What is Ethno Mapping?

Caitlin Dempsey


Maps aren’t just intended for navigation. Though most people think of maps in terms of what kind of physical land features they display, maps can have a much deeper significance to historians and anthropologists. Through the practice of subjective mapping, cartography can be married to anthropology and sociology to create ethno mapping, a practice by which human history and knowledge can be portrayed as a map.

Rather than breaking the world down into states, countries, and other political regions artificially drawn up by rulers and treaties, ethno mapping breaks the world down into the people in it. Ethnic groups can encompass more than one country. Conversely, a single country can be home to several distinct ethnic groups. This practice helps avoid the oversimplification inherent in relying on artificially drawn-up country borders when it comes to analyzing populations of people- instead, researchers can display their ethnic group data in a way that’s more meaningful, and ultimately more useful. Instead of referring to Americans, researchers can examine populations of Lakota Americans, Haitian Americans, Chinese Americans, Finnish Americans, and so forth, and view their distribution across the country.

Map showing ethnolinguistics groups in Afghanistan.  Source: <a href="http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/call/docs/10-64/ch_4.asp">United States Army Combined Arms Center</a>.
Map showing ethnolinguistics groups in Afghanistan. Source: United States Army Combined Arms Center.

Ethno mapping is useful for a variety of reasons. For one, human populations have always modified their environments to fit their needs and lifestyles. When it comes to things like sustainability and conservation, mapping the different socioeconomic, cultural, and ethnic groups in an area, and how they have changed over time, can help researchers pinpoint different human factors that contribute to things like erosion, changes in the water table, and deforestation. For example, if a researcher wants to determine what might be causing a sudden upswing in soil erosion in a given area, they may map out how the people living in that area have changed. Did one ethnic group die out in favor of another one, or were they assimilated? How did the original inhabitants change, and how did it impact their relationship with their environment? All of these questions can be answered by ethno mapping research.

Ethno mapping is also useful when it comes to determining how to help a population. This is especially useful for large metropolitan areas with many residents from different ethnic groups. For example, if an ethnic map of a city shows that the majority of their poor population does not speak the same language as the predominant ethnic group, then city officials can use that information to tailor their assistance programs to serve more people.

Ethno mapping also offers some very interesting insights into human behavior, particularly how ethnic groups tend to converge in an ethnically diverse society. For example, it’s reasonable to expect that citizens of a given country will feel perfectly comfortable living in neighborhoods with law-abiding citizens of the same country. However, ethnic mapping shows that people tend to seek out neighborhoods made up of people from their same ethnic or religious group, regardless of what that group is- people of Chinese extraction tend to live in predominantly Chinese neighborhoods, for example, and Caucasian Protestants tend to feel more comfortable living around other Caucasian Protestants.

Next, ethno mapping is extremely useful when it comes to charting how things like languages and customs evolve. All languages with living speakers grow with time. New words are added, spellings change, pronunciation changes, and pidgin dialects develop. By mapping where ethnic groups migrate from, and which other ethno-linguistic groups they end up in contact with in the process, etymologists can chart the evolution of languages throughout history. Language geography (sometimes called linguistic geography, or geolinguistics) is an entire branch of geography dedicated to studying the distribution and evolution of languages around the world.

Lastly, ethno mapping is crucial for the preservation of historical and world knowledge. As travel and technology make the world smaller, people from different ethnic groups are mixing more freely. Certain languages are becoming the dominant languages for business and academics to the exclusion of others, and ethnic customs are dying out in favor of modern life. Ethno mapping can help determine where ethnic groups are shrinking, so researchers can attempt to help preserve their traits that are fading away.

Sometimes, things like political borders and topography are important. For many researchers, the physical characteristics of a geographic location are less important than its people. Ethno mapping gives them a way to divide the world up according to the people in it, so they can go on to chart human behavior, language, customs, and other characteristics that you can’t see on a political map.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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