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The Power of Maps - More Than Just a Mirror of Reality!

Maps are not only found in the atlas at school and on Google Maps. Whether political maps, world maps on the climate crisis or to determine a position in the sea rescue: Maps influence our reality! In this article you will learn about the origin of maps and what is important to consider when using them. Test your knowledge in our crossword puzzle!

Black and white drawing. On the left almost only emptiness except at the very bottom beach and slightly above a railroad track. On the right, houses are drawn as mini-squares, so that a densely populated area becomes recognizable.
Maps are supposed to describe reality. But beware: maps describe above all the creator's view of reality!   The map on the left shows the personal world map of a young girl in New York. Everything is centered on her center of life and the edges are fading.   In Europe the world map is centered on Europe, in Japan and China on Asia. Various world maps over the centuries have attempted to recreate the land masses in detail.

Maps: A Useful Tool for Powerful Interests

Below we will introduce you to the main types of maps and why it is so difficult to capture the globe on a map. This is not only about various technical issues, but the representations of the maps also show how power is distributed around the world.

Mercator projection - a map for sailors

World map in Mercator projection. The map is true to the angle and thus well readable for navigation, but the areas of the globe are very distorted and areas at the equator are quasi squeezed while the poles are very far apart.
The first widely used world map is probably also the best known - the Mercator projection, here the upper part of the graphic. But as you can see below, it represents the earth very disproportionately. The farther a place is from the equator, the larger it is shown. So Europe, Russia, North America and the South Pole become giants, while all of Africa and Asia virtually shrink.   However, this map is true to the angle and therefore very helpful for navigation to be able to navigate with compass and map.

Gall-Peters projection - true to scale yet distorted

The Gall-Peters projection represents the world more accurately on the scale of the surface, but this makes the angles impure. Here it is easier to understand how large continents are compared to each other.
James Gall designed this map already in the 19th century. In 1973 Arno Peters made this map design known worldwide. When it turned out that another person had come up with the same idea earlier, the map was named after both people: the Gall-Peters projection.   All areas can be seen in an exact scale as in reality. This gives us a better understanding of how big the continents actually are and shifts the focus away from Europe and North America. See if you could even show Germany to another person! One problem with the map, however, is that there are major angular and shape distortions.

Winkel tripel projection - widely used but still not exact

The world map is displayed in an oval that is wide to the side. This is a compromise between area ratios that are as similar as possible and an angular accuracy that is no longer exact. Red dots illustrate the area ratios, which do not diverge as blatantly as in the Mercator projection, but are still present.
Nowadays, oval or at least rounded maps are often used instead of rectangular ones. This compromise between as little surface distortion as possible and a representation of roundness is not well applicable for technical work, but it is helpful for representing the earth as close to reality as possible. We can often find such maps in climate representations and for illustrating global networks.   The red dots show that this representation is also not exactly true to the surface and the poles are clearly shown too large in relation to places on the equator.

Hobo Dyer Projection - Everything upside down?!

On this map the south is at the top and the map is accordingly unusual to look at. Except the south of the map is used approximately the Gall-Peters projection.
In the Hobo Dyer projection, the land masses are correct in proportion, but the boundary lines are distorted as a result. The original ODT map is printed on two sides, one with north up and the other with south up. This gives the southern hemisphere more visibility. The rotated map is as accurate as the north facing map!

The world is not flat! And maps are never exact. What now?

This knowledge of the inaccuracy and diversity of maps and their interpretations is important in order to quickly classify new information. Take the Mediterranean map below: Without critical contextualization, the large red arrows make it look as if a threat from Africa and Asia is entering Europe.


Frontex map on migration to Europe

The map shows northern Africa and many arrows from different regions, all pointing to Europe. The map is titled: Attack with arrows and too many minorities

That is why it is important to always check the origin of media and information. Knowing that the European border police Frontex, which is known for its human rights violations and regular breaches of the law, has created this map, this way of presentation makes more sense.

Media literacy is the key word. Because the fact that the migration of people is published in a mode of representation that is normally reserved primarily for military tactics is questionable, to say the least. In any case, cartographic means are used here to create a threat scenario that would possibly not even come about through a different color scheme and design of the map.

