‘Anthropography’: Identity and the Material Mapping of Movement

Patrick Laviolette, UCL/Massey University
Source: Patrick Laviolette
Thirty years ago Malcom Crick (I976) provided an explicit conceptualisation for map usages. His definition for what constitutes a map was that it is “something that is itself a representative device [and] can be employed as a means of representation” (I976: I29). He divided mapping metaphors into two categories: i) those that fit into ‘mirror theory’ where they are iconic reflections of spatial reality; and ii) those that are a part of a ‘semantic field theory’ where they generate a figurative spatial language. Though this simple dichotomy is limiting and perhaps even questionable, Crick was nonetheless able to make the astute claim that the social scientist’s task was to devise methods for reading maps that chart out the worldviews and lifeworlds of different social groups.
Source: Google Earth
Maps are quintessential tools and symbols for geographers and others interested in tourism studies. They form an important component in the results of their research. But the broader cultural use, interpretation and understanding of cartographic images has not been of particular interest outside these fields. Despite a rapidly developing interest in images and visual culture, anthropologists per se have largely overlooked the medium of mapping, at least as far as traditional topographic maps go. The closest parallels that ethnographers have come up with have been in relation to deciphering the ritualistic, navigational/wayfinding, mnemonic and artistic mappings of landscapes or ‘national’ political territories. Such themes are comprehensively developed in the work of Barbara Bender (I992); Alfred Gell (I985) Tim Ingold (2ooo); Susanne Küchler (I996); Maryon McDonald (I989); Howard Morphy (I99I); and Angèle Smith (2003). For instance, Alfred Gell (I985) draws on ethnographic material on the navigational skills of Melanesian seafarers. His work on how to read spatial navigation illustrates the ways in which mapping in Melanesia is often indexical and egocentric. The person references him or herself in relation to known markers. The purpose of mapping in this context is to produce images, the navigational utility of which emanates from their relationship with an imaged spatial grid or cartographic co-ordinates. But what about the non-navigational and metaphorical purposes of these images and artefacts?

With reference to the relationship that exists between maps and identity, recent anthropological research (ASA panel 2007) is beginning to explore the dialectics between the narrative construction of topographical discourse and the embodiment of spatial practice. This ethnographic work – with an emphasis on an approach grounded in material culture studies – suggests that cartographic portraits condition, and are conditioned by, experiential journeys as well as social images which both project and reflect cultural identities. Such spatial projections embed notions of home, belonging and visitation into the fabric of individual and collective perceptions. In highlighting some of the more affective, haptic and kinetic ways of gauging the interactions that people have with the visual imagery and iconography of maps, it posits that maps themselves are powerful social agents, operating as material metaphors in the formulation of social difference. Moreover, by investigating the embodied construction of belonging that takes place through map outlines, this work is interested in evaluating how residents and visitors frame their discursive, visual and sensorial experiences of place. This occurs through a diversity of mapping practices which in cultural terms can perhaps be usefully defined as ‘anthropographic.’
So an obvious point of departure is to ask, beyond the obvious definition ‘the anthropology of maps’, what else would be involved in formulating the realm of anthropography?
Further Reading:

  • ASA panel (2007)
  • Barbara Bender (1992) Theorizing landscapes, and the prehistoric landscapes of Stonehenge.
    Man (N.S.) 27: 735-755.
  • Malcolm Crick (1976) Explorations in Language and Meaning: Towards a Semantic Anthropology.
    London: Malaby Press.
  • Alfred Gell (1985) How to read a map: remarks on the practical logic of navigation. Man (N.S.)
    20 (2): 271-286.
  • Tim Ingold (2000) To journey along a way of life: maps, wayfinding and navigation. In The
    Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London: Routledge.
  • Susanne Küchler (1993) Landscape as memory: the mapping of process and its representation
    in a Melanesian society. In Bender, B. (ed). Landscape – Politics and Perspectives: Oxford: Berg.
  • Maryon McDonald (1989) We Are Not French!: Language, Culture and Identity in Brittany. London:
  • Howard Morphy (1991) Ancestral Connections: Art and an Aboriginal System of Knowledge. Chicago Univ. Press.
  • Angele Smith (2003) Landscape representation: place and identity in nineteenth-century Ordinance Survey maps of Ireland. In Strathern, A. & P. Stewart (eds) Landscape, Memory and History:
    Anthropological Perspectives. London: Pluto Press.


  1. Patrick –
    In relation to your use of the Cornish map, I had a few musings which might be of interest.
    Musing one: It strikes me that the adage of ‘up country’ holds some signification which relates to both isolation and separation from England. I say this because I worked with people who got slightly hot under the collar and concerned to correct me when I used to say I was going down to London. If Cornwall as a rather large peninsula was sticking more northwards up towards Bristol, would the Cornish feel more part of England? So maybe the directionality of the peninsula, ‘pointing’ down and away, from the main landmass helps to create or reinforce a sense of difference.
    I also recalled that the features of westness and southness are emphasised, so
    Lizard point (most southerly), Sennen Cove has or had the ‘last fish n chip
    shop in England/Cornwall’ and of course Land’s End (Isles of Scilly are ignored in these claims).
    Musing two: There’s islands within islands going on here, each with distinct character: island one -Cornwall/beyond Tamar; island two – Penwith/beyond Hayle estuary; island three – the Scillies.
    Musing three: the map or outline emphasises the coastal nature of the county – it literally draws the divide between land and sea and the visual symbols associated with those aspects (sun, sea, beaches) are widely known and
    recognised. It might be interesting to get people to draw the outline of the
    county and see what they come up with?

