Theory of the Project

When looking at a map, the following questions arise: What subjectivity is the author of the map bringing to the picture? What (or who) is included or excluded from the map? How can you make a map that is totally inclusive? In my project, Memory Box, I attempt to create a map that highlights how individuals personalize the space around them with memories or traditions by deconstructing the components of a mental map and presenting just the subjective memories on which these maps are based. Through this project, I aim to engage with theory about inclusive methods of map-making and to place my project among other mental mapping projects.

In this literature review, I will first explain the inherent subjectivity of maps, and, second, discuss how personal experiences impact locative thinking with a method called mental mapping. Third, I will explore how to imbue digital maps with more personal connections and, fourth, detail how my project, Memory Box, combines elements of mental mapping and presents it on a digital platform.

Subjective Maps in a Digital and Non-digital Age

Looking at the world from Google Earth is a seemingly objective view of reality; however, as argued by Jason Farman in “Mapping the Digital Empire: Google Earth and the Process of Postmodern Cartography,” Google must skew the picture of the earth using a projection, such as the Western-centric Mercator projection, and introduce a level of subjectivity into the landscape (878). Thus, even in the digital age where many users have access to and partial authorship of maps, the “democratization” of maps is not complete and, instead, digital maps have become an empire dominated by Google and those with access to the internet (871). Thus, although Farman writes that digital media users can “define” and “inhabit” space as “embodied interactors,” digital maps contain as much subjectivity and are as exclusive as the drawn maps that were their predecessors (885). The innate subjectivity of all maps is reiterated by many scholars, such as sustainability researcher, Katriini Soini, who argues that maps are a way for humans to conceptualize and present their view of the world. She writes, “Mapping is a very old method of constructing and conceptualizing the world. Humans have prepared maps for various purposes for thousands of years. In the earlier times, maps were regarded as abstractions of the world or reality, but, nowadays, they are viewed as means of communication and intermediating values and power” (237). Thus, even in an era where gathering and displaying the information on maps has been improved by technology, the inherent subjectivity of maps pervades.

Showing and Studying Subjectivity Through Mental Maps

Understanding that maps are not a complete representation of the truth leads to an examination of how to convey the spots on a map that are ambiguous or subjective and how to assess the impacts of subjective mapping. For example, in the smell maps of Kate McLean, a professor of Information Experience Design, uncertainty is conveyed through rings of circles that are essentially statistical confidence intervals centered on the true location of a smell. In addition to ambiguity, I think that showing the subjectivity of maps is important, especially since it is a part of all maps. One of the more interesting ways of showing subjectivity is through mental mapping, which is a methodology that seeks to understand how individuals conceptualize and interact with the space they inhabit.

The term mental mapping encompasses a variety of methods including hand-drawn drawings of places and habitual pathways, maps with color coding or symbols inserted onto them in order to convey an individual’s experience or emotions about a place, and even concept maps that helps to organize information and assist with learning. As defined by cultural geographer, J.J. Gieseking, mental mapping is, “A lens into the way people produce and experience space, forms of spatial intelligence, and dynamics of human–environment relations ranging from the minute experiences of everyday life to larger structural oppressions (Gieseking 712). In “Exploring the human dimensions of multifunctional landscapes through mapping and map-making,” Soini discusses how mental mapping is used in various fields, such as humanistic and cultural geography and behavioralism. In these fields, researchers analyze maps in order to see how people organize geographic information in their minds, prioritize certain locations because of familiarity or attachment to those places, link places to the emotions they arouse, and derive the social order of a location and their place within that order. The focus of this article is primarily how mental maps are used to conduct research about the social and psychological experiences of humans.

In her article, “Where We Go From Here: The Mental Sketch Mapping Method and Its Analytic Components,” Jack Jen Gieseking, analyzes the mental maps of the alumnae of an all girls school using the steps laid out in the seminal work on mental mapping, Image of a City, which are as follows: (1) asking what first came to mind in terms of the image of the space; (2) requesting that an individual draw a map of the space; and (3) asking for his or her detailed movements on an average day (715). She then analyzes the resulting maps by comparing metrics of the three components: Mechanics of Method, which is how accurately does the individual draw reality; Drawing Elements, which includes the nodes, edges and landmarks the drawers inserts; Narratives of Place, how to the drawn elements contribute the authors’ self of sense and sense of the place; and Personal, which is a category focused on the most personal experience of the individual (716). The focus of this study was to give structure to how individual mental maps are interpreted and compared, and to provide a blueprint for analysis in other research.

