Lines that define and divide

Usha Raman

Many of the articles in this issue talk about maps and their intimate relationship with our understanding of geography and more importantly, our idea of the world we live in. As all geography teachers know, and as all students of geography bemoan, maps are crucial to all aspects of the subject. Whether one is studying the natural structure of the Earth’s surface and its regions, the distribution of its resources, the relative positioning of land and water bodies, or even the skies above it, maps are key.

Physical and resource maps are “open”, but political maps close off territories and spaces and mark their ownership in specific ways, to countries, states, and other entities. As such, we can learn a lot from looking at how political maps have changed over the years. The lines drawn to mark boundaries and borders, and the ways in which they have shifted, tell us a lot about the continuing tussle over land. The branch of geography that concerns itself with the relationships between territory, people, and state (nations, countries, etc.) is known as political geography.

One of the earliest lessons we learn in political geography is place names – countries and their capitals. The divisions of the world are etched into our minds by coloured lines and shaded spaces on an outline map. Within those curved and twisting lines we mark points of significance and learn their names. We get a sense of our own neighbourhoods and cities by the walls and fences that mark off properties as residential, commercial, public, and private. The bigger boundaries that mark state and country borders tell stories of larger negotiations of power and ownership.

As children move from a rote learning of place names and studying maps only to see how the world is divided politically, you can prompt them to look at these political maps more critically. These questions begin to make sense to children in upper middle and high school, and open up ways of sensitizing them to the more complex issues of geopolitics and international relations.

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