The problem with maps

Research with international students, and indeed on internationalisation in general, often starts with or refers to a map of the world, like this book cover from my own work:

Mapping is also a common theme in title action verbs, and is often treated as unproblematic.

But the conventional world map that gets taught in many classrooms is actually controversial.

Since the world is a globe, cartographers had to develop a way of translating information about locations on a round shape onto a flat map, which is called a projection. At the time most European maps were being developed, the primary function was ocean navigation – sailing ships for trade and empire building. So the most important characteristic of a map was not how accurate it was in terms of the land mass itself but rather its relative location and the size of the oceans in between. Hence, the map we tend to recognise: the Mercator projection.

World map with Europe in the center

Now, you might think that this is normal and fine. But if you went to school or university in the USA you might be more accustomed to seeing this version.

World map with North America in the center

Obviously, the difference is clear: one centres Europe and the other centres the Americas, with the consequence that Asia is cut in half. Why? Well, because what’s the middle is clearly more important! But this is obviously political and arbitrary – as is the European-centred version.

Now, here’s a version you’ve probably never seen.

World map with the North Pole at the bottom and South Pole at the top

And why not? After all, the world moves through space in multiple directions relative to the sun, so the positioning of the North Pole at the top of the map is essentially arbitrary.

But the top is not arbitrary – it signifies importance, like the centre. Think about the penthouse apartment, the CEO listed at the top of the leadership tree, the ‘head’ of state. So positioning Europe at the top and centre of many maps is part of the coloniality critiqued by many writers (see also the Anti-Glossary).

But it gets worse! Because the Mercator projection isn’t even accurate. It distorts landmass and scale of areas south of the equator – which you might notice, encompass most regions of the world that have been colonised by European imperial powers.

This is the Peters projection map, which is based on a cylindrical projection.

World Map that is accurate in scale with a smaller Europe and North America

Notice how much bigger Africa, South America, India, and Australia are. In contrast, the UK and Western Europe are barely visible, and you can see that the island of Britain is smaller than Madagascar. It also positions Europe as on the margins, rather than the centre of the map.

Now, by itself, this doesn’t change the geo-political inequalities of different countries around the world. But what it does do – or should do for scholars who work with international students – is reshape our understanding of the context within which we travel to study.

So next time you are thinking of choosing a graphic representation in a publication or a presentation and the question of a map comes up, ask what kind of map it is and what message it sends, and whether there’s an alternative map (perhaps one not produced during and for the purposes of imperial conquest) that could challenge understandings of international students.

This brilliant post explains even more options for different representations.

Published by selomer42

I am an early career researcher, recent EdD graduate from the University of Sheffield, and a Lecturer in Policy and Practice at the Institute of Education. Previously I was an Academic Practice Tutor at the University of Northampton. My research focuses on critical analysis of national policy on international students in the UK. Follow me on Twitter @SE_Lomer

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: