached to Map #11, the Peter's Projection. Something for everyone.

Michael Flynn

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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