Making Maps

by Florian Bieber


Mapmaking is well known as being not only the handmaiden of exploration, but also of colonialism and establishing and reinforcing political claims, as already Benedict Anderson showed in Imagined Communities. Similarly, map making and its congenial twin census taking produce claims to territories, well documented in the Balkans in the case of Macedonia at the turn of the last century.

a late 16th century copy of the 1525 Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation) by Piri Reis. Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public Domain.
A late 16th century copy of the 1525 Kitab-ı Bahriye (Book of Navigation) by Piri Reis. Wikimedia Commons. Licence: Public Domain.

Today, maps provide easy explanations (especially for the geographically challenged) and together with graphs produce the apparent objective reality that media like to convey. The combination of shorter attention spans for long arguments and articles and the turn towards more quantitative research in social science have helped in the rise of maps to convey short concise points replacing more complex arguments. Famously, US Today appears to have been frontrunner in reducing journalism to graphs and maps with a few words thrown in for good measure. While one might lament or celebrate this visual turn (see for example in conveying news, it requires sharpened critical skills, as the outline of states, cities, rivers and mountain ranges suggest this objective reality that exists at most when it comes to natural features on the map (even here one cannot wish a mountain way, but challenge our assumption about what a mountain means in different context), but not in terms of human realities. As critical geography and critical geopolitics remind us, these are malleable categories.

In recent months, I have been struck by media’s depiction of insurgent territories, in this case the Islamic State (IS).

During the Yugoslav wars, there has been a tendency to legitimize ethnonational claims to territory, especially in Bosnia by projecting census results on maps and then overlaying them with real or imagined control by different state-projects to this territory. These were usually maps with neat borders, Serb-dominated territories marked often in red, bordering on Croat areas in blue and Muslims in green.

Picture Credits: “Ethnic makeup of Bosnia and Herzegovina before and after the war”, by Praxis Icosahedron; in: Wikimedia Commons, License: CC BY-SA 3.0.

The color coding, as if nations have their signature colors, was less problematic (although troubling enough) than the fact that each had their territories, thus from this step to a party’s claim to this territory in the name of the respective nation was only a logical consequence, even if the territory might be forests, populated by non-Serb, non-Croat and non-Muslim bears, deer or foxes. Maps neither reflect the density of population or scale of preeminence of a particular group (or this would be marked by a different shades of the color at best). Furthermore, the color-coding creates implicit assumptions that a Serb would like to be politically a Serb and thus join a Serb secessionist project (or replace with any other ethnonational group). Similarly, color coding normalizes homogeneity, territory linked to identity looks normal or good, many colors or no colors in one territory creates the urge we might know from children’s coloring books to take a pencil to fill in the blank. As the map of Bosnia became filled with more and more single-colored, well-defined little shapes, ethnic cleansing provided the reality to match.

Over the past year, a different type of map-making has been conspicuous, the map of the Islamic State aka ISIL aka DAESH.  Take a map of the area under control by IS, you see a web of black blotches stretching over two countries, sometimes with further away dots in countries such as Lebanon, Egypt, Libya.

This Rorschach-test of our fears does not look like a state, but like a network or rather a spider web. Now, such a depiction of the IS area of control might be accurate, the long arms of IS are roads connecting population centers across the desert that spans Syria and Iraq.  It is also misleading, as we used to have the blank spaces in-between in the color of those who hold control of the roads or towns. Neither does the Austrian state control all the mountain tops of the Alps within its boundaries nor, more pertinent here, do most Saharan states control the desert between them. However, if a state is in question, map making give them control in the case of doubt, or even if they ethnonational claimants as noted above, they are granted the land in (virtual) drawing rooms of map makers, yet the Islamic State does not get such a privilege.

The distinction is probably most easily explained by the horrific rule the IS has  enforced of these lands and its claim to territory well beyond its reach (including all of the Balkans). Yet, the brutality of the regime notwithstanding, it has many trappings of a state: control over territory (fairly stable over much of it), a population, basic services, etc. Thus, why not treat it (also) like a state? While I do not wish to answer this question in regard to policymaking, in map making there is an argument to be made for consistency. Map making is a means of producing knowledge that suggests a particular view of reality. In fact, logically, we would benefit from more maps which would outline states not as being bounded by sharp lines separating them from others, but as spheres of influence that might extend to neighbors (i.e. take Rwanda in Eastern Congo, Serbia in Northern Kosovo) or which might not fully control its territory—i.e. whose jurisdiction is challenged, such as Iraq and Syria. Such a map of the world would be considerably hazier, with some spots of white, some zones of transition and plenty of colors mixing. Of course, drawing such a map would not only be difficult, but also inherently subjective, as borders here are not defined by agreement, but by influence. It would also be disturbing, as would challenge the cozy view of the world as a collection of neatly delineated uni-colored states.

In the absence of maps that describe gradations of control and influence, we have to ask ourselves, whether the maps we use are reflecting the world as it should be or theoretically might be, but isn’t and thus are we implicitly arguing for the alignment of reality with the maps we replicate?

The Author

Florian Bieber is a Professor of Southeast European History and Politics and Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. He studied Political Science and History at Trinity College (USA), the University of Vienna, and Central European University (Budapest). He is see more…


Bieber, Florian: “Making Maps”; in: Globalising Southeastern Europe (15.12.2015), URL:

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