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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.

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?

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

XKCD's map projections

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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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There's a significant irony in the political push for Gall-Peters specifically.

In maps of the Gall-Peters type (normal cylindrical equal-area), you can pick any latitude north and south of the equator to have minimal shape distortion, called the standard parallels. Gall (in 1855) and Peters (in 1973) picked 45°, which passes through the US and Europe. I daresay that contributed to the map's success. It wouldn't be a very useful map if the shape of Italy were obviously wrong, but who cares about equatorial countries? Not the UN, apparently.

There's no analogous choice in the Mercator projection. It doesn't distort any part of the map absolutely, only different parts relative to each other, and it does that in a unique way dictated by the mathematics: it's the only conformal cylindrical map projection, up to scale and the choice of anti-meridian (where the cylinder is cut). So the Gall-Peters projection is by any reasonable standard more Eurocentric than the Mercator projection. It's Eurocentric by choice, not by accident.


Equal-area projections are useful and there are some nice ones, but whenever people argue that they should be preferred for political reasons, they always seem to recommend Gall-Peters. I think they're all just echoing Peters himself and not expressing an independent opinion, since I have trouble imagining anyone looking through a gallery of equal-area projections and independently concluding that Gall-Peters is the best one.

Arthur Robinson wrote an interesting review of Peters's book The New Cartography ("Arno Peters and His New Cartography" (1985), The American Cartographer, 12:2, 103-111). As far as I can tell from the excerpts therein, Peters was a typical crank. He had little understanding of the subject, but he was certain that his map projection was better than every other map projection for every purpose, even local maps. He doesn't seem to have understood the concept of conformality at all. His reason for privileging the 45th parallel is interesting: he claimed that the maps made by colonialist Europeans prioritized accuracy near the equator at the expense of distortion elsewhere, while a proper map should prioritize the most densely populated latitude, which he apparently believed to be around 45°N.

I don't think Peters had any followers at all among professional cartographers.

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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, 2015 at 10:14

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