Learning From the Map: How To

Before attempting to learn from the map it is important to recognize the anomaly that is ‘the map’ – the distinct and (largely) universal depiction of the world found in classrooms and IR departments the world over. For the majority of history maps have been scarce, expensive, and largely dictated by utility. In the modern world however the advent of mass information has allowed us to dilute the necessity that had previously allowed maps to reveal a lot about human beings. 

Maps encompass a worldview – mappa mundi from the medival period for example denote the character of regions rather than landmass, a welcome revelation to many constructivists who want to see social constructions like culture and peoples have long shaped our understanding of our own and foreign lands.

Mappa Mundi – the three continents which coast the Mediterranean represented in an almost ying-yang type symmetry.

Likewise other medieval maps depict the paralleled afterlives, with the earthly plane serving as nothing more than a route to above or below. Maps can come to depict more than we intend them to. They involve wants, understandings, assumptions and priorities. I include this at the header because in the process of this exercise it’s important to know that maps help you understand more about three things; what it depicts, who made it, and yourself. I will be explaining what I have learnt and what I have done in this process as I proceed in future posts. The exercise I illustrate below is one I have used to think about the world more clearly and has effectively enhanced my understanding of the world. Hopefully by the end of this exercise you can step back and perhaps learn something too.

Above you can see the finished product of my first attempt (Predictor Alpha). I bought a simple map corkboard online, several boxes of (small) pins and a random assortment of string. All in all a cost effective and satisfying form of study.

How To:

What do you find important? What Distinguishes one nation-state from another? For my first map this main factor was government type represented in blue (democratic), yellow (hybrid), green (authoritarian), white (failed) and red (communistic) pins. This was because my map in part was an attempt to test Democratic Peace Theory, and because my own ideological persuasions lead me to perceive a dialectic between liberty and authoritarianism. This can however be any metric like GDP, cultural, religious or ethnic groupings; those of your own formulation or others.

Strings likewise represent what you believe connects states. This can be, like mine, military alliences and defensive pacts, both official and unofficial (satellite states). I represent military alliences as grey string leading out from the same black pin (see below), and coloured string connecting dependent states to their overseer as I perceive it. I also illustrate wars as black string. It can also however be major trade partners, open movement, aid, or any representation of inter-state tensions. 

 The somewhat precarious network that is NATO.

My focus is currently conflict and the likelihood of a western eclpise, and this method has served as a solid foundation for the issue (I’m terrified). In filling in gaps in my knowledge I never knew where there I understand more about myself, the issue at hand and the map itself.


1: String and pins can be fiddly, plan ahead so that you don’t have to remove a pin once it is attached to string. If you can, use large-headed pins to tie loose ends to. 

2: The bigger the map and smaller the pins/items you have the more room you will have to play with.

3: Get help. If you’re anything like me you are awash with friends are their opinions! Once you’ve laid the groudwork allow them to correct some of your blindspots (or not, if you’re anything like me you are awash with friends with incorrect opinions too).
4: Start over. Don’t force an idea or a prediction to work. If it doesn’t work then you’re wrong, learn to love it. Shed the baggage of bad ideas.

5: Have fun! Set up your favourite podcast, music ir reality tv show that gets you in the mood and enjoy your productivity!

Taman Shud


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