Projecting Maps, Making Representations

merc2.jpgThis resource compares four different world maps. Its goals are to encourage critical thinking about maps as representations and to show how maps influence the ways in which one conceptualizes the world.

There is not a specific state standard for 9-12 Geography that deals with map distortion, though many teachers may find this useful as an introductory activity or an exercise in critical thinking.

This lesson addresses state teaching standards:

IV. HISTORICAL SKILLS B. Historical Resources: 1. Students will identify, describe, and extract information from various types of historical sources, both primary and secondary. 2. Students will assess the credibility and determine appropriate use of different sorts of sources.

V. GEOGRAPHY B. Essential Skills: The student will use maps, globes, geographic information systems, and other databases to answer geographic questions at a variety of scales from local to global.


Although often mistakenly understood to provide an objective and authoritative mirror of the earth's surface, maps are really only representations. The earth is not flat, and as a result, the process of projecting it onto a flat surface to make a map always creates some sort of distortion. Because maps are powerful representations that heavily inform our conceptualizations of the world around us, it is important to understand how maps are constructed and how certain representations of the world have become naturalized and taken for granted. Cartographers have over time developed numerous projections of the world for different purposes. The perspectives and interpretations of a map's creator as well as specific social and historical contexts shape how the world is mapped. Map maker Gerhardus Mercator designed a world map in 1569, for instance, with characteristics useful for nautical navigation. This map, called the Mercator Projection, became the standard map used in European and American classrooms into the twentieth century. In order to achieve navigational accuracy, however, it increased the size of areas farther from the equator. Greenland appeared larger than either South America or Africa, even though South America is eight times as large as Greenland and Africa is fourteen times as large. Other projections raise different concerns. Correcting the limitations of the Mercator Projection and preserving a more accurate representation of the area of land masses may misrepresent shapes or result in other distortions.

The following sources consist of four maps using different projections, and therefore producing different representations. The first map is an example of the Mercator Projection. The second map, called the Mollweide Projection, accurately represents the relative surface area of land masses. The third map shifts its center point so that the 180th Meridian, rather than Europe or North America, sits at the center of the page. The fourth map flips the world upside down, complicating popular phrases like "The Land Down Under" and "The Global South."


Mercator Projection

Mollweide Projection (equal area)

Pacific Centered (Robinson Projection)

World Upside Down (Mollweide Projection)

Discussion Questions

(1) Think about the relative size of objects and their location on the Mercator Projection. How does it represent the world? What geographical areas, regions, and continents are featured most prominently?

(2) How do the other three maps represent the world? Contrast these representations with those depicted in the Mercator Projection.

(3) How does each map influence the reader's conception of the world? Consider especially the ways in which maps could be used to promote specific agendas (e.g. nationalism, colonialism, Euro/American-centrism).

Classroom Activity

(1) Students construct local maps on the basis of the four above maps. They may use the school, their house, Minnesota as the focal point in a map that mirrors the distortions of the Mercator map.

Suggested Readings

Akerman, James R., and Robert W. Karrow, Jr. 2007. Maps: Finding Our Place in the World. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.

Harley, John B. 1989. Deconstructing the map. Cartographica 26 (2): 1-20.

Raat, W. Dirk. 2004. Innovative Ways to Look at New World Historical Geography. The History Teacher 37(3): 281-306.

Saarinen, Thomas F., Michael Parton, and Roy Billberg. 1996. Relative size of continents on world sketch maps. Cartographica 33(2): 37-47.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by blum0135 published on October 1, 2000 2:25 AM.

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