Tag Archives: geography/maps

Cultural Patterns and Geographic Terms

Dolores R. sent a link to a map created by Derek Watkins to show how the names given to geographic features reflect cultural patterns. Using a database of names officially accepted by the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, Watkins mapped generic terms used in the names of streams (excluding “creek” and “river,” which are commonly used throughout the U.S and were plotted in a gray that fades into the background):

The generic terms reflect historical immigration patterns. “Kill” appears in areas of New York originally settled by the Dutch; “cañada,” “arroyo,” and “río” indicate areas of Spanish exploration and settlement in the Southwest; of course, Louisiana and the surrounding area still reflects its French heritage through the term “bayou.”

The map reflects internal migration and cultural diffusion within the U.S., as well. For instance, Watkins suggests that the patch of red in southwest Wisconsin, indicating the use of “branch,” may be due to the lead mining boom in the early 1800s. Lead mining attracted Appalachian miners to the area, and they may have influenced local naming practices, bringing along terms common in Appalachia.

For more on the interconnections between geographic names or terms and larger cultural patterns, Watkins suggests reading Names on the Land: A Historical Account of Place-Naming in the United States, by George Stewart (2008). Another excellent source is Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language among the Western Apache, by Keith Basso (1996).

Native American Reservations, Representation, and Online Maps

As we live our lives increasingly in the digital realm, the sights, sounds, and moving images of the internet impact our conception of the world around us. Take, for example, the many online mapping services.  What began as simple tools to find driving directions have evolved into advanced applications that map multiple layers of data.

But who decides what we see? What features are considered sufficiently important to be included? And what information about our country do those design decisions make invisible?

As a fan of Google Maps, I became accustomed to a visual style that favors brevity and aesthetics over sheer volumes of information. Until recently, when you used Google Maps, this is the type of image you’d get of the U.S.:

Notice the light grayish splotches that I circled in red in states such as South Dakota, Montana, and Arizona? Even if you zoomed in, they remained unnamed, mysterious features.

Google Maps has been updated since that screenshot was taken; here’s the map of South Dakota you get today:

Now the mysterious blotches have disappeared from the map altogether.

I happened to click on a link that took me to Bing Maps.  I ended up scrolling around, and I noticed something different:

What were just discolored gray geometric shapes in the first Google map, and disappeared altogether in the second one, actually have names on Bing! They are Native American reservations. Yet even when you zoomed in on Google Maps, you never saw a single label that identified these gray areas in South Dakota (or any other state) as political and geographic entities with names.

Among the other map services, Yahoo! Maps and MapQuest do label Indian reservations while OpenStreetMap does not.

Some enterprising Google Earth enthusiasts also wondered about the absence of reservations — which are, after all, sovereign political entities — and have since created several unique layers that identify and outline Indian reservations throughout the United States.

While these mapping tools certainly empower the individual, it is the designers and the developers behind them who hold the real power.  I can only speculate as to why Google Maps did not include the  labels and then opted to remove Indian reservations altogether, but their decision impacts the way we understand (or don’t understand) the geographic and social reality of this country.


Stephen Bridenstine is pursuing a history masters degree at the University of British Columbia, where he studies popular attitudes and public memory concerningIndigenous peoples, the historic fur trade, and the natural environment. He blogs about non-Native America’s weird obsession with everything “Indian” at his blog Drawing on Indians. He allowed us to include some of his observations about the inconsistent representation of Native American reservations in online map programs.

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Facebook, Technology, and Prostitution

Sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, at Wired, summarizes an interesting finding from his research on a non-random sample of prostitution in New York City. The solicitation of prostitutes, he explains, has increasingly entered cyberspace. Prostitutes are now significantly more likely to be solicited on the internet than they are to be picked up in person or referred by a mutual acquaintance. Facebook, in particular, is now a primary way that Johns find prostitutes.

If solicitation is shifting, with more and more Johns finding prostitutes online, then sex workers don’t have to be physically find-able. And if sex workers don’t have to be anywhere in particular, then we might expect sex work to spread out throughout the city. This is, indeed, what Venkatesh finds. The side-by-side maps of New York City below show that, between 1991 and 2010, there are fewer highly-concentrated areas of prostitution (in red) and more moderately-concentrated that spread out further across the city.

So here we have an excellent example of how technology is changing work, leisure, and crime in interesting ways.

