Towards a Digital Sociology of Cartography

Digital technologies are now integral and to everyday life. Some, are more overt – the alarm clock that wakes us. Others are less so – automated water pressurisations systems ensuring clean running water reaches our home in the morning, ready for the kettle. In the Social Sciences, we have engaged with them in various ways.

Human geographers have (at times) taken broad technocentric perspective. For example, Rob Kitchin & Martin Dodge (2011) theorise our increasing reliance on software code and algorithmic calculation in everyday life. They argue the infrastructures of our world are increasingly encoded within complex algorithms. From bedside alarm clocks to automated traffic light control systems, from water pressurisation systems to airspace management, software code keeps life ticking along. Even global economic markets are manipulated, controlled, and managed through algorithmic high frequency trading (presumably to remove the potential human error of open outcry systems). Not to mention that awful EdgeRank algorithm in Facebook, which dictates the ‘friends’ feeds I can, or cannot see. It sorts me into an order, of which I have no say and no understanding of the logic.

In some cases code has supplanted processes so prolifically that prior manual processes are muted to redundancy (Kitchin & Dodge, 2008: 162), with no back-up plan should the code ever fail. Equally, science and technology scholars have mapped out the forked paths along which specific technologies have developed, and the actants involved (human or otherwise), pointing to the construction of specific technologies as historical trajectories (alongside discussing the power, aesthetics, and the ethics involved). At times, this has held the tangible aim of informing human factors research, including the user-centred design (UCD) of products based on human-technology interaction. Anthropologists and sociologists have employed innovative methodologies to theorise co-constitutional relationships between technology, environment and users for some time– for example Lucy Suchman’s (1985) focus on the lived use of technologies as situated action entangled within rich configurations of other actions.

To encompass these diverse approaches to digital technologies (many of which are sociologically inclined), the term Digital Sociology, has been put forward by Deborah Lupton (2012a, 2012b). As a descriptive term it replaces the older prefixes Cyber- and Sociology of-  with a name compatible to other disciplines’ engagement with the ‘digital turn’ (2012a). For Lupton there are four main approaches to Digital Sociology:

  • Using digital media as tools for networking, self-publicising, collaboration and sharing;
  • Digital data analysis;
  • Critical Digital Sociologies reflexive and critical of digital media;
  • Sociological analyses of Digital Media use and configuring senses of self, embodiments, and social relations.

Digital Sociology is growing, recent developments include the BSA Digital Sociology Study Group set up earlier this year by Mark Carrigan with Lupton’s typology in the defining terms, and Noorje Marres’ recently opened MA/MSc in Digital Sociology, the UK’s first postgraduate course in the subject.

In my research, I am working towards a Digital Sociology of Cartography. That is, the range of web 2.0 digital maps often accessed through ubiquitous, new media, screen-based technologies that gently slip into the background of everyday life: Google (Earth) Maps, Yahoo Maps, OS Maps, OpenStreetMap, Bing Maps, GoCommute and many more. They are used at home on a laptop, on the move via a smart-phone, or as remediated content via a print-out (Bolter & Grusin, 1999). Where standardised paper-based maps (the preceding technology) emerged from industrial period technologies: Lithography, and the Steam engine powered boats and rail systems used for mass-production, travel, and mass-distribution. Digital maps emerged in the last decade through developments in software code and processing speed in computers that allow massive interoperability through XML and HTML (now under HTML 5.0). This provides various opportunities for maps: first, ‘prosumption’ (the production of maps can be undertaken by consumers – users can generate, remix, mash-up, and hack content), especially where Application Programme Interfaces (API’s) are publicly open; second, deep entanglement with other sources.

Although sociological engagement with cartography is nothing new. Social cartography has been used to spatialise and analyse data in the social sciences since the mid-Nineteenth century: Charles Booth’s (1899) maps display demographic survey data; Henry Mayhew’s (1861) maps use speculative participant-observations and census data to develop ‘types’ of street-folk; or John Snow’s early use of the dot-distribution to solve a Cholera epidemic in East London (McLeod, 2000), forming Epidemiology in the process.  Likewise, a theory of Cartography is nothing new. In the post-World War Two period Arthur Robinson set a formal theory with his Academic Cartography, drawing on cybernetics and a Positivist outlook, develop a ‘Map-Communication-Model’ for objective map-production. Later, in the 1980’s, John (Brian) Harley developed a Constructionist inspired Critical Cartography, setting the ground for the GIS Wars in the 1990’s and early 2000’s (in the wake of the Science Wars). With diverse outcomes that continue to date: (Public) Participatory Geographical Information Systems (PPGIS/PGIS), Feminist, Queer, and postcolonial GIS’s, subversive map-art, and projection and co-ordinate debates that continue to date.

What has not been addressed are everyday uses of digital maps. GIS practitioners and Neogeographers debate the value of specialist knowledge against the possibility of ‘grassroots’ maps developed through Volunteered Geographic Information (VGI) and user-generated (prosumer) content –  with potential policy implications; Participatory Design (PD), User Experience (UX), and User-Centred Design (UCD) approaches focus on human factors to asses interactions with the map, optimising hardware or software (and occasionally questioning in-design ethics). Yet, to date there is no sociological research on the use of digital maps. In part, this could be the relatively recent development of the technology (their newness). For which, hopefully the upcoming International Cartographic Conference (Dresden, Germany) should see some new research, especially under the Maps, GIS and Society (T18) theme (chaired by Chris Perkins) and the ICA’s Commission for Neocartography (founded 2011).

