The Map as Metaphor – Part 1

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This is part 1 of Daryl Hitchcock’s guest post called The Map as Metaphor. Daryl is the Theory of Knowledge department chair and a resident scholar at the Leysin American School, Switzerland. He has lived and worked throughout his career in boarding schools around the world, including more than 20 years as the head of large dorms full of teenage boys. 

Maps help us order and organize the world:    I truly love maps. Maps stir the heart to adventure, they tickle the imagination and inspire wanderlust. Maps are both beautiful and useful and they hint at endless possibilities. Maps guide us (they tell us where to go); maps orient us (they point us in a certain direction); and maps place us in context (they tell us what is around us).  But, and herein lies the inherent problem with maps, in attempting to depict a three dimensional sphere on a two dimensional plane, maps also warp the world. They stretch it out and fatten it up; they shrink and flatten; they tell half truths and white lies in order to tell their stories. Ultimately, as Mark Monmonier (see footnote 1 below) tells us, all maps lie.  And, they have to, otherwise they would overwhelm the reader out of sheer size and/or density of information.  

Below, in images #1 and #2, are a couple of my favorite maps.  It is ok if you didn’t recognize them immediately as maps. Most people wouldn’t necessarily make that connection the first time they see them.   Maybe you would prefer if your maps were printed on paper, or more likely today in the form of a google map, and to follow certain standard conventions.  These “maps” were navigational aids for natives of Greenland and the Marshall Islands respectively, and they are clearly not your standard fare.  The first shows coastal formations, the notches on the wood showing inlets and waterways, while the second shows islands (the cowrie shells) and currents and swells lines (the sticks) in the South Pacific.  They were useful tools in order to organize, order and navigate the world their creators lived in, but they probably challenge conventional notions of what makes a good map.

Since this is a TOK article, you might find it normal if these maps seem a bit confusing.  Whether you have just started the IB Diploma programme, are nearly done, or find yourself somewhere in between, you are probably already aware that many students find their IB Theory of Knowledge course challenging.  This course, unlike other IB classes, is not content centered.  There is no set of core systems, equations, close readings or vocabulary terms that one must memorize or master to successfully complete this course. Nor is there a list of dates, facts and terms that you can simply memorize to pass a quiz or a test. 

Theory of Knowledge might sometimes feel a bit like a philosophy class and at other times like a debate class, and there are seldom objectively “right answers.”  You are asked to consider big questions regarding the formation and foundation of knowledge, and to compare those claims across various academic disciplines and areas of knowledge, and for those of you casting about for a safety net, the answer to every other odd question is not found in the back of the book.  In fact, you are probably asking yourself, “What book?

The Map Metaphor and the IB:  You might also be asking yourself what maps have to do with Theory of Knowledge.  This is a fair question. In the current iteration of the IB guide, and continuing into the next guide coming online in 2020, the IB has urged that teachers help their students to understand “The Map Metaphor.”  This metaphor, first put forward by Alfred Korbyski tells us that “the map is not the territory.”  “Wait,” you might be saying, “I thought a map was a depiction of some territory?”  This may be true, but, essentially, he is claiming that the elements (whether words, maps, models or formulas) we use to depict a real thing are not actually the same as the reality they represent.  They are instead limited models, abstractions, or depictions of only a certain part (or parts) of that reality.  

Now, I don’t know about you, but whenever I am asked to use a complex metaphor to understand an even more difficult concept, I get a funny feeling in my stomach. That feeling tells me that this might be a difficult concept that needs some serious unpacking.  With that in mind, in this article I want to try to do three things. Firstly, I want to spend a little time explaining what metaphors are, and how they can help us to understand complex problems. Then I will look at the rich world of maps to help us understand what maps are, and how they might help you better understand the worlds they represent.  Finally, I will look at how Areas of Knowledge might function as types of “maps” and how they might best display that knowledge.  

Why we use Metaphors:  Metaphors are useful tools that help you to scaffold your understanding of a new idea or concept. They can make the strange seem familiar.  The metaphor then creates a link between the known idea, and the new concept. In image #3 (below) you can see that we are constantly using metaphors to understand the world around us. Maps are just one type of metaphor. 

Image #3:

Each Map tells a story, just not the whole story: Let’s return back to our maps.  Most of us are familiar with world maps. You might have one hanging in your classroom, or even on the wall in your bedroom.  In images 4, 5, and 6 you can see three different world maps. While each map is a “World Map” they can each only depict a portion of that world, and, as you can quickly see, they are very different.  The first (image 4) is a medieval world map. You might not have even recognized it as a map. At first glance it would be easy to dismiss it as dated (which it certainly is) or wildly inaccurate. And, you would be correct in doing so if you were trying to use this map as a navigational tool or as a way to find current national borders.  But, to dismiss it out of turn as inaccurate would be to dismiss the purpose of this map. In some regards this map depicts the world of the medieval mapmaker (and those who would have consulted it) more accurately than the maps that follow. Unlike the maps that you are probably more familiar with, it is oriented (pointed) toward the East (toward Jerusalem) and divides the known continents between the sons of Noah as described in the Old Testament. It portrays a world-view that is consistent within the context it was constructed.

In the following images (5 and 6) we return to more familiar looking territory. These two maps depict the world using two of the most common map projections, the Mercator projection and the Gall-Peters projection.  Map projections allow the map maker to display a three dimensional object (the globe) on a two dimensional plane (the map) but there are always sacrifices to be made.  The first (Mercator) preserves lines of constant reckoning and relative shape thus allowing it to serve as a navigational aid, but it enlarges certain areas, making them appear much larger (e.g. Greenland and Canada) than they really are.   The Gall-Peters projection, on the other hand, preserves relative size while distorting shape. Additionally, the Mercator map shows political divisions and countries, while the Gall-Peters shows topography. In order to evaluate which of these maps is the best or most accurate map then, the first question you would have to ask would be, “for what purpose is the map going to be used?”  Is it a concept map, a navigational aid, a political map, or something else entirely? The “best” map then is, at least in part, determined by the usefulness of the map.

  1. Monmonier, Mark S. How to Lie with Maps 3rd Edition. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018. pg 1.


I would like to mention the influence of Matthew Edney Ph.D. Matthew is the Osher Professor in the History of Cartography, at the University of Southern Maine. He is also the Project Director of the History of Cartography Project at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and many, many years ago now he planted the seeds for this article.  I hope upon reading this he would find that I remembered something and that I got it at least partially correct.

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