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I've been researching the concept of Eurocentrism, an ideology that views the world from a very European perspective. It's seen in literature, in academia, in world history, and perhaps even in cartography, as I've just found out.

I found information on two types of world maps, the Mercator Projection map and the Gall-Peters Map. Supposedly, the Mercator Projection map is inaccurate, and an example of the political influences on map design. The Gall-Peters projection map as I've read, was a sort effort to counter that. The idea is that in the Mercator map, Europe is seen as a much larger land mass and appears reasonably large compared to the Gall-Peters projection, which shows Europe as a much smaller mass, almost insignificant, when compared to regions like Africa.

So my curiosity brought me here. What is the accepted map projection of the world among Geographic Information Specialists and Cartographers and experts operating in related fields? Is the relation between the map projections and Eurocentric perspectives too much of a stretch? Is it neither? I'd love to hear from you all.

Much thanks.

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Compared to other equal-area projections, Gall-Peters' defining aspect is "squishes Africa horizontally to make Europe look normal", so 'complains loudly about eurocentrism in competitors' clearly isn't the same thing as 'not eurocentric' –  Random832 May 4 '12 at 12:43
I always thought those schoolroom Mercator maps were Greenland-centric. Isn't that just another example of Inuit domination of western culture (an intellectual hegemony which is so pervasive and insidious that nobody is even aware of it...)? –  whuber May 4 '12 at 14:46
Let's just say that if you were offered a trans-atlantic trip on Gall-Peters Cruiselines, my advice is don't go! –  Mark Ireland May 4 '12 at 18:21

4 Answers 4

up vote 19 down vote accepted

For some general background, the Wikipedia article on map projections is very good. The most salient points for your specific question are:

  1. Map projections can be constructed to preserve one or more of a set of properties — area, shape, direction, bearing, distance, scale — though not all of them simultaneously;
  2. As such, there is no such thing as an "accurate" map, in every sense of the word.

Some distortion is inevitable in every map, because it involves the translation of a spherical surface to a flat one. Try to flatten an orange peel and you'll see why.

So, to specifically address your question:

Supposedly, the Mercator Projection map is inaccurate, and an example of the political influences on map design.

The Mercator projections is tremendously inaccurate in terms of area, distance and scale, yes, but the reasons were not political at all. The Mercator projection was designed as navigational tools for sailors: the one property that it truly preserves is bearing, so you know that any straight line you draw on a Mercator map will follow a line of constant bearing and can therefore be navigated with a compass or other means of determining bearing. (As an interesting aside, these lines are called loxodromes, or Rhumb lines, and are fascinating.) The distortions in the Mercator projection are due to the fact that it's a cylindrical projection.

The biggest problem with the Mercator, and why it needed to be "countered", as you put it, was that it sort of became the map used to teach people geography. You'll still find it in an embarrassing number of classrooms. Due to its terrible distortions of area towards the poles, it has the unfortunate effect of enlarging all of the European and North American countries dramatically, relative to countries nearer to the equator. It is frankly just bad luck that the developed countries were nearer to a pole than the developing countries. It is also unfortunate that Eurocentric points of view stopped this from being noticed for so long, allowing the Mercator projection to become so dominant.

Nevertheless, it is a problem that most people's (or at least most Americans') mental conception of the world is based on the Mercator projection is problematic because the distortion is so unfair to African, South American and Asian countries.

The Gall-Peters projection, while also cylindrical, was designed to preserve area rather than bearing. The effect is a map that looks extremely odd, because the shapes are all wrong. Countries near the equator are vertically stretched, while countries near the poles are vertically squished, to a shocking degree. The areas are correct, which is certainly fair to the developing countries, but Gall-Peters is a terrible projection for representing the world as a whole.

So my curiosity brought me here. What is the accepted map projection of the world among Geographic Information Specialists and Cartographers and experts operating in related fields? Is the relation between the map projections and Eurocentric perspectives too much of a stretch? Is it neither? I'd love to hear from you all.

