When you read a book, usually you take into account who the author is. You do this because you are aware that who the author is will inevitably change the perspective from which the book is written. Especially when it comes to history, authorship is important–reading a book about United States history written by a self-defined white conservative will yield a different story than reading a book about U.S. history written by a Native American historian, for example.
Truth and knowledge are situated locationally and temporally, and are tied up in existing power structures.
When you read a map, do you know who the author is? Do you read the map as absolutely accurate and true to reality? Most people have been taught to read maps–and perhaps also history books–uncritically.
But it is important to remember that maps have historically been used by people in power to legitimize the creation of new territories, to justify the enclosure of certain geographical areas and the colonization of the people and ecologies within them. Cartography, or the science or practice of drawing maps, has historically existed as a field authoritatively defined by institutions of state and capital. Similar to history books, atlases have been introduced to students as tools to teach citizenship, to illustrate the physical world within which a citizen subject will learn to live and work.
If maps are signs and symbols, then similar to texts, they are authored, and must be read critically: critical cartography is the practice of scrutinizing existing maps, or “deconstructing” them, and creating new ones that counter dominant narratives.
My research involves learning how to be a critical cartographer, and applying those skills to a historical, socioeconomic analysis of Pittsburgh. I am interested in how marginalized communities articulate collective identity and agency spatially, and what it can look like to illustrate that via maps.
When making maps, thinking about audience is extremely important: what are you trying to communicate, and to whom? Whose story are you telling, or showing, and why is it important? In the book This is Not an Atlas, many counter-cartographies from around the world are collected. Most of them are authored collectively and many are used as a tool for action. If the aim is to communicate information with a neighborhood about eviction rates within the area and how they have changed over time in relation to city-wide gentrification, the data cannot be represented in a way that is only accessible to social science scholars in the university. It might make way more sense to create a digital map with oral histories attached to it, and pair it with a mural in that neighborhood with a call-the-wall feature so people can still listen to the oral narratives on the spot, like the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project did in the Bay Area. I hope that by looking at more examples like these, I can learn about different ways to present my research to Pittsburgh in a way that is accessible and meaningful.
(More maps from the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project can be found on https://antievictionmap.com/)