Mental Maps and Social Media

Mental maps show how people’s brains connect things, places, and memories in a geographic way and how locations contain meaning, but translating mental maps onto a digital format is difficult, especially given that platforms for digital maps (such as Google Maps) lack details about the ordinary regions that individuals primarily inhabit. To reiterate Farman’s argument, not only are maps, including Google Earth, subjective, they are also exclusive in terms of who has access to making them and what areas are shown in detail on the map. For example, StreetView and other details are provided for Davidson College, but not for Chennai, one of the major cities in India–this not only reveals that Google priorities North Carolina over Tamil Nadu, but also it limits where geographical information can be inserted. Not only are digital maps incomplete in terms of what locations are included, but also geosocial media is limited in what places can be shared.

According to Mark Sample, a professor of digital studies, location in and of itself is not interesting, but geosocial media can be used to imbue locations with meaning. He writes, “Maps convey a limited range of geographic experiences: distance, elevation, vegetation, rivers, and buildings. But maps fail to convey the meaning of these geographic elements, how they impact both the broad history of a place and the daily life of the people who live there” (Sample 73). While the aforementioned mental mapping projects are one method of imbuing the meaning that Sample argues maps lack, his article focuses on how geosocial media is also a tool for giving places meaning in a digital world. Similarly, in her article “Pinterest for Public History,” Michelle Morvac, a professor of history, encourages historical societies to use a form of geosocial media, Pinterest, as a tool to enrich and publicize exhibits. In a similar vein, UNESCO World Heritage Sites uses Pinterest to create maps of Heritage sites throughout the world, including the UK, France, and Italy. Using the popular social media, Pinterest, historical societies and individuals can include geographic information in their posts, but, as Sample argues, the locational information that can be included on most geoscial media is mainstream and not important. In his article “Location is Not Compelling (Until it is Haunted),” Sample argues that social media only allows users to mark certain places that use geosocial media as advertisement instead of the nether regions that are off grid but more a part of our daily lives. This is also the limitation of Pinterest Maps, which only allows users to mark well-known places, such as restaurants, instead of areas that may be of more interest. For example, in this Pinterest Map of Davidson, the restaurant Toast and coffee shop Summit Coffee could be pinned because they are listed on Foursquare, but specific buildings on campus cannot that are the stage of campus activity cannot be pinned. In order to make spaces more meaningful, geosocial media should be used to mark the nether places, such as sidewalks or parking lots that make up the majority of our day instead of using it to mark the typical locations of bars or restaurants. This provides a more meaningful map as well as one that is more inclusive.

Memory Box

For my project, I will gather specific locational memories from current Davidson students and alumnae and create an online mapping exhibit featuring these memories. This project takes the process of mental mapping and deconstructs it. Instead of letting users show the relative importance of certain areas by including these places on the map or drawing them larger than other places or before other locations as in Gieseking and Soini’s projects, I am condensing each individual’s contribution to the map to only a quote or memory about a place on Davidson College’s campus. Soini argues that how people feel about places is a critical component of mental maps; however, she also argues that mental, or cognitive, maps show “relationships between these concepts” and “represent links between ideas” (227; 232). Instead of tracing a daily pathway like most mental maps, my project draws exclusively on the emotional side of mapping. Thus, my map does not have the links between multiple locations that create a holistic depiction of an individual’s understanding of a place as with mental mapping, but rather, similar to the geosocial media as mentioned by Sample or represented by Pinterest, my maps focus on specific locations and memories. However, unlike the limiting social media, I will include locations, such as second floor library carrels or the tree in the middle of Patterson Court, that are off-grid yet comprise important memories for students. By expanding the scope of map layout, and also by including a wide range of student input, I will create a format for a more inclusive map that creates a “truer” picture of Davidson College. While my methodology aims to extract the what places have most meaning for people, I may find, like Gieseking, that many people included places that lack deeper personal meaning, but may have some cultural or social meaning. For example, in her study, people included the off-campus stables on their map even though they had never visited (172). Similarly, people at Davidson College may include universal memories, such as studying in the library or union. According to Gieseking, the outcome and usefulness of research using mental maps is to inform policy makers about the relationships people have with the elements of a physical place, which can lead to better planning for areas or reveal spatial segregation and inequalities (713). The final outcome of my project may to be to critical think about the changes around campus and how the smaller, out-of-the-way locations on campus contribute to student’s overall experience.


Farman, Jason. “Mapping the Digital Empire: Google Earth and the Process of Postmodern Cartography.” New Media and Society (2010): 869-888. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Gieseking, J.J. “Where We Go From Here: The Spatial Mental Mapping Method and Its Analytic Components for Social Science Data Gathering.” Qualitative Inquiry (2013): 712-724. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Moravec, Michelle. “Pinterest for Public History.” The Mid-AtlanticRegional Center for the Humanities. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Sample, Mark. “Location is Not Compelling (Until it is Haunted).” Mobile Stories: Narrative Practices with Locative Technologies. New York: Routledge, 2014. 68-78. Web. 20 Nov.  2014.

Soini, Katriina. “Exploring human dimensions of multifunctional landscapes through mapping       and map-making.” Landscape and Urban Planning (2001): 225–239. Web. 20 Nov.  2014.


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