There is a big difference between making maps and having an ability to understand cultural geographical systems, which maps depict, and articulate that information to a customer. Unfortunately, the current trend in business, government, and society overall is a notion that no difference exists between map making and geographical analysis; that is, a widely held belief that a map maker and a geographer are basically one and the same and do identical work.

“They may know where things are, but they have little or no understanding about how they got there, or their significance [in regard to their location and relationships],” once commented a friend of mine—a former chair of an university geography department—about contemporary computer map makers. I tend to agree.

Mapping is Not Understanding

Print a large size map (make sure to print it!) of a particular area and have a map maker conduct a brief of its physical and cultural geography. After a couple of minutes you will notice a considerable struggle in his or her attempt to transition beyond superficial descriptions into a comprehensive conceptual analysis.

After that exercise, bring a bona fide cultural geographer in front of the same map and watch him connect the dots into a meaningful whole, by explaining spatial processes, distributions, and patterns. A geographer will be able to articulate all this with ease and address how changes in conditions (within places) affect changes in connections (between places).

Most importantly, he/she will know what not to include in the brief in order to prevent overwhelming the audience. The difference between the two is simple. For the computer-based map making, having comprehensive spatial analytical skills is no longer perceived to be the main requirement; hence, many map makers come from other disciplines and have an inadequate foundation in human and physical geography.


Figure 1. In a two-dimensional format, maps depict the real world like this in its entire complexity. Being able to explain that complexity is not a mastery of many. (Photo source)


Figure 2. Sometimes conditions can rapidly change in a matter of minutes… (Photo by the author.)

KC2Figure 3. …thereby influencing connections. (Photo by the author.)

Convenient Packaging

In American society, it has been said, we have many fears. Among the things Americans most fear is inconvenience! Business and the government have adopted that sentiment and cater to consumers accordingly. Perhaps this is why, during my career as a geographer, I have observed a continuous decline in people’s ability to think spatially.

One would imagine that abundant data and various interactive maps would lead to a different trend. It seems that instead of engaging our cerebral gear to solve spatial problems, it is more convenient to have some software extension that tells us what to think. As a result, people feel that geographical knowledge is something that can be quickly acquired, like food in a buffet; hence, the widespread belief that everyone can “do geography.”

Let us use an example from the Department of Defense. I recall reading an article about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s (NGA) early efforts to bring Human Geography under its roof and that “the agency does not plan to create a cadre of human geography specialists, but rather to introduce human geography into everyday analysis.” The plan was to do it with “…regular analysts doing this work [emphasis mine]…. Each analyst would apply human geography to his or her work ‘as it makes sense.’” (Source)

Make sense to whom, I ask, if there are no expert geographers around to point out what makes sense, like where conditions on the ground can change in minutes and affect connections with other places? Would they share such an attitude in not employing chemists if the work was in chemistry labs?


Figure 4. Everyone can do a bit of geographic analysis at work, even the Afghan insurgents, but how much does that really help their operational efforts if they are not doing it right?

Quantitative Easing

Because “everyone can do geography” the employers at the Department of Defense add extra work on non-experts, as noted in the instance above. The current cadre still cannot provide an adequate spatial analysis. To compensate for the shortcomings, employers then hire more of the same-type analysts. This, in turn, eventually leads to oversupply of non-expert analysts. The results unsurprisingly remain the same and the problem is perpetuated (NGA has been seriously struggling with the Human Geography program; if it were a private entity it would be out of business by now).


The readers may have noticed that I used the term map maker instead of cartographer. They are far from being synonymous in this context. The latter is an old profession, an acquired expertise that complements a geographer as a mason does to an architect, or a technician to a mechanical engineer. They work together well; the geographer designs and the cartographer implements. Implications of trying to combine two professions into a single analytical position—because of the perceptions and desire for convenience—are simple: even more emphasis is put on acquiring data than on data analysis. And when that approach does not work out…well, the blame is put on not having enough data.

Making Maps and (Not) Understanding Geography: Implications
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