What is a Map?

What is a map? 
What is a map? This seems an absurd question – most of us can picture a ‘map’. For some the word will immediately conjure a wall map showing the countries of the world, for others a topographic map used for walks in the countryside, or a road map used to plan a holiday. These maps tend to be non-contentious – as long as they do not lead you astray. Maps of this sort are usually seen as objective representations of an external reality – generalised to be sure, but where a motorway is shown leading from London to Bristol, it will usually be safe to suppose that the route exists.
Much early research on maps and mapping was concerned with communication; how well the map maker was able to transfer information – facts – through the map, as a symbolic format, to the map reader. This has gradually changed and more critical understandings of maps have evolved. Maps as propaganda or as advertisements (persuasive maps) have long been recognised as a specific form of mapping, but more recently all maps have come to be regarded as socially and politically constructed – as presenting a message – as a rhetorical device. Traditionally maps have been created by the state or by other organisations with the required resources – maps, therefore, tended to support concepts such as ’empire’ or ‘national identity’, or at the local level might have placed the landed estate or the church to the fore. More recently forms of ‘counter mapping’ have challenged elite views of the world. Many of these maps have a strong ‘sense of place’; they contain layers of meaning for the people who make them, whether the frustrations of groups who aim to improve their neighbourhood, or the vibrant maps produced by the communities across the UK as part of Common Ground’s ‘Parish Maps’ project – designed to celebrate their place!
All maps do a job of ‘work’ – they say something about what is important to their maker and what is not (what is left off). Map readers, as well as makers, also bring something to the process of mapping – they are not passive consumers of information. Each time a person picks up a map, the relationship changes. Some commentators go as far as to argue that any engagement with a map is a continual process of ‘mapping’ – meanings, ideas, and behaviours constantly come into being through encounter between the map and ‘mapper’.
The Meaningful Maps project is interested in children as map makers and their maps as social construct. We are interested in what the map tells us about the child’s understanding and the meanings and values it invests in the places they have mapped. Sometimes this will be celebratory; sometimes it may involve negative associations with place. Their maps provide a vision of the world that can help us better understand their needs, and the meanings with which they invest their worlds.

© Peter Vujakovic July 2017

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