To evaluate the value of researching digital maps, we can take one example, and possibly the most popular – Google Earth. It had (an estimated) 400 million unique activations in 2010 (Crampton, 2010: 27), with a seemingly limitless set of uses: In my own experience I have seen surveyors define property boundary lines with them (far cheaper than the cost of a Land Registry search); cyclists plan a route to decide the feasibility of route prior to travel; friends follow an on-screen map in a foreign city to reach a bar; and other friends have relived memorialised their childhood, visiting streets of their childhood home via the Street-View Function. It is widely embedded in various sites, ranging from: large scale multi-national companies like McDonald’s restaurant locator; national organisations, for example, the British Judo Association’s club; national state institutions, such the British Police’s crime map – an interesting choice given the availability of digital maps from the official state supported Ordnance Survey. Even local, independent sources use Google Maps, for example Sheffield based Hui Wei restaurant’s ‘find us’ website page. Given the sheer scale and popularity of digital maps, research should be of interest for anybody interested in migration (will i be safe moving to this new city?), tourism (does that holiday resort look nice?), consumerism (which restaurant review is on the map?) – That is, the spatial knowledge politics that digital maps present for identity construction. With additional interest for planners assessing traffic flow (which maps are used), landed capital investment (do estate agents manipulate embedded data like local school reviews?) and many more. However to date no social research exists on the demographics of users, the rationale for use (or non-use), the interpretation of meaning-making through maps, or the arrays of activity in which maps are most commonly used (will a peak district walker prefer a paper-based map? Will a London tourist trust the paper TFL underground map, or prefer a digital one?). As technology progresses, and advancements like the semantic web (Griffiths et al, 2012), or Web 3.0, and augmented reality (AR) glasses like Google Googles and those in development at Microsoft come into play, it is becoming increasingly important to gain a solid Sociological understanding of these technologies, and the implications they hold for an increasingly mobile world.

In addressing this gap, some Digital Sociologies of Cartography have started to emerge, for brief outline (following Lupton’s schematic typology): Amber Davisson’s collaboration and sharing of data across maps (Davisson, 2011) uses the medium as a tool for networking, collaboration and sharing. Equally, Bearman & Appleton (2012) use Google maps to collate their survey data; Neogeographers and GIS practitioners have moved towards Digital data analysis, however this is limited through the closed circuit of map-ownership over user data (Google do not publicly release user numbers, statistics, or data – they should!); Critical Digital Sociologies have been reflexive of digital maps, in particular relationships between map-ownership and military ventures – both through the origins of Google Earth (the initial creation was developed by a CIA feeder technologist called Keyhold) in accidental exposure of sensitive military data into the public realm, and also in the perceived surveillance and issue to privacy through Google Street-View, popularised in the British, German, and Greek reactionary press; in my own work, I have started to focus on everyday use of digital maps (practice) as co-constitutional of sense of space, choice of site and route, and potentially anchoring of (and anchored by) other map-related practices (Couldry, 2004; Swidler, 2001). For now, I am focussing on home buyers, students, and leisure-walkers/trekkers, but a lot of work is still needed to develop Digital Sociologies generally, and specifically those on Digital maps.


Bearman, N., & Appleton, K. (2012). Using Google Maps to collect spatial responses in a survey environment. [In:] Area, 44(2), 160–169.

Bolter, J., & Grusin, R. (1999). Remediation: understanding new media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Booth, C. (1899). Booth Poverty Map 1898-1899. [In:] London School of Economics & Political Science: Charles Booth online Archive. Retrieved January 6, 2013, from,182531,2,large,1

Couldry, N. (2004). Theorising media as practice [In:]. Social Semiotics, 14(2), 115–132.

Crampton, J. W. (2010). Mapping: A critical introduction cartography and GIS. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Davisson, A. (2011). Beyond the Borders of Red and Blue States: Google Maps as a Site of Rhetorical Invention in the 2008 Presidential Election. [In:] Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 14(1), 101–123.

Griffiths, L., Ogden, R., & Aspin, R. (2012). A profile of the future: what could HTML 5 do for HE by 2015? A confrontation with reality. Manchester: Association for Learning Technology.

Kitchin, R., & Dodge, M. (2008). Code and the Transduction of Space. [In:] Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 95(1), 162–180.

Kitchin, R., & Dodge, M. (2011). Code/Space: Software and Everyday Life. London: MIT Press.

Lupton. (2012a). What is digital sociology? [In:] LSE Impact of Social Science blogs. Retrieved January 6, 2013, from

Lupton, D. (2012b). Digital Sociology: An Introduction (pp. 1–17). Sydney: University of Sydney.

Mayhew, H. (1861). London labour and the London Poor: The London street folk. London: Griffin, Bohn and Co. –

McLeod, K. S. (2000). Our sense of Snow: the myth of John Snow in medical geography. [In:] Social science & medicine (1982), 50 (7-8), 923–35. –

Suchman, L. (1985). Plans and Situated Actions: The problem of human-machine communication. Palo Alto: Xerox Corporation.

Swidler, A. (2001). What anchors cultural practices. [In:] T. Schatzki, K. Knorr Cetina, & E. von Savigny (Eds.), The Practice turn in contemporary theory (pp. 74–92). London: Routledge.

By Matthew Hanchard
You can find out more about Matthew on our contributors page.

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