Understanding Maps


This topic examines perhaps the most famous of geographical outputs, the map. Maps help us make sense of the world and map work has long been a cornerstone of geographical syllabuses. Generations of schoolchildren have been taught how to read maps, and even how to draw them. In your early school careers you may have been introduced to debates about what makes a good map and you were probably asked to draw basic sketch maps to show the locations of towns or rivers, with features such as scale bars and north arrows. You may also have looked at atlases, with their topographical and thematic representations of physical and political geography.

The activities included here are not designed to convey any particular political message, but are assembled to provide a range of exercises to think critically about the production, understanding and use of maps. They encourage you to think critically about graphical presentation of data, the use and abuse of maps and the impact of new technology on our geographical knowledge. The key skill here is the development of ‘cartographical literacy’ – that is, knowing how to read and use maps.

Maps and Reality

Consider maps of the world, the kind that you may have seen hanging on the wall of a classroom (for some examples). Think about how different projections – effectively how mapmakers represent on paper the spherical shape of the earth – change the relative sizes of countries. Consider the development of different map projections:

• What do they tell us about the history of mapmaking?

• How might different projections shape how we view our place in the world?

Visit World Mapper. This is a brilliant resource. Look at the way in which the cartographers expand and shrink the size of countries in relation to the characteristics or trends that they are plotting. These are known as cartograms. Consider the implications of representing trends in this way:

• Compare how Worldmapper projects global trends to other more traditional map outputs. What are the benefits of presenting data in this way?

• Can you think of any limitations?

(Alongside this you may like to look at Danny Dorling, Mark Newman and Anna Barford (2008) The Atlas of the Real World: Mapping the way we live (London: Thames and Hudson). Here the authors examine some of the trends that have been identified by the Worldmapper project)

It is also important to think about the collection and accuracy of the data that goes into producing such maps. Bad data does not make a good map, but how would we know? The Worldmapper website tells us what data has gone into its maps. We need to ask the same question for the other maps that we use.


People make maps for all sorts of reasons. And the mapmaker can leave something in or take something out. They can be selective, or deliberately choose to exaggerate some trends at the expense of others. We might say that maps represent reality, then. They simplify in order to make something make sense.

One very famous example is Harry Beck’s London Underground tube map. This is a topological map – the distance between the stations is not represented accurately. You can see the full set of TfL maps here

Beyond Geography…

The Worldmapper project includes a wide variety of plots. Try and find a plot that illustrates something that you have studied in another one of your A-Levels or IB courses. For example, if you are studying Biology have a look at the map of Cardiovascular Disease Deaths. Can you explain the variability shown in the cartogram?

Resource activities

Maps and the Geographical Imagination

Geography is sometimes described as earth description. Is that the case? Explore the viewpoint that geography is about 'writing' the earth in this activity.


Maps and Power

Maps help us make sense of the world. But how were they produced?


Maps and Policy

How can maps be useful for policymakers?


Maps and Technology

Technology has changed how we view the world and how we do geography. Explore how new technology affects geographical study.


Other Cartographical Traditions and Imaginations

Now try this independent research task to consider the ways in which different groups have attempted cartographically to represent themselves and their place in the world.


Activity questions

  • How should a critical geographer read and use maps?
  • Take some time to reflect on some of the reasons why we make maps – the answers are more complex than simply helping us to get from a to b. There are many historical examples where the commissioning of maps was closely tied to claims on power. Is this true of all maps?
  • Write your own set of conclusions reviewing what you have learned about the production and use of maps.

Reflective questions

To answer and record these questions you will need to have an account and be logged in.

Task 1

What are the key arguments, concepts, points contained within it?

Task 2

What are you struggling to understand?

What could you do to improve your understanding of these concepts/terminology etc.?

Task 3

What further questions has this resource raised for you?

What else are you keen to discover about this topic and how could you go about learning more?

Can you make any links between this topic and your prior knowledge or school studies?

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Further reading