June 20, 2008

Mapping Afghan Ethnicities

I have a long-running fascination with spatial distribution of, well, pretty much anything and everything. One of the slipperiest things to map is ethnic identity, but that hasn't deterred legions of cartographers (though in fact the cartographers are mostly hired help, assisting anthropologists, demographers, census-takers, colonial masters, the military...). One of my favorite examples of the pitfalls of ethnic mapping is George Peter Murdock's effort to define the territories of peoples in Africa:

[adapted from Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History (1959)]
Pretty much everything is wrong with this map, starting with the very notion of a clear boundary (a line) to define where a "tribe" (ooooh, hateful word...) starts and stops (ethnic plurality and complex interdigitation is much more common than ethnic homogeneity, for all sorts of very good and highly location-specific reasons). At best, one might say that ethnicities have foci (perhaps hearths would be a better characterization) and force-fields that (seem to) emanate from a sort-of cultural identity centroid... but then there's the problem of defining an ethnicity (does a person get only ONE?) and comprehending what its earmarks and contents might be (just what is "culture" anyway? --a problem that vexes anthropologists permanently). Sort of a long runup to a pointer to Ghost of Alexander's "Fun with Ethnic Maps", which showcases 7 versions of the ethnic territories of Afghanistan. The message here isn't that one shouldn't attempt to map slippery concepts, but rather that any map is a starting point for discussion and elaboration, and not an authority, and especially not a permanent authority. Pretty much any phenomenon worth mapping is likely to squirm around over time, and we're just beginning to have the wherewithal to construct and distribute dynamic maps. Fascinating times, these.

Posted by oook at June 20, 2008 09:11 AM