Constructivism of Geography

By Muneeb Salman

We live in a world of constructs. Almost all aspects of contemporary life are a result of human constructivism. Society, state, and even our identities come from a historical construct that had not originally existed earlier. For most of the time the powerful have facilitated construction of various ideas in order to achieve their own interests. And one of the most obscure and interesting cases of this constructivism is that of geography. The maps as we know today have not always been like this. We may at times notice the changes constructed upon the cartography of regions. But there is more to the constructivism of geography than merely renaming the regions on maps. The story of how maps and geography are constructed according to the aspirations of the one with authority has a whole history to it. This history looms from the early Greeks to the Chinese, Muslims and later Europeans, and falls ultimately in the hands of today’s superpower. The geography, as we know today, and which may yet change tomorrow, is a product of this historical constructivism.

The first maps were created on tablets by Babylonians. But geography we know today was established by the Greeks. Greco-Egyptian philosopher Ptolemy suggested that the earth was spherical and constructed the first detailed map based on longitudinal and latitudinal division while placing the North on top of the map. However after the rise of Christianity, various traditions declared the concept of a spherical earth as false, and the idea of flat earth remained in Europe for more than a millennium. In many of the later European maps, the East was placed on the top of the map. At almost the same time, the Chinese as well as Muslims were progressing in map-making and cartography. Most of the Chinese and Muslim maps placed South on the top of the map. This convention of placing South on top was believed to be inherited by Muslims from the Chinese. During the Renaissance, some maps in Europe also started to place North on the top owing to the convention of using the North Star for maritime navigation. Thus by the end of 15th century, there were various maps showing East, South as well as North on the top, each representing the geographical construct of the respective cartographers. However, by the 16th century the North started to dominate on top of the map, which was partly due to recovery of Ptolemy’s geography and largely due to the increasing domination of West in maritime power, geography and cartography. Apart from providing a natural sense of domination by being on the top of map, the Mercator projection (used in map-making) also shrank the size of three times larger Africa in South and showed Europe and North America to be larger than their actual size on the top. This is not all. The idea of placing West on left of North also had its roots in Western convention of reading and writing from left to right. Thus the West came on top left of the map. However, it didn’t end here. In 1871, as the America was rising, a few US cartographers tried to make maps placing USA at the center. It didn’t turn out well, however, because a large part of mid-west US disappeared in the gap of the Atlas pages. Again, in 1976 an Australian Stuart McArthur inverted the world map, placing South on top, and called it McArthur’s Universal Corrective Map of the World, trying to construct Australia’s position on top.

But playing with directions throughout centuries is not the only aspect of geographical constructivism. As the geopolitics of great powers evolved in 20th century, regional and global powers even manipulated the regional configuration around globe to suit their interests. After the Second World War and during the Cold War, most of the maps produced in US had the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean region as prime focus in order to create consciousness regarding the communist expansionism. Another controversy that rose in 1960s was the attempt of various Arab countries to rename the historical Persian Gulf as the Arabian Gulf. The revolutions against communist regimes, especially in Eastern Europe, at the end of Cold War were termed as the Autumn of Nations, as a prologue to the European Spring of Nations of 1848. Another wave of theoretical constructivism rose from the American intelligentsia after the end of Cold War, starting from Fukuyama’s End of History and Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, in order to shape the perceptions in 21st century in favor of the now unilateral superpower. Geographical constructivism was also an important part of it. The 21st century started with attempts to introduce democracy in what was called as greater Middle East region, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The American academia once again constructed terms like Arab Spring and the Fourth Wave of Democratization for the revolutions induced in the greater Middle East. The issue of Persian or Arabian Gulf was also raised again, when in 2010 the US Navy’s styleguide referred to the Persian Gulf as Arabian Gulf. US President Donald Trump again triggered the issue in 2017 by referring to the Persian Gulf as Arabian Gulf in one of his tweets. Both the cases received criticism from Irani government and community worldwide.

Now the American academia are once again constructing the idea of Indian Ocean and South China Sea, also being called Indo-China, as the center of future power politics. China is being introduced in the above mentioned regions as a rival of the USA at global and India at regional level. The prospects of Sino-Indian rivalry is being constructed to an extent that the term Indo-China is being used in substitution for South China Sea by some scholars like Robert D. Kaplan. In an even more recent development of this constructivism, the US have renamed its Pacific Command (PACOM) to Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM). While India already came into the area of responsibility of PACOM, renaming it to INDOPACOM is an attempt to bring India militarily closer to US against their common rival China in the Pacific region.

This is how everyone in power attempts to construct even the geographical aspects of the world around us. The early cartographers constructed the maps according to their own convenience and conventions. Later on, the maps became a source of expressing geographical dominance. And ultimately, even the names of regions and events around the globe were constructed and deconstructed in order to satisfy whatever the powerful fancied. From varying directions on the map to the naming of historical events and renaming of regions, no one knows what the future may hold for the geography we know today. And who knows, in future we may even see a map that places East on top again.

Muneeb Salman is a student of International Relations at National Defense University, Islamabad. He can be reached by email at, or at twitter @MuneebS99

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