Jerusalem Online: Critical Cartography after the Ontological Turn


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date6 Mar 2019


The proliferation of web-based mapping technologies has reconfigured the map-making process, created new functionalities and opportunities for user interaction, softened the lines between map-usage and production, and led to the incorporation of geographic data into a growing number of social domains.

Critical cartography provides a source of inspiration for researching these developments, encouraging us to explore their political implications. Yet, by emphasising that maps are shaped by dominant social forces, prevalent approaches in this field risk limiting our capacity to investigate the distinctive properties and dynamic character of web-based maps. Thus, there is a need for new theoretical and methodological approaches, able to both to take emerging technologies seriously and to remain sensitive to how social processes inform their effects.

This thesis develops an approach to critical cartography grounded in ontological realism, conceptualising maps as matters of care, i.e. unstable, hybrid objects that are at once ‘social’ and ‘material’. Building on the recent ‘turn’ to ontology in social theory, this framework seeks to sidestep the problematic division between ‘nature’ and ‘construction’ while upholding critical cartography’s normative commitments.

Controversies surrounding mapping applications provide an entry point into the study of maps as matters of care, highlighting the associations of heterogenous actors that make up these technologies. To elaborate and test this approach, this project analyses three mapping controversies related to Jerusalem. This city provides a compelling case study that complicates existing interpretations of the politics of web-maps, contributing to the broader literature on the geoweb.

Each of the controversies under study relates to a different web-based map: Google Maps, Waze and OpenStreetMap. I identify the issues a stake in the disputes and examine how the maps in question intervene in these issues. In doing so, I question who benefits and who is excluded from current cartographic arrangements. To this end, I draw on the qualitative analysis of social and news media, user interviews, cartographic analysis, historical research and field observations.

Taken together, the three controversies point at a general trend in the web-cartographies of Jerusalem, namely, the omissions of Palestinian areas, place-names and symbols. These gaps are not limited to the maps’ informational content – a phenomenon already documented by previous research − but also extends to algorithms and user spaces. More importantly, the cases presented here complicate previous interpretations of these omissions as forms of discursive violence. Instead, the analyses detail how maps emerge through the confrontations of various actors, following different logics and pursuing different goals. Thus, their effects are manifold and susceptible to change: they mobilise attention for processes of exclusion beyond the map, they highlight inconsistencies between competing ‘facts’ about the city and reveal areas where state control is weak and unstable.

The implications of the study extend beyond Jerusalem, pointing at the need to open up existing definitions of map-politics and pay greater attention to the local settings in which maps operate. By complicating predominant characterisations of cartographic power as a dark and all-powerful force, these steps can help generate more ‘’care-full’ forms of cartographic critique.

    Research areas

  • Critical Cartography, Maps, Palestine, Google, Geoweb, Digital Geography, Israel, Jerusalem