  2. Hi Hilary,
    Thanks. In relation to your first musing, yes there are many idioms and figures of speech, both in the main versions of Cornish dialect as well as in English as spoken by people in Cornwall, which are directional in nature (e.g. d’reckly, gone round land, where’s it to? etc). I’ve been trying to finish off a paper on the subject entitled ‘Directionality as Cultural Catalyst’ which also refers to cross-cultural examples found particularly in the Austronesian work of Fox (1997) and Senft (1997) as well as in the research of some anthropologists associated with the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics like Hyslop (1999).
    Regarding your third point, indeed the outline is also often compared with that of Italy’s and is further reminiscent for many of a fisherman’s boot, one of the pillar industries of the region. I did get certain informants to draw the outline shape of the Duchy and it was interesting that they unanimously turned A4 sheets of paper lengthwise, as if to frame the narrow peninsula in the same way as one would expect from the representation of a landscape photograph or painting.

  3. Patrick hi,
    As you may know, there is a growing literature on so-called ‘counter-mapping’, much of it the result of anthropologists’ interests in the land rights claims of indigenous peoples. As you’ve suggested, far from being neutral instruments, maps have the power to include and exclude peoples and places. So-called community-mapping or counter-mapping is increasingly employed by indigenous peoples, often with the assistance of anthropologists, to defend and protest their homelands, artefacts and knowledges or to set boundaries and stake claims to customary lands. In the Malaysian state of Sarawak, for example, community maps have featured in court cases mounted by local communities against corporations whose activities threaten to degrade customary lands and forests. Combining detailed knowledge of their homelands with the techniques and manner of representation of dominant groups, “maps drawn by communities utilize memory (oral histories) and markers (fruit trees, sites of old settlements) as tools for claiming territory and customary rights” (Majid Cooke 2003, 266).
    Often remarkably detailed and including a great many named places and other spatial associations that go unrecorded in conventional topographical maps, the everyday mapping and map making of local communities can mount challenges to state hegemony, act as a medium of empowerment and resistance, help bolster claims to land and other resources, and (re)establish community bonds, as well as project, reflect and reinforce cultural identities.
    (See for instance)
    Mac Chapin, Zachary Lamb, and Bill Threlkeld (2005). Mapping indigenous lands. ‘Annual Review of Anthropology’, 34: 619-638
    Fadzilah Majid Cooke (2003). Maps and counter-maps: globalised imaginings and local realities of Sarawak’s plantation agriculture. ‘Journal of Southeast Asian Studies’, 34 (2): 265-284.
    Nancy Lee Peluso (1995). Whose woods are these? counter-mapping forest territories in Kalimantan, Indonesia. ‘Antipode’, 27 (4): 383-406.

  4. Dear Robert,
    Thanks for those insightful comments and references. When I made the passing reference to the mapping of ‘national’ political territories, especially in thinking about the work of Howard Morphy (ANU) in the Northeast Arnhem Land of Australia, the issues you raise about land claim rights are indeed the ones I had in mind. Although Morphy does not use the term counter-mapping, his work on the secret art of sand drawings and bark carvings have been for 30 years now tied to the ways in which certain forms of art acts to map out local knowledge and expressions of place that have been highly relevant to aboriginal court cases in the Northern territory of Australia.
    Morphy, H. 1977. The ownership of the sea in north-east Arnhem Land, Submission to the Joint Standing Committee on Land Rights, Hansard, 3rd May, pp. 1100-12.
    Best wishes,

  5. Hi Patrick,
    I suppose there might be a larger paradox as well. I would agree that the shape of Cornwall has become a more iconic symbol in the past decade or two and I’m sure you’re right to stress the importance of this. But the paradox is that this encourages adopting meanings and tropes of separateness and autonomy at the very time that there is a scalar shift away from the Cornish scale.
    Foucault may have a point in that power flows and does not reside anywhere but to my mind power at the least is adhering around the peak institutions of regional governance. It would also be interesting to see how you incorporate John Angarrack’s (Our Future is History – 2002) work into your ‘counter-hegemonic project’ as this isn’t an attempt to re-design the map of a disembodied Cornwall but to deconstruct elite maps of Cornwall in the English/British context.

  6. Dear Bernard,
    Thanks, you’re posing an interesting and complex question which, if I understand the subtext correctly, is particularly pertinent in terms of the many debates about European identity, integration and ethnicity statuses. I’ll refrain from commenting here since I’d be on rather uncertain terrain but I do agree that a valuable part of Foucault’s ambition was to point out the more insidious forms of institutional power. I also agree that in his book Angarrack is raising quite different issues to mine when analysing the historical mappings of Cornwall. What I would add, however, is that the very cover of the volume falls exactly into my argument about the use of the iconic logo/shape as a marker of distinction.
    All best,

  7. In response to the realm of ‘anthropography,’ I immediately think of the The Pianta Grande di Roma (“Great Plan of Rome”), but most often referred to as the Nolli Plan. Giambattista Nolli ‘s 1748 map of Rome is one of the most significant physical representations of a specific location. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to include this map within your research. This map of Rome set a historical and anthropological precedent for “mapping,” and what can be defined as an urban form. As an undergraduate student in architecture, one of my first projects was to diagram over the Nolli plan and find hidden secrets within the plan, such as the way it defines spaces as public or private. The grayscale color is an effective medium in reflecting cultural and national identities. Voids and figures of the city are easily revealed and are narrative symbols of the most basic questions on the relationships between individual and cities. One could easily go into depth on the means in which the Nolli plan is a substantial material artifact. However, it may not be necessary to dive this deep, as the plan has its own material narrative in that which is “anthropographic.”
    I must also note, that the University of Oregon has recently gotten permission to create an interactive Nolli plan on their website. Necessary to the sheer size of the original engraved plates, the noli plan has been adapted to a digital medium readily available for any online map readers. The event of this website is a cartographic narrative worth investigating, and perhaps even more so, navigating.
    Abigail Henry

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