Who, What, Why: Why do we know places?

Check out this BBC Article, BBC News – Who, What, Why: Why do we know Timbuktu?   This is an area of study I’ve always found interesting. In regards to geography, history, and culture- what do we know and how do we know it?  What goes into changing our individual and collective concepts of a place?

In my own life, my travels and studies have really illuminated some parts of the world, but I know my idea about some other areas are still just as hazy, outdated and warped. Plus, even when we do travel or research an area we’re less familiar with we still have to fight against our biases in interpreting what we encounter.

I first started thinking about these ideas when I cam across a book in Taiwan by Emma Jinhua Teng called Taiwan’s Imagined Geography, Chinese Colonial Travel Writing and Pictures, 1683-1895.  It was more than just a reproduction of travel literature but examined the changes in the conception of the land geographically and culturally from the point of view of China– first seen as a wild land, unworthy of attention, and then later enveloped into the Chinese empire.

The BBC article got me ruminating on the topic again, but I didn’t even know what to call this topic. A little internet research brought me some terminology – Environmental Cognition and Cognitive Geography. Cool.  There are courses and degrees in a few schools on these topics and I’ve lined up a bit of a reading list based on a few syllabi posted on the web.  I sense a learning project coming into being. Where and when were the first written maps from (that we know of)? What different ways have people used to navigate and to communicate location and direction? How did people without sophisticated navigation tools navigate new terrain? How did (and do) people obtain new geospatial knowledge? I’m particularly interested in the different groups of people that border Northern and Western China. How did they perceive ‘others’ and outside lands?   Not all of these questions relate and I’ve already been sidetracked a few times by modern studies on how people use maps.  It’s all fun stuff- I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, after reading the BBC article, watch this TED Talk about map design.http://www.ted.com/talks/aris_venetikidis_making_sense_of_maps.html