Sunday, August 14, 2011

GeoCurrents' Demic atlas project

Quite a bit of what I write about on this blog and elsewhere is concerned with the way we think. I do so because it interests me. I also do so because I think that it's important.

This post was triggered by a new series of posts on the GeoCurrents blog. I will give links at the end.

I have mentioned GeoCurrents many times because it is a remarkably good blog. One of the recurrent themes on that blog has been the way in which maps and mapping affect our thinking. To my mind, many of the most illuminating posts on GeoCurrents are those that drill down below the formal political boundaries to look at subdivisions within countries and at relationships that cross boundaries. This is a geography blog, so it has a particular focus on human geography.

I said illuminating. I learned more (and more quickly) about the geographic underpinnings of the current Libyan conflict from GeoCurrents' posts than I did from all the current political reporting. I don't always agree with them, but I would rank this blog as one of the best in the world.

We are all bound by maps and structures. There are two features to most modern maps that are most binding and blinding so far as patterns of thought are concerned.

The first is the nature of boundaries. We think of them as hard lines. On one side is x, on the other side y.

The second feature is the nature of the institutional structures on which most maps are based. They centre on political and institutional boundaries. Sure, you will get maps that show, for example, distribution of climate, landform or species over broader territories, but generally  maps reflect institutional structures. Data collections, one of the key underpinnings of maps, also reflect those structures.

Now GeoCurrents is planning to publish a new series of maps to break away from some of this mental binding. The project is summarised in this way:

GeoCurrents has taken a summer hiatus to create a new cartographic framework for analyzing socio-economic development. This project is a collaborative effort involving three team-members: Jake Coolidge, a geospatial historian at Stanford University’s Spatial History Lab; Anne Fredell, a Stanford University undergraduate; and myself (Martin Lewis). The Spatial History Lab at Stanford, which has provided extensive technical assistance, will eventually publish the maps as an on-line document. GeoCurrents will also post maps from the project, as well as commentary on the process.

Some of the rationale for the new maps is described as:      

Global economic and social comparisons are almost always made within the framework of sovereign states.... Whether on maps, tables, or charts, the country is the category that counts.

Our atlas starts from the premise that, while sovereign states are certainly the essential units of the geopolitical order, they are not necessarily appropriate units of socio-economic comparison. In actuality, countries are ill suited for such purposes. Geopolitical framework for social and economic analysis can quickly lead one astray.

The Geocurrents posts describing the project so far are:

I am looking forward to the results.

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