Projecting Maps, Making Representations

June 24, 2015

This resource compares four different world maps. The goals are to encourage critical thinking about maps as representations and to show how maps influence the ways in which one conceptualizes the world.

There is not a specific state standard for 9-12 Geography that deals with map distortion, though many teachers may find this useful as an introductory activity or an exercise in critical thinking.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards: 
IV. HISTORICAL SKILLS B. Historical Resources: 1. Students will identify, describe, and extract information from various types of historical sources, both primary and secondary. 2. Students will assess the credibility and determine appropriate use of different sorts of sources.
V. GEOGRAPHY B. Essential Skills: The student will use maps, globes, geographic information systems, and other databases to answer geographic questions at a variety of scales from local to global.

Introduction

It is often mistakenly understood that maps provide an objective and authoritative mirror of the earth's surface, when, actually, maps are merely representations. Since the earth is not flat, the process of projecting it onto a flat surface (to make a map) always creates some sort of distortion. Because maps are powerful representations that heavily inform our conceptualizations about the world around us, it is important to understand how maps are constructed and how certain representations of the world have become naturalized and taken for granted.

Over time, cartographers have developed numerous projections of the world for different purposes. The perspectives and interpretations of a map's creator as well as specific social and historical contexts shape how the world is mapped. Map maker Gerhardus Mercator designed a world map in 1569, for instance, with characteristics useful for nautical navigation. This map, called the Mercator Projection, became the standard map used in European and American classrooms into the 20th century. In order to achieve navigational accuracy, however, this map increased the size of areas farther from the equator. Greenland appeared larger than either South America or Africa, even though South America is eight times as large as Greenland and Africa is 14 times as large. Other projections raise different concerns. For example, correcting the limitations of the Mercator Projection (to preserve a more accurate representation of the area of land masses) may misrepresent shapes of geographical areas or cause other distortions.

Sources

The following sources consist of four maps using different projections, and therefore producing different representations.

  1. Mercator Projection
    Mercator Projection
  2. The Mollweide Projection (equal area), which accurately represents the relative surface area of land masses.
    Mollweide Projection
  3. The Pacific Centered (Robinson Projection) shifts its center point so that the 180th Meridian, rather than Europe or North America, sits at the center of the page.
    Robinson Projection
  4. The World Upside Down (Mollweide Projection) complicates popular phrases like "The Land Down Under" and "The Global South."
    World Upside Down Mollweide Projection

Discussion Questions

  1. Think about the relative sizes of objects and their location on the Mercator Projection. How does the Mercator Projection represent the world? What geographical areas, regions, and continents are featured most prominently?
  2. How do the other three maps represent the world? Contrast these representations with those depicted in the Mercator Projection.
  3. How does each map influence the reader's conception of the world? Specifically, consider the ways in which maps can be used to promote a particular agenda (e.g. nationalism, colonialism, Euro/American-centrism).

Classroom Activity

Students construct local maps on the basis of the four above maps. They may use their school, their house, or Minnesota as the focal point in a map to mirror the distortions of the Mercator map.