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What is a Political Map?

Tricia Christensen
By
Updated May 23, 2024
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A political map is a map that shows lines defining countries, states, and/or territories. It is unlike other maps in that its purpose is specifically to show borders. It also makes a deliberate political statement about which areas of the Earth belong to a country or state.

Cartography, in the past, has been subject to certain accusations. Because the Earth is round, two-dimensional or paper maps sometimes make some countries look larger than they really are. This can be deliberate, in some cases, and cause a map to be more "political" if it makes the "home" nation look larger and a "rival" country seem small. A fictional example occurred on the TV show The West Wing, when the made up group the Cartographers for Social Equality showed how the most common political map in use in the US is quite inaccurate in how it shows the size of countries outside the US. Though the group was fictional, the errors were not.

The traditional projection map used in US textbooks is incorrect in its assessment of size. Notably, Africa looks to be about the same size as Greenland, where it is in fact over ten times as large. The areas that account for the US are also shown to be similar in size to the former Soviet Union and China combined, which is inaccurate.

Part of the error in this type of map is due to an attempt to enlarge things farther from the equator. A new system, called the Gall-Peter map, has been proposed which significantly changes size ratio and makes it more accurate. This map is less politically charged, though still relatively uncommon, and many people who are used to standard projection maps find that it just looks wrong. North and South America look much smaller and less wide, while Asia, by comparison, looks enormous. Africa is also significantly larger.

Some argue that a change to a Gall-Peter political map might contribute to a more socially conscious view of the world, and especially of the United States' place in it. Since this format makes the US smaller and Africa much larger, for example, it can give a clearer sense how the African population is affected by poverty or AIDS.

Such a map does not allow the viewer to dismiss countries in Africa as tiny, but rather shows that they are relatively large and have a big population. In this way, the Gall-Peter map may help depoliticize past views of the world, especially when such views are nationalist or imperialist. Though the map can still be a political map according to its strict definition, it may not carry the political overtones of previous maps.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a CulturalWorld.org contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By pastanaga — On Dec 13, 2012

To me, the main problem with the Gall-Peters map is that it is ugly. I just don't like the look of it, the countries look stretched out.

I guess, really, the problem is that it is almost impossible to create a flat picture of something that is basically round in shape. If you are really interested in looking up the best way of representing the world, be prepared to make up your own mind, because there is definitely no consensus.

What is good though, is that at least in the modern age we can go to Wikipedia and look up which borders are in dispute so we can kind of make up our own minds. An Israel political map, for example, is often going to be very politically charged and having all the facts might be necessary to even grasp what's going on.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 12, 2012

@pleonasm - It's really sad how many people think of Africa as basically a homogeneous wasteland sparsely populated with tribes folk and with very little industry. I guess it's because we never hear the news from there unless it's bad.

Africa holds over a billion people and most of them live in cities, the same as anywhere else. And yes, there is a lot of poverty, but having lived there, I would say that there is a much larger middle class than people expect.

Unfortunately, many of the political borders in Africa are still relatively fresh or disputed and that's where a lot of the tension comes from. Seems like it's difficult to keep updating the map.

By pleonasm — On Dec 11, 2012

@anon291731 - I don't really think it's at all comparable. For one thing, Africa is not a single country, it's a bunch of countries. For another, it's a bunch of extremely different countries, many of which have long, rich histories.

I don't mean to put the USA down at all, but they have only really been making the news in the last few hundred years. Africa includes Egypt, for example, once considered the center of the world. That's just one small piece of it.

Personally, I would change the maps because I believe in accuracy rather than because I think it would make a difference to how we see other countries. People are always going to be self centered and focused on their own little group.

By anon291731 — On Sep 16, 2012

I agree that the size of countries should be depicted correctly on maps, but to say that the physical size of Africa would put the U.S. in perspective, or as I read it, in our place was interesting. I get the undertones of depicting countries' sizes they way they are currently, but just because a country is bigger than another does not diminish the accomplishments of a smaller country.

So what if the US is smaller in geographical size when compared to Africa? Look at all the the US has been able to accomplish. Also, how many areas of Africa are not populated by people?

By anon218084 — On Sep 27, 2011

i think this just helped my history assignment.

By anon119282 — On Oct 17, 2010

It was a good thing I checked this out! I would have gotten a zero on my project!

By anon42034 — On Aug 18, 2009

i didn't really understand this but if i keep reading it then i'll understand it a lot more.

By WGwriter — On Sep 17, 2008

Osmosis,

You raise some great points here. I've actually been delighted with the curriculum at my son's middle and high school when it comes to history, humanities and the like. They do a very good job of discussing history of places like Africa, and I felt he came out of his 7th grade class of world history with a good sense of development of African civilizations, South american Civilizations (pre-colonial) and of the Middle Eastern World. It was a far better education than I got in those topics as a teen. But as my sons point out, I may be prehistoric :) so perhaps they didn't have any history back then :)

By osmosis — On Sep 16, 2008

You can tell how well-funded (or not) a school is by the political maps they have up in their classrooms. A poor school district may still in 2008 have maps that say U.S.S.R. on them, or have two Germanies. Similarly, a lot of maps have Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, or the wrong name for Congo. It's an interesting way to see how neglected schoolchildren are.

Not to mention, of course, that the standard way we use maps in the United States makes it look like South America and Africa are much smaller than they are. Is it any coincidence that those are also the countries that we ignore the history of? Or that have a long history of colonialism? It's just another way to try to diminish them.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a CulturalWorld.org contributor, Tricia...
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