Via Cyborgology.

UPDATE: A reader sent in a Salon articlestrongly criticizing the conclusions outlined above, so take this post with a grain of salt.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Visualizing the Gulf Oil Leak

The website If It Was My Home (and yes, they know about the grammar error) allows you to get a better grasp on the size of the area affected by the BP oil leak.  They use National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s daily updates on where the oil will reach in the next 24 hours and allow you to use Google Maps to position it anywhere you want. It’s easier for me, at least, to get an idea of the dimensions of the area we’re talking about when I can imagine it on an area I’m familiar with than seeing it on a map of the ocean.

Here’s the oil leak area centered over Las Vegas, where I live:

The darker the shade of gray, the denser the oil. Here is the current NOAA surface oil projection for the next 24 hours; red indicates places oil may hit shores:

Today’s 72-hour projection, which shows the range extending qute a bit to the west, and more affected shoreline:

Thanks to Kate W. for the link!

Related posts: using the oil spill to advertise cheap flights, should we clean up oil-soaked wildlife?, the Gulf oil industry, BP buys Google search terms, BP gives Florida money for advertising tourism, protesting BP, and the power of images of environmental disasters.

Political Attitudes on OkCupid: Prioritizing Rights and Flag Burning

DragonRidingSorceress sent us a link to an interesting map, based on OkCupid data:


Hunting down the data source led me to another map. This one asked if burning the national flag should be illegal:


I suppose neither pattern will seem hugely surprising to most people given what we know about political affiliations, social attitudes, and geography in the U.S. And you could certainly criticize the first question for forcing people into a dichotomy that might not accurately represent their actual views (that is, probably most people would respond “neither” if given that option). But scholars argue that “forced choice” questions can give useful info about priorities and preferences — after all, even if you’d choose “neither” or “I value these rights equally” if given those options, choosing one or the other when forced does say something about which right seems more relevant if you have to hypothetically choose.

Hypothesizing Uneven Rates of Married Households

The US Census Bureau put together the map below.  It shows what percentage of households in any given county include a married couple.  In the counties colored with the darkest turquoise, between 59.6 and 79.6% of households consist of a married couple.  In the counties colored white, less than 51.6 do.

I think it’s interesting to speculate as to how the reasons why there are more or less married couple households might vary by place. For example, some places may have disproportionate numbers of gay and lesbian residents who cannot, legally, get married. Others may have higher rates of poverty, which has been shown to decrease relationship stability, leading to less marriage and more divorce.  Still others may have normative or religious pressures in favor of marriage (Utah strongly stands out as the most marriage-prone state).  The racial/ethnic make-up of counties may contribute to marriage rates; we know, for instance, that black women marry at a lesser rate than white women for a whole host of reasons.  Racial/ethnic homogeneity may play a factor too, since interracial marriage is still uncommon and asymmetrical when it does occur.  Some counties have more disproportionate ratios of males and females, which may also shape marriage rates. What do you think?  More hypotheses?  Arguments one way or another?

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

World History and the Diffusion and Disappearance of Political-Economies

Missives from Marx sent in a link to this animated time line documenting the diffusion of various political-economic systems (e.g., fascism, democracy, and feudalism) over world history.  It can be read as a story about the triumph of democracy, but it’s also illustrates how political-economic systems are not natural, but invented during particular historical eras, and diffuse or disappear as a consequence of war, geography, and other geopolitical factors.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Correlating Playgrounds and Economic Class in New York City

You might have noticed that there are poor, rich, and middle class neighborhoods in just about every town.  Sociologists call this residential segregation.  Residential segregation is a problem, in part, because it can create a situation in which some neighborhoods have more social and other services than others.  Sociologists have found, for example, that richer neighborhoods tend to have more grocery stores, better sidewalks, and more fire protection.

So, when Jessica Sherwood, of Sociologists for Women in Society, sent us a map showing the density of playgrounds in New York City, I immediately thought to correlate it with average income.

Playground map (darker pink = more playgrounds):


Map of median household income (yellow = more income, blue = less):


UPDATE:  Awesomely, Reader Mark Root-Wiley overlaid the two maps and sent it along!  Here it is:


It looks to me that playground density is highest in the poorest neighborhoods.  A very unusual finding!

So, what factors do you think might account for the disproportionate number of playgrounds in low income areas?  Speculate away!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.