Territory, sovereignty and cartography

In a new paper in the journal International Organization, Jordan Branch argues that mapping helped usher in new forms of political sovereignty:

new mapmaking technologies changed how actors thought about political space, political organization, and political authority. This change was fundamental to the creation of modern states and international relations, which were built around exclusive territorial sovereignty, discrete boundaries, and formal equality (pp. 1-2).

He also argues a little more specifically that:

In particular, the treatment of political authority exclusively in terms of homogenous territorial areas separated by discrete boundary lines, which is unique to the modern state system, resulted from the development, distribution, and use of modern mapping. Because maps depicted political authority as homogenously territorial and linearly bounded
even before political practices and institutions were operationalized as such, this article posits that maps reshaped actors’ perceptions of the legitimate form of political authority and organization. Cartography, in short, was necessary to the transformationfrom medieval to modern political structures.

It is interesting to see these kinds of arguments being made outside geography and I think a fruitful debate could be made between this position (which I am sympathetic to for obvious reasons) and the work of John Agnew (the “territorial trap”) or Stuart Elden. Both the latter have argued for a different understanding of political or sovereign territory as not necessarily bounded space, and so Branch’s piece could be seen as a sort of indirect push-back against their arguments. (Indirect, as the piece does not cite Agnew or Elden, but does use both Lefebvre and Sack.)

Perhaps political geographers and political scientists would be interested in furthering debate on issues of cartography and territory?

Jordan Branch has a webpage here with his work.

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