Maps and Power

By Davies, Stephen | Freeman, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Maps and Power


Davies, Stephen, Freeman


The modern world (meaning since the later eighteenth century) is different in several profound ways from earlier times. One of the most important of these is the nature and power of government. Modern States can do things beyond the reach of earlier ones, however large or aggressive. This expanded capacity is a feature of modern government whether it is actually used or not: It is always there as a possibility. The kind of extensive government we have now, the range of activities it undertakes, and the degree of control and regulation exercised by political elites over everyday human affairs were simply not possible in earlier times. Whether or not this capacity is used depends on beliefs, ideas, and interests, but the capacity itself has a different source. It derives from "technique," a category that includes technology but has a wider meaning. Above all it includes ways of organizing and understanding information.

In this context a key technique and one of the most important foundations of the modern State is the map. The apparently neutral art of cartography is actually one of the main sources of modern political power. The most important aspect of this is the cadastral map or survey. Unlike a topographical map, it does not simply record the natural features of the terrain. It also captures, in a radically simplified and systematized form, a huge amount of knowledge of such matters as ownership, rights and entitlements, values, social relations, and obligations.

Cadastral Surveys

Maps and surveys of this kind were found to some degree in the ancient world but they disappeared with much else of the governing power of the great empires of antiquity during the sixth and seventh centuries. Such maps began to reappear during the late Renaissance, initially in Italy, latterly in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom.

Before the creation of a cadastral survey this knowledge existed in the form of dispersed and tacit knowledge, scattered among many people and only accessible to those in a locality and then only partially. In this situation many kinds of action by rulers, particularly taxation but also control and regulation of the physical environment and people's use of the land, were difficult or even impossible.

Cadastral surveys do not capture all this dispersed knowledge or even the greater part of it. They do, however, capture a significant part in a way that makes it simplified, standardized, and systematically organized or structured. This enormously increases the ability of rulers to act on society and control or direct human interactions, and so in turn to have great influence on the outcome of those interactions, whether intentionally or unintentionally. This point is explored by James C. Scott in his work Seeing Like a State.

The history of the United States shows this last point clearly. One of the first things undertaken by the government of the newly established republic in 1785 was a cadastral survey of the Northwest territories, which was subsequently expanded to all of the territory of the United States apart from the original colonies. This was the Public Lands Survey System, which has become a model for similar systems in many parts of the world. The initial idea was to use this capacity to create a society of independent freeholders. However, it has been used both consciously and unintentionally to very different ends.

The very act of capturing information in this way and the power it gave to rulers to direct and control the use of the land by private individuals and corporations meant that decisions made by the political class now had a huge influence on the course of settlement and development. All kinds of possibilities were excluded while others could be encouraged or directed. …

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