Mapping and Bill Rankin

I love maps. As a kid, I played a lot of soccer, and I would ride in the car with my dad to tournaments all over. I would usually have a huge road atlas in hand, figuring out which roads went where. I remember being amazed at how far roads can take you – that one road could get you from Key West, Florida, to the Canadian border of Maine. (It’s hard to explain that fully, but I still find it intriguing!) I have two US Geological Survey maps from the 50s hanging up in my house. Maps are cool.

A couple of years ago, I had to use a map as an educational tool for my job. In the fall of 2014, ebola broke out in West Africa, mainly the countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. At the time I was working for an organization that sent college students to East Africa for two week trips. Numerous parents and students called me concerned about the trip to Kenya because of what was going on in West Africa (not a dumb concern, but it was becoming apparent that it was staying pretty contained to those 3 countries). I encouraged many of them that the countries were actually 4,000 miles apart, about as far away as Miami is from Alaska. That generally helped most people realize how far away it was.

It was so frustrating, though, because a couple of parents told me I was outright lying, and I was doing so to put their children in danger. When I could, I would send them a link to this website that shows the true size of Africa. There was something about the map that was more convincing than me simply saying, “Africa is bigger than you think.” It was interesting as a 22 year old educating 50 year olds on why the map they’ve seen their whole lives is pretty misleading.

I have not engaged with mapping very much as a historian. The primary maps I have interacted with recently have been maps in John Nolen’s city plans. It’s been a passive experience of reading his plans, and I have never been involved in mapping like the Mapping Inequality project.

As far as a compelling use of maps in a work of history (others may mention this because it is fresh in our minds from last semester’s Public History class), Dr. Cline showed us an “Animated Interactive of the History of the Atlantic Slave Trade.” It uses a map as a backdrop to visualize the number of slave ships that crossed the Atlantic from 1545 to 1860. The information is well-communicated through this medium – as opposed to someone on a video trying to describe it or reading a graph with all of this information. On top of all of that, you can click on each dot to find out the ship’s name, where it was from, where it was going, and how many slaves it transported (if that information is available).


Rankin lays out his argument clearly at the outset of his book: “the change in the logic of mapping . . . should be understood quite broadly as a shift in the nature of territory” (3). Before reading this book, if someone had asked me to define territory, I likely would have thought of a physical space that can be defined on a map. While I hadn’t thought very much about the shift in the nature of territory, I did know that the process of globalization had changed it. For instance, the United States began as agrarian and rather isolated from Europe, but there have since been many changes that have made people more quickly and easily connected with others half a world away. It is interesting to see an “American empire” today as one that is “informal” and “economic” instead of one concerned as much with physical territory (12).

He explains that theoretically, territory shouldn’t be understood only as “legal, political, or economic geography alone.” Rather, it is also “defined by practices of knowledge,” which changed throughout the 20th century. It had previously been understood as a well-defined space “perfectly coextensive with a particular sovereignty or jurisdiction,” but we should now understand it as a “framework of points – neither a block of space nor a network of flows – that organized knowledge in new ways and facilitated new kinds of intervention and new kinds of governance” (15-16).

His term “framework of points” is particularly helpful in understanding the new concept of territory. The practice of map making changed the way people viewed territory, and people’s understanding of territory has changed the way maps are made and used. As Rankin says, the stories of IMW, UTM, and GPS show a “shift from paper to electronic signals, from the logic of representation to the logic of the grid, from a focus on contiguous areas of space to a framework of points, and from meditations on truth to an interest in practical results” (295).

Week 3 Blog Post

Thursday Bill Rankin, the author of After the Map, will join us via skype.  Bill is a historian of science and cartography, and a cartographer extraordinaire in his own right.  He has a site for his book, available here.  His research work and mapping are available here.  As an interesting coincidence, Bill has been mapping slavery in the North, while a future guest, Rob Nelson, has been mapping slavery in the South.

For your blog post, part 1: What is your most compelling experience with maps (outside of your work as a historian)? What is your engagement with mapping as a historian? What have you found the most compelling use of maps in a work of history?  Part 2 will be supplied by discussion leaders for the week by Monday.  Post your response by Tuesday, 11:59pm.