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What is a Political Map?

Posted on July 11 2011

The first map that most children encounter, other than the treasure maps of pirate stories, is likely to be a political map, though most will never hear that phrase associated with the object in front of them. In fact, many adults go their entire lives without understanding the nuances between the different types of maps. With the study of geography falling by the wayside along with art, music, and physical education, it may only be another generation or two before the designations of maps is only understood by scientists.

A political map is different than other types of maps because it focuses on government or administrative boundaries rather than geographical or physical features. Instead of showing viewers what exists in the land, it shows those imaginary lines that serve to separate countries, states, territories, and cities. These maps generally include larger bodies of water, such as oceans, rivers, and lakes, as landmarks. In fact, in many places, a coastline or river will serve as a political border. In contrast the many different types of physical maps emphasize the topographical, climate, geological or other features of an area. In these maps, political borders or even the existence of towns and cities are only used as reference points.

It makes sense that political maps are in heavy use in early childhood education. Helping children to understand the world around them is best achieved by starting with broader concepts such as the existence of countries and states and how they relate physically to one another. A globe, atlas, or wall map for children is going to emphasize these territorial borders usually with bright colors and bold outlines. Likewise, a puzzle map is going to ask kids to put countries or states into their proper place rather than expect them to manipulate hundreds of counties or cities.

There are some faults with political maps. Because the intent of these maps is to show territory owned or controlled by government entities, there is less attention given to accuracy in physical depiction. The projection of a given map can be skewed in order to make countries look larger or more menacing than they actually are. Some errors in projection are a fault of the method used rather than an intentional political agenda. The traditional projection map in use in the western world distorts the size of objects the further away from the equator they are. This results in the US looking larger in relation to other countries and continents than it actually is and Africa looking smaller. There are actually dozens of such errors that the newer Gall-Peters projection map attempts to correct.

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