The Role of Maps
in Virtual Research Methods
the map is a help provided to the imagination through the eyes.
Henri Abraham Chatelain, Atlas Historique (1705)
Mapping provides a uniquely powerful means to classify, represent and communicate information about places that are too large and too complex to be seen directly. Importantly, the places that maps are able to represent need not be limited to physical, geographical spaces like cities, rivers, mountain ranges and such like: maps can be used to represent online spaces of computer-mediated communication (Dodge and Kitchin 2001a, 2001b). This chapter makes the case for the use of maps as an addition to existing methods in virtual research.
Maps have long been useful in research into social phenomena. They provide a key technique in human geography of course, but they are also used in other disciplines such as archaeology, history and epidemiology, to store spatial information, to analyse data and generate ideas, to test hypotheses, and to present results in a compelling, visual form (Monmonier 1993). Mapping as a method of inquiry and knowledge creation also plays a role in the natural sciences, in disciplines such as astronomy and particle physics, and in the life sciences, as exemplified by the metaphoric and literal mapping of DNA by the Human Genome Project (Stephen S. Hall 1992).
The ability to create and use maps is one of the most basic means of human communication, at least as old as the invention of language and, arguably, as significant as the discovery of mathematics. The recorded history of cartography clearly demonstrates the practical utility of maps in all aspects of Western society, being most important for organising spatial knowledges, facilitating navigation and controlling territory (Thrower 1996). Some have gone further, to argue that mapping processes are culturally universal, evident across all human societies (for example, Blaut et al. 2003), although the visual forms of the resulting map artefacts are very diverse. At the same time maps are also rhetorically powerful graphic images that frame our understanding of the human and physical world,