Review of Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS

Review of Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS

Book by Jeremy W. Crampton, University of Kentucky

Review by Russell S. Kirby, University of South Florida

Review of Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS


Most students of cartographic science develop an understanding of mapping methods within a framework devoid of discussions of ideology and values: of the role they play in shaping how maps are made and what they mean to those who read them. As an undergraduate and graduate student in the 1970s, my understanding of social geography was greatly influenced by the philosophy of science as embodied largely in the logical positivist framework, together with an interest in the study of the origins of concepts and theories to which the spatial perspective could be applied. As I studied cartographic methods, it all seemed very straightforward—the cartographer sought to provide a legible map that displayed the results of a geographic analysis, in a manner that either conveyed those findings directly, or raised additional questions based on the spatial patterns revealed on the map. As the years have passed, I’ve come to realize that, as with so many other topics we study, there are stories within stories. Like the layers of an onion, they are revealed only as one peels each one off and finds another beneath.

In this text of relatively modest length (184 pages not including end matter), Jeremy Crampton seeks to unpeel the layers of the figurative onion of cartography and geographic information systems (GIS) in order to provide both a broad and in-depth introduction to these fields. While others have covered this material before, what sets Crampton’s effort apart is his focus on critical cartography and GIS. When approached from this perspective, the discourse changes from one focusing on the mechanical aspects of map production and visual perception, to one in which the purpose of the map, the cultural context of the mapmaker, and the socio-political structures within which the cartographer is employed, bear significantly on the making and meaning of the map.

Mapping consists of thirteen chapters. In the first two, Crampton provides a basis for why this book was written, what the critical approach entails and why that approach is needed. To get the most out of this book, readers must make a conceptual frame-shift from GIS and cartography as mapping methods to a consideration of the historical dimensions and context of the mapping tradition. The second chapter, “What is Critique?,” is especially useful in describing the analytical approach the author takes for the remainder of the book.

Mapping next examines, in no particular order, the role of computing technologies and the World Wide Web in changing the ways that maps are conceptualized and generated by mapmakers and map users alike. Other chapters exploring related topics include those on “Geosurveillance and Spying with Maps” and “Cyberspace and Virtual Worlds.” While some of the topics Crampton discusses are already out of date, the general tone of the discourse is on target.

The chapter “How Mapping Became Scientific” explores the evolution of cartography as a scientific discipline, which is largely a mid-twentieth century phenomenon. Crampton emphasizes the role of Arthur Robinson in creating a scientific basis for cartography and in espousing a set of design principles as described and elaborated in the many editions of his standard textbook, Elements of Cartography (this reviewer was introduced to the subject with the 3rd edition1). Crampton argues that because Robinson’s approach neglected to consider the inter-relationships among maps, power, and knowledge, in providing a scientific foundation for the field of cartography it also generated an “ontologic crisis” that has taken several decades to resolve. Succeeding chapters explore the role of maps in politics and political economics, the Peters projection and its political history, and recent developments in the field of GIS.

Two other chapters deserve special mention. Crampton devotes one chapter to a discussion of the relationship between mapping and the socio-political construction of the concept of race through an exploration of the origins of ethnographic and racial mapping, with several examples from 19th and early 20th Century maps. This chapter, however, would benefit from a broader reading in the anthropological, sociological and public health literature on race as a cultural rather than a biological construct, and from a discussion of how race is measured in public data sources. Crampton also included a chapter on “The Poetics of Space: Art, Beauty, and Imagination,” in which he explores the role of art and imagery in mapping.

In a book of this nature, intended to be thoughtprovoking rather than academically exhaustive, the author could not reference every major figure and influential work, but it is interesting to note that the bibliography references none of the writings of either Edward Tufte or Jacques Bertin. As well, at times Crampton writes in an overly familiar style that borders, in several places, on the autobiographical. Still, although readers active in the fields of cartography, geography and/or GIS from the 1950s to the turn of the century will most definitely react to some of the characterizations of individuals, articles, books and dialogues important to the development of the field during this period, on balance, at least from this reviewer’s perspective, Crampton’s discourse is generally on the mark.

That said, Crampton’s text may not be for everyone. A casual reader with no previous training in cartography may find this book tedious and argumentative, but for those with some coursework or formal training in GIS or cartography the discourses may ring true. As a course text, this book would be more suited to an advanced course or graduate seminar. Geography and map libraries should certainly consider adding it to their collections, and for the academic cartographer or geographer, it is a book well worth reading.


1. Robinson, Arthur H., and Randall D. Sale. 1969. Elements of Cartography. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


  • There are currently no refbacks.