Mapping Maritime Mindsets: Deep Maps from Inspiration to Feasibility

Thomas van den Brink

Port cities have a certain ambience, a culture that makes them different from other cities. This is embedded in tangible elements like ships, quays, waterfronts and warehouses, as well as in immaterial elements like language, myths, rituals, images, texts, sounds, and architectural form. Capturing this multiplicity, however, is difficult.

As we argued in an earlier blog, the method of Deep Mapping may provide a solution. In Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives (2015) Bodenhamer et al propose so-called Deep Maps as an ultimate way to understand the human experience to its fullest extent. The need for it stems from their dissatisfaction with conventional maps, which they consider too focused on clear and precise data, and objective space. Although maps are essential in many cases, Bodenhamer et al argue that this does not do justice to how humans experience the world, which is equally related to subjective things like emotions, beliefs, taboos, values, ideals and relative spaces.

The strength of a Deep Map is its ability to combine “fuzzy”, subjective, and imprecise data dynamically within space. This implies that it is necessary to go beyond the traditional data driven approaches in Geographical Information Systems (GIS). Especially the ability to visualize fuzzy data through time and space can help us to enrich stories and our understanding of cultural developments.

However, there is no straightforward way to put this approach into practice, and not many sample projects exist so far (Bodenhamer, 2015). Every project therefore must translate the method’s assumptions, ambitions and technical possibilities into a feasible research design. This also requires awareness of inherent biases when using and creating maps, especially the acknowledgement that they are objective nor neutral (Hein & Van Mil, 2020). To know how various aspects of a maritime culture were knitted together in space, over the long term--which is one of the missions of PortCityFutures--, we employ the lens of Deep Mapping, to find spatial relations between the different dimensions that characterise the maritime culture.

Applying Deep Mapping in the PortCityFutures context also poses some specific challenges. Deep Maps are considered to be infinite, as their value increases when more and various data are combined. For some advocates, the aim is even to include ‘…everything you might ever want to say about a place’ (Pearson and Shanks, 2001). Within this view, Deep Maps are a type of big data collection that can be analysed without any pre-formulated research question nor definite answers, because they are open-ended and never finished (Pearson and Shanks, 2001; Roberts, 2016).

Instead of mapping everything about a place, we will analyse the maritime culture from various angles in line with the port cityscape approach (Hein 2019). To visualize this broad impact of ports on cities and regions, we propose combining in one map the locations of diverse port related facilities, including commodity storage, hospital and quarantine areas, and places where shippers and sailors went in their free time, such as churches or bars. Yet, our thematic approach implies that we need to make careful decisions on both the temporal and spatial scope of what should be mapped.

How, then, do we decide what is relevant? In our PCF working group, Mapping Maritime Mindsets, we aim to use clear and well-argued criteria to include and further process the data we will map. As such, we reckon that our Deep Map enables us to answer specific research questions. A key instrument to this is the development of map legends, specific techniques, a glossary, and a thesaurus. To make our choices transparent we have to be transparent about the reasoning behind them. Only then is it possible to have a dialogue between scientists and professionals with different backgrounds. It is a living and open-ended project to which it is always possible to add new data and therefore reach new insights.

Combining various data to understand a port city’s identity
Another challenge consists of combining different types of spatial data in order to answer complex questions. Understanding port cities from their position within commodity chains, for example, requires a combination of spatial, social and cultural dimensions. At first sight, this is solely an issue of precision and objective space which is easily mapped. For example, the transport of coffee has led to the construction of specific spaces like coffee gardens, warehouses and infrastructures with measurable locations and distances between them.

A deeper understanding and new forms of visualization are needed to gain deeper of social systems, financial flows, legislation or political and governance systems associated with these commodity chains. Only then, it is possible to understand the inequalities that came with the trade: the profit that went to big companies, such as the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij who built impressive headquarters in port cities, while the coffee farmers only saw a small part of the profit. Cultural dimensions such as imaginaries and language support the commodity chains by enabling actors to operate in these networks and stimulating their popularity for wider audiences. Coffee companies used exotic landscapes depicting coffee cultivation on Java (Indonesia), for example, to market their product.

Mapping these dimensions over time as layers of a Deep Map, helps explain the uneven relations and interactions within and among port cities. It enables the discovery of complex spatial relationships that are difficult to identify within regular maps. A sound research design, that responds to the challenges explained in this blog, will allow for a deeper understanding of what makes a port city unique. A such, Deep Mapping is a method that can provide insights into the spatial, social and cultural conditions beyond what is tangible. It can provide background stories of maritime cultures to researchers and practitioners. Deep Mapping thus enriches the stories of port cities, that are often reduced to measurable, logistical or technical issues, from an integral cultural perspective.

This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the author and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. Special thanks for comments and reviews to the PortCityFutures working group, Mapping Maritime Mindsets: Yvonne van Mil, Hilde Sennema, Vincent Baptist, Tianchen Dai and YingYing Gan, and to Carola Hein for her revisions.

Bodenhamer, D.J., Corrigan, J., Harris, T.M., ed. (2015). Deep Maps and Spatial Narratives. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Bodenhamer, D.J., Corrigan, J., Harris, T.M., ed. (2010). The Spatial Humanities GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Cope, M. and Elwood, S. ed. (2009). Qualitative GIS A Mixed Methods Approach. SAGE Publications Ltd, London.

Hein, C., (2019). “The Port Cityscape: Spatial and Institutional Approaches to Port City Relationships”. PORTUSplus 8 (November).

Hein, Carola, and Yvonne van Mil. (2019). “Towards a Comparative Spatial Analysis for Port City Regions Based on Historical Geo-Spatial Mapping”. PORTUSplus 8 (November).

Pearson, M. and Shanks, M. (2001). Theatre/Archaeology. Routledge, London.

Roberts, L., (2016). Deep Mapping and Spatial Anthropology, Humanities, 5(1), 5. Doi: