What Is a Map?

Two women charting a path on a map
Hummer / Getty Images

We see them every day, we use them when we travel, and we refer to them often, but what is a map?

Map Defined

A map is defined as a representation, usually on a flat surface, of a whole or part of an area. The job of a map is to describe spatial relationships of specific features that the map aims to represent. There are many different types of maps that attempt to represent specific things. Maps can display political boundaries, population, physical features, natural resources, roads, climates, elevation (topography), and economic activities.

Maps are produced by cartographers. Cartography refers both the study of maps and the process of map-making. It has evolved from basic drawings of maps to the use of computers and other technologies to assist in making and mass producing maps.

Is a Globe a Map?

A globe is a map. Globes are some of the most accurate maps that exist. This is because the earth is a three-dimensional object that is close to spherical. A globe is an accurate representation of the spherical shape of the world. Maps lose their accuracy because they are actually projections of a part of or the entire Earth.

Map Projections

There are several types of map projections, as well as several methods used to achieve these projections. Each projection is most accurate at its center point and becomes more distorted the further away from the center that it gets. The projections are generally named after either the person who first used it, the method used to produce it, or a combination of the two.

Some common types of map projections include:

  • Mercator
  • Transverse Mercator
  • Robinson
  • Lambert Azimuthal Equal Area
  • Miller Cylindrical
  • Sinusoidal Equal Area
  • Orthographic
  • Stereographic
  • Gnomonic
  • Albers Equal Area Conic

In-depth explanations of how the most common map projections are made can be found on this USGS website, complete with diagrams and explanations of uses and advantages to each.

Mental Maps

The term mental map refers to the maps that aren't actually produced and just exist in our minds. These maps are what allow us to remember the routes that we take to get somewhere. They exist because people think in terms of spatial relationships and vary from person to person because they are based on one's own perception of the world.

Evolution of Maps

Maps have changed in many ways since maps were first used. The earliest maps that have withstood the test of time were made on clay tablets. Maps were produced on leather, stone, and wood. The most common medium for producing maps on is, of course, paper. Today, however, maps are produced on computers, using software such as GIS or Geographic Information Systems.

The way maps are made has also changed. Originally, maps were produced using land surveying, triangulation, and observation. As technology advanced, maps were made using aerial photography, and then eventually remote sensing, which is the process used today.

The appearance of maps has evolved along with their accuracy. Maps have changed from basic expressions of locations to works of art, extremely accurate, mathematically produced maps.

Map of the World

Maps are generally accepted as precise and accurate, which is true but only to a point. A map of the entire world, without distortion of any kind, has yet to be produced; therefore it is vital that one questions where that distortion is on the map that they are using. 

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Karpilo, Jessica. "What Is a Map?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-map-1435693. Karpilo, Jessica. (2020, August 27). What Is a Map? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-map-1435693 Karpilo, Jessica. "What Is a Map?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-map-1435693 (accessed March 22, 2023).