TOK Tuesdays

The Map as Metaphor – Part 2

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

Bringing it down to street level:  We have seen that since maps cannot display all the information that is contained in the world, they have to make choices of what they are going to present.  The map, after all, is not the territory. And, among those choices are the type and quantity of information to include as well as the scale (size), orientation, and the projection of the map. These choices will be determined, wholly or in part, by the purpose the map will serve. 

It seems to me that these previous maps are at such a small scale (and thus display a vast territory) that it may be helpful to move to more large scale maps and therefore explore a smaller, and perhaps more familiar territory. In the following images we can see several depictions of the city of London.  Again, each of these maps depict, essentially, the same “territory,” or the same physical location. But, the map maker couldn’t include everything, and so had to ask the question, “What is the purpose of this map?” and then included the information that best suits that outcome.  For example, map # 7, depicting the London Underground, doesn’t even try to show you what is on the street surface of London, but it will prove a useful tool to travel on the Underground. 

 

Image #7 File:London Underground Overground DLR Crossrail map.svg
Attribution: Sameboat [CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Image # 8, a “London Tourist Map” wouldn’t prove very useful in navigating the underground, but would certainly help you plan a sightseeing day around the city.  And, while map #9 won’t really help you travel anywhere, this map of London showing levels of income deprivation might prove very useful if you were looking for a good neighborhood in which to buy a flat, which areas to avoid when buying a flat, or where you might most effectively place social services. 

Coming back around to TOK:  Similar to the way these maps function, we can extend our metaphor to include the Areas of Knowledge in TOK. An Area of Knowledge attempts to “map”  the “territory” of a specific body of knowledge. For example, the Natural Sciences are seeking to describe (map) the Natural World. A discipline within that Area of Knowledge, like Biology, is then “mapping” the physical processes and structures of living organisms. Just as no map can include all the information about the world, an Area of Knowledge will only be able to describe a portion of the (potential) knowledge in any given area. Maps (which take the form of formulas, models, equations, laws and theories etc.) will never equal the territory but can depict particular slices of it. 

Picture a World Atlas, full of many different maps of the same territory. Some maps show topography, others vegetation or precipitation patterns, while still others still may display population distribution. Each map has a particular and specialized function, and together they form a solid representation of the Territory, but are still inferior to the real deal. The Areas of Knowledge are like a Grand Atlas of Knowledge, in which an Area of Knowledge describes or maps a particular section in that atlas. Each Area of Knowledge uses a specific set of filters and displays only the appropriate portion of knowledge it is designed for. In the chart below we can fill in the blanks to help us understand the knowledge/territory each Area of Knowledge maps.

There is a powerful message here for the IB student. The chart above implies that each Area of Knowledge has a corresponding territory of knowledge that it best represents. But life is never that neat and easy. The reality is that knowledge areas overlap and often compete. Sometimes in the margins between the two, a beautiful synergy emerges. I think here about how the marriage of quantitative and qualitative data produces fantastic results in the Human Sciences and how mathematical approaches can aid in understanding the natural world, for example in the juxtaposition of biology and mathematics in the mapping of the Human Genome.  

But what happens when that intersection is less neat, or less orderly?  Can ethics describe, or map, the territory of the natural world? Conversely, how can the Natural Sciences map the territory of Faith and Worship?  This doesn’t mean that they don’t try. And, here, problems emerge. The map now is of the wrong territory.  Imagine trying to use your London Underground Map to navigate the streets of London.  It isn’t that the map is wrong, it is that we have chosen to use it for a purpose it was never intended.  In building knowledge, we have to choose the appropriate map, just like we have to choose the correct methodology and area of knowledge depending on the knowledge territory we are trying to navigate.  Just as we don’t use a hammer on a screw, we need the right tool for the right job. 

It might seem easier to just try to avoid these conflicts. I could say to you, “Choose easy and straightforward maps,” and you will be sure “to find the correct route,” whether your destination is knowledge or an actual physical locale.  The easiest pathway might be to try to isolate those Areas of Knowledge that don’t seem natural partners. But, this convenient evasion would ignore the fact that sometimes, in knowledge, we need to facilitate “arranged marriages.” Science, for example, does not naturally seek ethical restraints, it just wants to experiment and learn, and so it needs a little Ethics, the layering together of these strange bedfellows is often a necessary condition on the knowledge journey. 

By guest author Daryl Hitchcock.

References:

Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018

Turnbull, David, and Helen Watson. Maps are territories: science is an atlas : a portfolio of exhibits. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.

Further Reading: 

An online exhibit of Turnbull’s excellent book is available here

A link to Korzybski’s original article from which the metaphor is derived, here  

Our brain as a map, here

How maps shape our mind, here

How digital maps change our notion of “getting lost”, here


TOK Tuesdays

The Map as Metaphor – Part 1

If your school does not have an institutional subscription to Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal you can now sign up for an individual teacher or student subscription. Annual individual subscriptions cost only $99 and provide unlimited access to all resources that are part Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal.

The IBDP Portal provides a strong pedagogical framework through a user-friendly interface. Teachers and students can access a unique collection of engaging, authoritative videos in different formats plus helpful supporting materials for the Extended Essay, for TOK, to integrate TOK across the DP curriculum and motivational and curriculum-related resources across 21 DP subjects for teaching and learning. 

Maps help us order and organize the world:    I truly love maps. Maps stir the heart to adventure, they tickle the imagination and inspire wanderlust. Maps are both beautiful and useful and they hint at endless possibilities. Maps guide us (they tell us where to go); maps orient us (they point us in a certain direction); and maps place us in context (they tell us what is around us).  But, and herein lies the inherent problem with maps, in attempting to depict a three dimensional sphere on a two dimensional plane, maps also warp the world. They stretch it out and fatten it up; they shrink and flatten; they tell half truths and white lies in order to tell their stories. Ultimately, as Mark Monmonier (see footnote 1 below) tells us, all maps lie.  And, they have to, otherwise they would overwhelm the reader out of sheer size and/or density of information.  

