Of late, I have been working very closely with the residents of Urur/Olcott Kuppam (a fishing hamlet located just north of Elliots beach) trying to facilitate the creation of a community map that documents how they use the coastline for their livelihood, recreation and cultural activities. In the established literature, this technique of mapping is commonly known as ‘participatory mapping’ and is contended to be a tool for empowerment that is rapidly gaining prominence (Chambers 2006, see for instance Gessa et al 2008).
Searching the internet to find examples of successful projects from around the world, it so happened that a few hits that returned suggested that community mapping had been banned in Malaysia! Completely intrigued, I found a blog entry on the subject which said that following a landmark court victory (where a village map was the key piece of evidence used to prove customary rights of communities living in Rumah Nor) the Malaysian government had passed a ‘Land Surveyors Bill 2001’, which basically allows only government appointed officials to make maps!
(for more please see http://www.nativemaps.org/node/1715)
How did this kind of map-making, which involved a piece of paper, a few sketch pens and possibly some help from satellite imagery become so powerful that it elicited such a response? This question prompted me to do a little research and I found a brilliant book called ‘Rethinking the power of Maps’ by Denis Wood, which helped shed a little light on the subject. The following section is informed primarily by his insights on the subject.
What are maps?
Although unaware of a definition, all that I knew about maps were that it was used to show where things are (recalling what I had learnt in school!). That is, it represented what was in an area spatially and was sorted based on particular themes (political maps show states and capitals, physical maps show natural features).
This seems to be in line with common understandings of maps if we take into account figure 1 which is a ‘word cloud’ generated using Jonathan Feinberg’s ‘wordle’ algorithm, out of all the words in the 321 definitions of the word ‘map’ collected from 1649 to 1996 (definitions compiled by J.H. Andrews, see Andrews 1996, also see http://makingmaps.net/2008/11/25/321-definitions-of-map/ and http://www.wordle.net/).
The size of each word is proportional to its frequency in the collection of definitions.
So according to most definitions, maps represent the earth’s surface. But does it really? Wood (2010) begs to differ. Through a historical analysis he notes that the rise in the importance of maps in newly forming states was because officials began to realize that maps helped in giving form to the state. That is, maps had the ability to help construct the state. Talking about the reason behind newly forming state’s fascination with maps he comments (2010: 33)-
‘…it certainly cannot be the maps putative ability to ‘represent a part of the earth’s surface’. After all, it was the maps that conjured up borders where none had existed (especially well documented for the United States, Russia and Thailand); the maps that summoned unity from chaos (like Japan and Russia); the maps that enrobed the shapeless (as in the case of China)…maps that endowed with form what from the beginning had been no more than a dream… “We no more show what exists” said the maps (even today they say this about the borders of India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, India and China). What maps thereby avoided saying was, “Exists, yes, but only on these maps which, in fact create and affirm their existence,”…maps created and affirmed their own existence, most effectively by hiding their own recent origins…in the state itself’.
From this analysis thinking of maps as merely representations of the earth’s surface is specious. Instead, we need to ask ourselves whose ‘surface’ do most maps represent?
Map 1- Political map of Australia
However, how many of us have seen this one?
Map 2-Aboriginal Territories of Australia
Is Melbourne really in Victoria or somewhere in between a mesh of aboriginal territories? Do the smooth lines and clear demarcations of the political map negate the squiggly lines that define the age-old territorial formations of the original inhabitants?
The answer is most likely yes (unless you are an aboriginal inhabitant!).
Thus one needs to consider the power of maps in reaffirming the hegemonic beliefs in a region. This is true even for user-generated maps like google! After all, before someone can begin plotting away on a google map isn’t it a precondition for that person to be Internet savvy? However, what is also clear in the case of Rumah Nor is that the power of maps can also be used to affirm the presence of alternate subaltern realities (which is precisely what the officials in Malaysia seek to deny!).
Maps need to be viewed with a healthy skepticism that allows the map viewer to move past the common misconception that maps are representations and into a realm where the viewer is aware that what maps ‘represent’ is mostly in thrall of the dominant interests.
Andrews, J H. (2006) What Was a Map? Cartographica, No. 33, Vol. 4, pp. 1-11.
Chambers, R. (2006) Participatory Mapping and Geographic Information Systems: Whose Map? Who is Empowered and Who Disempowered? Who Gains and Who Loses? EJISDC, No. 25, Vol. 2, pp. 1-11.
Gessa, S, Poole, P, Bending, T. (2008) Participatory Mapping as a tool for Empowerment: Experiences and lessons learned from the ILC Network, International Land Coalition.
Wood, D. (2010) Rethinking the Power of Maps, The Guilford Press, New York.
- Siddharth Hande