There is not a single accepted map projection of the world. It all depends on what you need it for, and where the reduction of distortion is most important. For general purpose maps used to teach geography, however, I think it is uncontroversial of me to suggest that "compromise projections" be used: these are projections that do not preserve a single attribute (area, shape, bearing, distance, scale, etc) perfectly, but aim to preserve all to a moderate degree, eliminating any form of severe distortion. One of the best examples is the Robinson projection, which was the projection of choice for National Geographic before they recently switched to the Winkel Tripel (another compromise projection).

My personal favorite way to mess with people's Eurocentric perception of the world is to show them a reversed map, where the South Pole is at the top and the North Pole is at the bottom. If you're a fan of The West Wing, there was actually a phenomenal scene about this very issue.

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wish I could give a second up vote for the West Wing reference :-) –  iant May 4 '12 at 7:39
"Countries near the equator look very close to how they would on a globe" -- You haven't seen a Gall-Peters projection recently, have you? Standard parallels of 45 degrees, who's eurocentric now? –  Random832 May 4 '12 at 12:35
@Random832 Forgive my slip-up. You're right, I did have to briefly look up the Gall-Peters projection to refresh my memory. I didn't check where the standard parallels were, but it doesn't much matter: my main point was that the shapes are off. No need for the snarky little attack. –  nmpeterson May 4 '12 at 12:56
It wasn't a snarky attack on you, but rather on the projection, which marketed itself by complaining loudly about how everyone else is eurocentric [not recognizing the existence of projections other than itself and mercator], - which is probably why the people on the West Wing were depicted as using it rather than some other equal-area projection. –  Random832 May 4 '12 at 12:58
@MarkIreland I believe flight maps usually use azimuthal projections. Specifically the Gnomonic (on which any straight line represents a great circle path: the shortest distance between two points on a sphere) or the Stereographic (on which any straight line through the center represents a great circle path). –  nmpeterson May 4 '12 at 19:46

Because no discussion of the "best" map projection is complete with out this:

XKCD's map projections

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I do like Robinson the most :D –  Zolani13 May 4 '12 at 13:48
I have the Dymaxion map on my office wall. There's a terrible urge to cut it out and try to fold it into a 3D shape, just to see what it looks like. –  Mark Ireland May 4 '12 at 18:09
@MarkIreland someone on Wikipedia has done it for you (albeit digitally). –  nmpeterson May 15 '12 at 20:53
Awesome! Thanks for the link. –  Mark Ireland May 30 '12 at 17:53
Apparently there are Mercator (true Mercator, none of that web-Mercator nonsense) maps in the NGA foyer. Guess that imagery stuff has really taken over! –  BradHards Mar 2 at 10:24

The characteristics of Mercator weren't chosen to enlarge Europe or due to a Eurocentrist geopolitical conspiracy, despite what historians like to say. It was created because it's the most practical projection for seagoing navigation, that's all. A straight line on Mercator is collinear with rhumb lines, aka lines of constant bearing. This means if you're on a ship and you sail while maintaining your current bearing, your course on the Mercator projection would be a straight line, while on other projections your straight course would appear as a curved line.

Moreover, there is no such thing as a "best" projection, because "best" is completely dependent on the purpose and nature of the map:

  • Am I showing a continent-sized area? I'll use a conic projection like Albers.

  • Am I showing a state or province? I'll use their State Plane projection to comport with their maps and to play nicely with their GIS data.

  • Do I need to have extremely accurate areas or distances? I'll use an equal-area or equidistant projection, respectively.

  • Do I need an all-around solid projection for an area less than 12 degrees of longitude? I'll use UTM.

  • Am I showing the whole world? Well maybe then I'd use Gall-Peters, or perhaps Robinson, or Mollweide, or Sinusoidal, depending on the subject.

  • Am I just screwing around? Dymaxion it is.

All of these projections can be the "best" in a certain context.

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gall peters is the proper map /not some ancient map based on transferring across water to make it easier for ships to travel to and fro that was invented in the 1500s , it is logical to adopt the scientific scale of land and water mass.

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This answer could use something to back up the assertions. Not saying they are wrong or right, just suggesting it could be a bit better supported. –  BradHards Mar 2 at 10:14

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