Below, in images #1 and #2, are a couple of my favorite maps.  It is ok if you didn’t recognize them immediately as maps. Most people wouldn’t necessarily make that connection the first time they see them.   Maybe you would prefer if your maps were printed on paper, or more likely today in the form of a google map, and to follow certain standard conventions.  These “maps” were navigational aids for natives of Greenland and the Marshall Islands respectively, and they are clearly not your standard fare.  The first shows coastal formations, the notches on the wood showing inlets and waterways, while the second shows islands (the cowrie shells) and currents and swells lines (the sticks) in the South Pacific.  They were useful tools in order to organize, order and navigate the world their creators lived in, but they probably challenge conventional notions of what makes a good map.

Since this is a TOK article, you might find it normal if these maps seem a bit confusing.  Whether you have just started the IB Diploma programme, are nearly done, or find yourself somewhere in between, you are probably already aware that many students find their IB Theory of Knowledge course challenging.  This course, unlike other IB classes, is not content centered.  There is no set of core systems, equations, close readings or vocabulary terms that one must memorize or master to successfully complete this course. Nor is there a list of dates, facts and terms that you can simply memorize to pass a quiz or a test. 

Theory of Knowledge might sometimes feel a bit like a philosophy class and at other times like a debate class, and there are seldom objectively “right answers.”  You are asked to consider big questions regarding the formation and foundation of knowledge, and to compare those claims across various academic disciplines and areas of knowledge, and for those of you casting about for a safety net, the answer to every other odd question is not found in the back of the book.  In fact, you are probably asking yourself, “What book?

The Map Metaphor and the IB:  You might also be asking yourself what maps have to do with Theory of Knowledge.  This is a fair question. In the current iteration of the IB guide, and continuing into the next guide coming online in 2020, the IB has urged that teachers help their students to understand “The Map Metaphor.”  This metaphor, first put forward by Alfred Korbyski tells us that “the map is not the territory.”  “Wait,” you might be saying, “I thought a map was a depiction of some territory?”  This may be true, but, essentially, he is claiming that the elements (whether words, maps, models or formulas) we use to depict a real thing are not actually the same as the reality they represent.  They are instead limited models, abstractions, or depictions of only a certain part (or parts) of that reality.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I am asked to use a complex metaphor to understand an even more difficult concept, I get a funny feeling in my stomach. That feeling tells me that this might be a difficult concept that needs some serious unpacking.  With that in mind, in this article I want to try to do three things. Firstly, I want to spend a little time explaining what metaphors are, and how they can help us to understand complex problems. Then I will look at the rich world of maps to help us understand what maps are, and how they might help you better understand the worlds they represent.  Finally, I will look at how Areas of Knowledge might function as types of “maps” and how they might best display that knowledge.  

Why we use Metaphors:  Metaphors are useful tools that help you to scaffold your understanding of a new idea or concept. They can make the strange seem familiar.  The metaphor then creates a link between the known idea, and the new concept. In image #3 (below) you can see that we are constantly using metaphors to understand the world around us. Maps are just one type of metaphor. 


Image #3:  https://importanceofbeingvisual.com/2018/06/12/using-visual-metaphors/

Each Map tells a story, just not the whole story: Let’s return back to our maps.  Most of us are familiar with world maps. You might have one hanging in your classroom, or even on the wall in your bedroom.  In images 4, 5, and 6 you can see three different world maps. While each map is a “World Map” they can each only depict a portion of that world, and, as you can quickly see, they are very different.  The first (image 4) is a medieval world map. You might not have even recognized it as a map. At first glance it would be easy to dismiss it as dated (which it certainly is) or wildly inaccurate. And, you would be correct in doing so if you were trying to use this map as a navigational tool or as a way to find current national borders.  But, to dismiss it out of turn as inaccurate would be to dismiss the purpose of this map. In some regards this map depicts the world of the medieval mapmaker (and those who would have consulted it) more accurately than the maps that follow. Unlike the maps that you are probably more familiar with, it is oriented (pointed) toward the East (toward Jerusalem) and divides the known continents between the sons of Noah as described in the Old Testament. It portrays a world-view that is consistent within the context it was constructed.

In the following images (5 and 6) we return to more familiar looking territory. These two maps depict the world using two of the most common map projections, the Mercator projection and the Gall-Peters projection.  Map projections allow the map maker to display a three dimensional object (the globe) on a two dimensional plane (the map) but there are always sacrifices to be made.  The first (Mercator) preserves lines of constant reckoning and relative shape thus allowing it to serve as a navigational aid, but it enlarges certain areas, making them appear much larger (e.g. Greenland and Canada) than they really are.   The Gall-Peters projection, on the other hand, preserves relative size while distorting shape. Additionally, the Mercator map shows political divisions and countries, while the Gall-Peters shows topography. In order to evaluate which of these maps is the best or most accurate map then, the first question you would have to ask would be, “for what purpose is the map going to be used?”  Is it a concept map, a navigational aid, a political map, or something else entirely? The “best” map then is, at least in part, determined by the usefulness of the map.

  1. Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. pg 1.

Acknowledgments by guest author Daryl Hitchcock: 

I would like to mention the influence of Matthew Edney Ph.D. Matthew is the Osher Professor in the History of Cartography, at the University of Southern Maine. He is also the Project Director of the History of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and many, many years ago now he planted the seeds for this article.  I hope upon reading this he would find that I remembered something and that I got it at least partially correct.