November 05, 2018

The Social Construction of Geography

Jonathan Wynn (1)By Jonathan Wynn

Ever since I was a kid I loved maps. How are maps sociological? They seem to just be objective reality, right; elevations, physical roads, and directions from point A to point B.

You might be surprised at just how much of a social construction our human geography is. I used to pore over maps, looking at the street systems, all the neighborhoods. Where did that name come from? Mapmaking—or, cartography—might seem to be an objective science. But it is not the mere reporting of the names of towns and directions of streets. Mapping is a social science!

A major resource on thinking about the social dynamics of mapping is Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. By studying Southeast Asia, Anderson notes that nations are largely social constructions, and they are generated and perpetuated by three major forces: museums, censuses, and maps. (You can read some of the key ideas here.)

The museum re-creates, crystalizes, and objectifies history. The census, for Anderson, is not just the creation of particular ethnic and racial categories, but their “systematic quantification.” Anderson says that a map is “a model for, rather than a model of, what it purported to represent.... It had become a real instrument to concretize projections on the Earth’s surface.” Nations, for Anderson, are real. They are just imagined in the sense that they are both created and they are constructed as imaginings, since we will only ever meet a fraction of the people in our supposed nations. (Think about the idea of imagined communities while looking at this 11 Nations map of the United States.)

It’s not just nation building in history or in other parts of the world. This is happening in the U.S. in real time! Neighborhoods and communities are reshaped everywhere. Take a minute on Google Maps and go find a city neighborhood. Any neighborhood. Where did the name of the neighborhood come from? The map says that this flat New York City neighborhood is called “Murray Hill.” It says that this neighborhood in San Francisco is called the “East Cut.” Where did that come from?

The New York Times recently reported on how San Francisco’s neighborhoods are being re-imagined through Google Maps. Residents of the “East Cut,” it turns out, were quite surprised to find out that they were living in the “East Cut.” They thought they were living in “Rincon Hill”

(It’s possible that this is an erasure of the Mexican American history of the city.)

In Detroit a city planner noticed that Google was using names of neighborhoods and boundaries from a map locals had posted online, right down to including the typos: “Fiskhorn” became “Fishkorn.” Reaffirming Anderson, the article also includes the story of an architect who lives in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles. He told the paper that he started calling the area “Silver Lake Heights” in advertisements for a rental property as a joke but to his surprise, the name showed up on Google Maps. “You see a name like that on a map” he told the paper, “and you believe it.” Maps make meanings of community: now real estate listings use the term!

Who gets to name communities? What technologies are at work, and who is able to control whose communities get (re)imagined and how they are (re)imagined? Naming matters a great deal. Recently there has been a wave of renaming schools and parks so they don’t honor historical figures who were racist or supporters of slavery: Ten in Texas alone. And while we’re talking about the Lone Star State, there’s even a little debate over changing the name of Austin, Texas, since Stephen F. Austin was a great defender of slavery. Naming is honoring, and reproducing the celebration of bad men.

Maps can, of course, reveal a lot too. They are readable, and they can be diagnostic. Steven Johnson wrote a fantastic urban history book, The Ghost Map, the story of the 1853 cholera outbreak. It has everything: a deadly disease, a tale of scientific inquiry triumphing over myth (social research over the miasma hypothesis), compelling protagonist (the premiere London anesthesiologist who uses shoe-leather and sociological research to solve the riddle, and a young priest who uses his neighborhood-level knowledge for crucial assistance).

Deaths were assumed to have something to do with bad air (miasma), and that theory led to questions about elevation, leading researchers to believe that inner-city dwellers at once were to blame for the miserable conditions they were in, but also to explain how elites who lived in places like Hampstead were spared. (The result of the 19th Century outbreak was about 1,000 London deaths.) In truth, the communities at higher elevations were free not from bad air but from the contaminated water. Only a ghost map of all the deaths helped scholars discover that the deaths were all clustered around drinking wells (You can listen to the author talk about it here).

Using new research on neighborhoods and economic opportunity, another New York Times article, “Detailed New National Maps Show How Neighborhoods Shape Children for Life,” uses data visualization through maps to great effect:

In other communities, the researchers envision that this mapping could help identify sites for new Head Start centers, or neighborhoods for “Opportunity Zones” created by the 2017 tax law. Children from low-opportunity neighborhoods, they suggest, could merit priority for selective high schools.

For any government program or community grant that targets a specific place, this data proposes a better way to pick those places — one based not on neighborhood poverty levels, but on whether we expect children will escape poverty as adults.

The Times article automatically generates a map based on your ISP address , so you should see the area around you when you log in. If you want to dig deeper into mapping, see if your institution subscribes to PolicyMap. They have data on healthcare, education, crime and tons more, all based on census tracts, zip codes. It has been a great tool for me in my research on urban healthcare.

Everyday Sociology Blog editor Karen Sternheimer wrote a blog post about road trips, and now you can hit the road with the social construction of geography in mind!

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