Another example of how manipulative maps can be can be seen in our next graphic. There, the Bosnian territory was divided into regions according to ethnic affiliation. However, the fact that there are representatives of many other population groups in the regions shown in one color makes this representation largely invisible. The minorities depicted are disproportionately represented.

A map of Bosnia is shown. The respective regions are divided differently overall by five colors. Bar charts show the minorities of the regions, but only inaccurately and incompletely. Only for two cities are the actual proportions indicated by means of a pie chart. The accompanying text states that the mass expulsions in the Bosnian war from 1992 onward caused diversity in the country to disappear - due to new absolute majorities almost everywhere.

How to use maps?

The example of Alarm Phone shows how civil society organizations can make use of maps.This organization provides an emergency hotline for people crossing the Mediterranean and alerts the coast guards of EU countries. By sharing the exact location of the boat and knowing who to contact and how to build pressure, so many people are saved. We have linked you a video (external link, opens in a new window) where the use of a GPS mobile phone is shown.


Enough learning about maps! Now you can test your knowledge and fill in this crossword puzzle for sure! If you want more information about a topic or don't know what to do, click on the tip. There you will often find links to more in-depth articles on the topic.

Good luck!

Critical Mapping Crossword Puzzle

Not Enough of Maps Yet?

Then check out this website where you can move the outlines of all the countries in the world on the map and see the distortions of the projection used. Really great tool! Click here.

Want more info on critical mapping?
We've teamed up with experts to release an entire atlas-sized book - in English - about the power of maps: This Is Not an Atlas brings together more than 40 counter-cartographies from around the world. The first of its kind, this collection shows how maps are created and transformed as part of political struggles, for critical research, or in art and education: From indigenous struggles in the Amazon to the anti-eviction movement in San Francisco, from defending commons in Mexico to mapping refugee camps with balloons in Lebanon....

Get the free ebook here (external link, opens in a new window)!

Want to learn more about the global impact of migration?

Many other important topics are presented in the Atlas of Migration 2022. Either continue clicking through our posts in the atlas below or download the atlas on the right and check it out in full!

Download the Atlas of Migration 2022:

Use and share!

Online article created by Florian Leiner, based on the original article "Maps - In the Service of the Powerful" from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation's Atlas of Migration.

The Atlas of Migration is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution -4.0 international license (CC BY 4. 0) and has original contributions by Dany Bahar, Dorothea Biaback Anong, Johanna Bussemer, Phoebe Daliani, Petra Ezzedine, Alice Fritze, Laura Goßner, Vera Hanewinkel, Thomas Hohlfeld, Florian Horn, Christian Jakob, Yuliya Kosyakova, Michaela Kreyenfeld, Stephan Liebscher, Daniela Majstorovic, Karolina Novinscak, Jochen Oltmer, Barbara Orth, Maria Oshana, Liza Pflaum, Katrin Radtke, Bentley Schieckoff, Bernard Schmid, Antonie Schmiz, Sören Schneider, Alina Schürmann, Eberhard Seidel, Miximilian Sprengholz, Federico Tomasone, Amali Tower, Zuzana Uhde, Laetitia van der Veen, Frances Webber, Bartosz Wielinski.

You can use the individual infographics of this atlas for your own purposes if the copyright notice is
"Bartz/Stockmar, CC BY 4.0" near the graphic, and "Bartz/Stockmar (M), CC BY 4.0" for adaptations.

Maps used in the online article are usable under CC BY SA licenses. Images: Background crossword puzzle, Gall-Peters & angle triple projection: Tobias Jung at

The Power of Maps - More Than Just a Mirror of Reality!

Maps are not only found in the atlas at school and on Google Maps. Whether political maps, world maps on the climate crisis or to determine a position in the sea rescue: Maps influence our reality! In this article you will learn about the origin of maps and what is important to consider when using them. Test your knowledge in our crossword puzzle!

Format: Images and GraphicsReading time: 10

The Atlas of Migration

Learn more about the topic of migration with the Atlas of Migration. Migration is not particular to any one society. Many societies around the world are a result of human mobility. A wide range of myths and racist imagery has emerged around migrants’ movements, often portraying them as threatening.


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