Mapping and Chorography

Aerial image river in desert
Image Source: Pixabay; CC

I am fascinated with the relationship that exists between people and place, so it was great to hear Stuart Dunn speaking about mapping and chorography.


Starting from the premise that any map we use is value laden, he describes how place consists of layers of meaning that are difficult to represent through GIS alone. Dunn challenges the digital humanities to be more critical in their approach and use of GIS as a mapping tool and methodology. (Dunn, 2017)

Posing the question, ‘can deep maps be digital?’, Dunn looks to the history of mapping to suggest that Ptolemy’s definitions of geography and chorography, is a useful distinction when examining digital mapping. Stopping off for a brief, but intriguing, tour of his work on corpse paths his work on corpse paths (Dunn, 2017) he goes further still, to suggest that discourse within the digital humanities is,

“worthy of a deeper engaging with the spatiality of the internet and web itself.” 

(Dunn, 2017)

In all, he paints an impression of rich human relationship with place that has been impoverished by its reduction to a map.

What is mapping and what is mappable?

As scholarly mappers, are we concerned with the delivery of a map, as noun, or with mapping as an activity, a verb? Dunn clearly leans to the latter in his work, understanding mapping as a process and spatial humanities as a set of approaches. This shift away from a map as something that is quantifiable, measured and completed, to something that is continuously created, allows room for descriptive chorography or deep maps. It creates room for imagined landscapes such as Dunn’s example of Holmes’ London. It extends the possibilities for what is mappable by including methods to interrogate a literary, mental, imagined or otherwise ‘unmappable’ sense of place. (Dunn, 2017)

Illustration of map and text
Image source: Pixabay; CC

Deep maps and chorography subvert the dominant ideology that geography, and its digital counterpart GIS, represent the sublime, a mathematical ideal for a quantifiable order of the universe. Geography has been privileged over human perception as a methodology for understanding place. Dunn suggests this may not be the most useful approach to take forward. He instead argues that incorporating subjectivity is critical. To not do so, does a disservice to the discursive, intuitive, embodied, fragmented nature of our relationship to place. Digital mapping should not just be about splitting spaces into vectors and bits of data, but should include subjective elements and recognise that GIS is just one part of the narrative(s).

Phenomenology and embodied sense of place

Narrative and rhetoric exist within conceptualisations of space and time. Dunn touches on the Tilley’s Phenomenology of Landscape (Tilley, 1994) , though notes that it remains controversial. . It brings to mind Gregory Bateson when he writes, “The map is not the territory, and the name is not the thing named.” (Bateson, 1979)

Citing a classical rhetoric exercise he tasks his student’s with, Dunn highlights for example, that it is difficult to describe a place without using our hands. (Dunn, 2017) The physicality of the territory and our embodied experience of it, is where the mapping of place begins. John Berger writes ‘Seeing comes before words.’ (Berger, 2008) Equally, seeing comes before maps. As the Apache consultant assisting Basso in his mapping of Western Apache language and landscape is quoted as saying,

“‘White men need paper maps,’ he observes. ‘We have maps in our minds.'”

(Basso, 1996)

Like speech, our visual and material senses reflect wider cultural ontologies and cartography is a culturally specific form of mapping.

Power and the act of mapping

Dunn’s talk drew attention to the social and cultural connections that are embodied in maps. In particular, he notes that the architecture and orientation of maps are determined by who is providing the tools, who is resourcing the mapping and why.

Illustration of world map
Image source: Pixabay; CC

The act of mapping becomes, then, an act of ownership and control, involving politics and power. Dunn, for example, notes the interesting correlation between the emergence of nationalism and narratives of division and defence frontiers. (Dunn, 2017) Critical of the adoption of GIS as the de-facto digital map, Dunn fears that we are at risk of creating a dystopia of way finding. This is reminiscent of Posner when she critiques the wide adoption of Google Maps and Open Street Map by the digital humanities, without being cognisant of the colonial cartesian world view it represents. (Posner, 2015)

Critical purpose

Ultimately, Dunn suggests that the spatiality of the internet has not been problematised as much as it could or should be (Dunn, 2017), and I’m inclined to agree. We have linguistically and ideologically imagined the world wide web as a virtual ‘space’, a place, a terrain. We ‘navigate’ web browsers, ‘land’ on pages and issues like ‘open and free’ sound not unlike the rhetorical framework of narratives of division and defence frontiers. How we imagine this new territory, how we are creating it and mapping onto it, requires a scholarly-self reflexivity on what is our critical purpose and process. We must employ quantitative and qualitative methodologies and a wider appreciation of what it is to map.

Our cultural, social and economic relationship with our environment is among the most significant challenges facing humanity in the C21st.

Photo barren arid landscape
Image source: Pixabay; CC

There is an imperative to subvert a single narrative that sees the subjugation of landscape to a Cartesian map. There is opportunity to instead represent our deeper and richer relationship to place.


For those of us involved in creating and making digital maps, the call to action is to recognise the limitations of GIS.  By utilising more creative, descriptive ways of mapping we can better reflect a rich multi-vocal, multi-layered, intertextuality of place.



Basso, K.H., 1996. Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache. University of New Mexico Press.

Bateson, G., 1979. Mind and nature: a necessary unity, 1st ed. ed. Dutton, New York.

Berger, J., 2008. Ways of Seeing. Penguin UK.

Dunn, S., 2017a. Corpse-Paths And Chorographers: Can Deep Maps Be Digital?

Dunn, S., 2017b. Corpse roads. Stuart Dunn’s Blog.

Posner, M., 2015. What’s Next: The Radical, Unrealized Potential of Digital Humanities. Miriam Posner's Blog.

Tilley, C.Y., 1994. A phenomenology of landscape: places, paths, and monuments, Explorations in anthropology. Berg, Oxford, UK ; Providence, R.I.