There are three things about maps that are important to understand when deconstructing what mapping can do to promote social justice. Maps make things happen, maps are never neutral, and people tend to map what they want to see (Evans 2016).
The most basic understanding of a map is a representation of an area of land or sea.
But even this definition is not completely accurate. Yes, it’s a representation, but the Mercator world map isn’t an accurate depiction of the world like you are lead to believe. The 1569 creation of a Flemish cartographer and geographer, Gerardus Mercator, the map has Europe as the top centre land mass of the world. Except, there is no real reason for Europe to be placed here, and was only done so because Mercator was European and he decided that it was the most important part and so should be represented right on top.
Once you realize that maps aren’t just representations of area that someone might use to get from point A to point B, it becomes clearer that “maps are cultural artefacts that are deeply implicated in the history of ideas; intrinsically linked to our conceptualisations of space; and inform our political and personal subjectivities” (Strom 2011, p. 1). They can be used to change opinions, show specific information tailored to an individual (Mercator), or make a political or social statement.
An example of a map that makes a certain political and social statement is the collection of maps at Equaldex.com. It aims to “crowd source every law related to LGBT rights to provide a comprehensive and global view of the LGBT rights movement”. There are 11 maps of the world that visually represent certain information regarding LGBT people.
It can be argued that these maps promote social justice because they show the state of equality for LGBT people across the globe in 11 different areas of life, and it is visually evident what countries need to make changes to make that place socially just for this group of people. This map aims to make things happen. Looking at the map of where homosexuality is still illegal, showing the handful of countries that still have laws against homosexuality (not many), puts pressure on those countries to make a change.
But, as mentioned above, maps are never neutral. Just like Mercator had an agenda to his map, the Equaldex map does as well. Maps can represent an opponent as the bad guy, and can show themselves as the good guy (Monmonier 1996, p. 105). These maps are created by and for LGBT people, and they obviously have the agenda of equality. The maps in which the same countries are shown again and again as being discriminatory towards LGBT people and limiting their rights are “the bad guys” that are standing in the way of social justice for all.
Lastly, people have used these maps to show what they want to see. It is a handy visual resource for people to use who want to know global information about LGBT rights. It holds a lot of diverse information in one place and could, for example, inform a LGBT person on where they might travel based on what rights they have in that country. More importantly, it is crowd sourced, and is a collaborative project, meaning a group of people wanted to see this information on a map, and so they mapped it.
There is power in a map beyond how amazing it is that Google Maps can tell you how long it will take you to drive from Wollongong to Bathurst and where the traffic is congested. There is a real possibility that maps can make changes to social justice across the world, and Equaldex is just one example of many possible examples.
Evans, N 2016, ‘Mapping the Planet’, lecture, BCM232, University of Wollongong, delivered 14 March 2016.
Monmonier, M 1996, ‘Maps for Political Propaganda’, in How to Lie with Maps, 2nd edn, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, pp. 87-112.
Strom, T E 2011, ‘Space, Cyberspace and Interface: The Trouble with Google Maps’, M/C Journal, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 1-6.