Situated mapping: visualizing urban inequality between the god trick and strategic positivism


This paper asks, and seeks to answer, the question: what makes mapping critical? I argue that most examples of ‘doing’ critical mapping tend to fall into one of two camps with very different manifestations, goals and assumptions, whether from Donna Haraway’s invocation of – and desire to counteract – what she calls the “god trick”, or from the spirit of “strategic positivism” advocated by the geographer Elvin Wyly. The rest of the paper argues, however, that these two positions are not mutually exclusive, and that practitioners of critical mapping need not choose between the twin imperatives of destabilizing our understanding of the objectivity of cartographic knowledge and taking advantage of such a pervasive understanding in order to produce a more socially and spatially just world. Instead, I argue that it is possible to simultaneously use maps to prove that inequality exists, while also demonstrating that the ways we conventionally think about such inequalities through maps are insufficient to understand the complex realities of the processes that we are mapping. Using examples from my own research on mapping the relational geographies of vacant and abandoned properties in Louisville, Kentucky, I demonstrate one possible example of what such an approach to situated mapping might look like.

ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 21 (4): 346-356
Taylor Shelton
Assistant Professor of Geography