Skip main navigation

Maps and Power

Ian Cooke and Tom Harper from the British Library discuss how to read a map.

In this film, Ian Cooke and Tom Harper from the British Library discuss a variety of maps from the 17th to the 20th centuries. The maps convey different types of information. However, in different ways, they all provide clues as to how modern states use maps to claim political power over the areas depicted.

Maps are powerful tools for representing a wide range of data. They may feature landscapes, cities, populations, figures, and symbols. And they make visible how points of data relate to each other spatially. Because of this, maps have a strong influence on the way in which we “see the world”. In this film, Ian and Tom argue that the presentation of knowledge and discovery in maps has been used as a means to make claims over territory.

All maps are selective in the data that they show. Understanding the choices made in what to represent, and also what to leave obscured, is vital for interpreting these maps as political tools. In this film, Tom poses three questions we might ask when considering maps as political objects:

  • Who saw this map?
  • Where was the map shown?
  • What was the intended impact of the map on its audience?

Asking these questions helps us to understand the ways in which other researchers on geography and politics have described the relationship between control of territory and the exercise of state power.

Histories are located in particular spaces and places. Think about a theme that you would like to conduct research on. Might you use a map to form a clearer sense of where the events you are investigating took place? If so, what type of map might you use? What do different types of maps reveal, or conceal, about the history you are exploring?

This article is from the free online

Learning from the Past: A Guide for the Curious Researcher

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now