Maps exert power

I recently explored the power of maps in relation to the questions of how and why they are made. I used Brian Harley’s excellent paper ‘Deconstructing the map’ (this has been incredibly influential to my critical thinking on cartography) to outline how the internal power of maps is realised in the actions taken by cartographers themselves when making maps, while the external power of maps is both realised by the patrons of cartography and wielded through the use of cartographic products as agents for natural resource management, in particular for defining conservation strategies.

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Where shall we place a marine protected area around Lord Howe Island? Grey areas are the students’ suggested marine protected areas (outer black boundary indicates the edge of the continental shelf platform; inner black boundary indicates the island periphery)

I worked with a group of 15 students on an Australian case study of coastal mapping in a series of initiatives to map Lord Howe Island, New South Wales. Together we explored the subjectivities associated with the placement of boundaries in the scientific practice of cartography- as can be seen from the Figure, which outlines their wide-ranging suggestions for the boundaries of a marine protected area around the island. This variability is in spite of me giving them all the same complicated state of the art remote sensing datasets!

The findings of the exercise suggest that a new epistemological reading of maps is necessary, as sources of information on socio-politically constructed worlds as much as the physical world of objects. Such a reading is particularly important given recent advances in technologies, such as remote sensing, that are increasingly used to inform coastal management, and which propagate in profound new ways the power of maps.

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