Peter Andrée

Discourse refers to the power embedded within, and reproduced through, how we communicate and what we communicate about.

Peter Andrée is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Carleton University. He is cross-appointed in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies and in the Institute of Political Economy. Peter is a first-generation immigrant to Canada from the Netherlands and lives with his wife, Chris, and son, Nicolas, on unceded Algonquin territory alongside the Gatineau River in Québec.

‘Knowing’ the Land: The discursive power of maps

In popular usage, discourse usually refers to a conversation or debate between people. In the social sciences and humanities, discourse still refers to communication, but the term comes with additional layers of meaning (and much debate about what those layers entail!) These layers focus on the power embedded within, and reproduced through, how we communicate and what we communicate about. Michel Foucault, the 20th century French social theorist who provides the most detailed elaboration of the power of discourse, argues that discourse has both productive and disciplinary effects (Foucault, 1976). Being productive means a discourse leads logically to certain ends; it contributes to bringing specific outcomes into being. Disciplinary power refers to the way that discourse, as a claim to ‘truth’, effectively turns other ways of thinking and talking about the topic into nonsense.

This vignette shows how discourse is not only about spoken and written words, but also about the ways we depict the world in symbols and pictures, and how we enact ways of understanding the world through day-to-day practices, like making maps.

Several years ago, I introduced students in my environmental ethics course to the Foucauldian observation that we are always operating within certain discourses and associated practices (and within the power relations embedded in those discourses and practices). I particularly wanted my students to understand that this happens whether we acknowledge it or not. Our situation within a discursive terrain is not always self-evident because we often take for granted the discourses we operate within. To illustrate my point, I put up a series of overhead transparencies (this was the late 1990s) showing copies of maps, much like Figure 1 below.


an image of Dumont’s geological map of Europe from 1875
Figure 1: Dumont’s geological map of Europe (1875) (Wikimedia Commons, 2020a.)

As I was teaching an environmental ethics class, I used forestry, soil, and geological maps as illustrations of how the authorities that produce maps design them to bring certain features to light. This is the productive side of a discourse: It produces certain ways of understanding the land, which then renders certain types of uses or practices (like logging, farming, and mining) normal, even ‘natural’. In this example, the productive power of the discourse these maps help enact was plain to see. I also showed maps of rural areas and cities, again pointing out what the map makers chose to illustrate (e.g., roads and rivers), which inevitably means other things might not be present. For example, these maps may not include the habitats of threatened species or cultural features, such as public washrooms or sacred spaces, not considered important enough to be on the maps to those who made them.

We talked about the language the maps were produced in, and what names appeared on them. The classroom we were in was located on traditional Indigenous territories in what is now Toronto, Canada, but nowhere was this mentioned on the official government maps I showed, and Indigenous names for places were (for the most part) absent, demonstrating the disciplinary power of discourse. Discourse produces a certain way of seeing and thinking while hiding others. These observations led to questions like: Who made these maps? What relations to a place do these maps help reproduce? How is power over land, people, and resources enacted simply by what we (or at least the most powerful among us) think is worth putting on a map and what is not? In other words, what do these maps communicate both through and beyond the information they present?

To see discourse and power as intertwined suggests neither that such power cannot be challenged nor that the experts who initially define a discourse for their purposes will always be in control. For example, maps can be used as a form of what Foucault calls resistance, such as when they are created to depict what was previously deliberately excluded. For an open-source mapping project that strives to depict the Indigenous territories of the world, see, for example, Native Land (n.d.). This website shows how resistance can emerge from within a discourse to challenge its own norms. Foucault would see such resistance as itself a productive effect of the map-making discourse that originally sought to control territory on behalf of state and industrial interests.

After my initial discussion about maps, I then introduced the class to another very different discourse of land, hoping to show how limited western mapping discourses—and their traditional assumptions—are. “Songlines” are a way that the First Nations of Australia pass on their knowledge of the land from generation to generation, over thousands of years. The Songlines of the Seven Sisters, for example, are “stories of magic and desire, hot pursuit and escape, and the strength and power of family ties” (Common Ground, n.d.). In addition to being captivating stories, they also “map” the landscape—in this case from Roeburn in the west of Australia, all the way to the country’s east coast, a distance of thousands of kilometers. As Common Ground, a First Nations–-led not-for-profit, explains: “The story crosses through many different lands, so it’s carried by the Martu, the Anangu, Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Ngaanyatjarra people” (Common Ground, n.d.).

This all led to a great conversation about how different ways of talking about and depicting the land reveal very different types of relationships that peoples have with the territories they call home, and how discourses and what are sometimes called discursive practices (like map making, or passing on songlines) can reinforce these ways of knowing as normal—as the ‘truth’—to those of us who operate within a given discourse.

The moment that brought this lesson home, however, came as a serendipitous accident. I put up an un-annotated map of North America like the one found in Figure 2, below. Students quickly started shouting from the back rows of the lecture theatre that it was ‘upside down’.


a map of North America with the image arranged showing the South at the top and the North at the bottom
Figure 2: North America (Wikimedia, 2020b.)

I saw that I had indeed put the map up differently from how it is normally shown—the South was on the top of the screen, and the North was on the bottom. The usual way we show maps, with the North at the top, fits easily with the convention that places the world’s northern peoples (typically of European descent) and countries on top (in more ways than one!). In this case, however, that convention was disrupted by my accidental inversion. Taking advantage of the moment, I didn’t let on that this was a mistake. Instead, I said “what do you mean, it’s ‘upside down’?” This question elicited a fascinating conversation as some students argued for putting the map up ‘properly’, while others argued that the assumption of a ‘right’ or ‘truthful’ way to depict this two-dimensional, rather empty picture reveals just how deeply embedded we all are in discourse. Whether we perceive its contours or not, discourse implicates highly specific ways of thinking about, communicating, and practicing our world. This, in a nutshell, is the power of discourse.


Discussion Questions

  • This vignette focused on the way that a discourse of human relationships to land is reinforced through map-making. What examples would you use to illustrate the power of discourse and its associated discursive practices?
  • Can you identify a core discourse at work in your academic field or discipline? What are some of the productive and disciplinary effects of this discourse on how or what researchers in your field do? Has this discourse enabled resistance from within?
  • Why do you think it is important to name and critically examine the discourses we operate within, challenging as it may be to recognize them from inside?

Additional Resources

Corbett J. M., M. Chapin, L. Gibson and G. Rambaldi. (2009). Indigenous mapping. In International encyclopedia of human geography. Elsevier Press.

Darier, E. (ed.) (1999). Discourses of the environment. Oxford: Blackwell

Dryzek, J. (2013). The politics of the earth: Environmental discourses, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Phillips L., and M. Jorgensen. (2002). Discourse analysis: As theory and method. London: Sage.

Smith, D. A., A. Ibáñez, and F. Herrera. (2017). The importance of context: Assessing the benefits and limitations of participatory mapping for empowering Indigenous communities in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé, Panama. Cartographica: The International Journal for Geographic Information and Geovisualization, 52(1): 49-62.


Common Ground. (n.d.). Songlines. https://www.commonground.org.au/learn/songlines

Foucault, M. 1976 (1979). The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An introduction. London: Allen Lane.

Native Land. (n.d.) https://native-land.ca/

Wikimedia Commons. (2020a). File 1875 Dumont’s geological map of Europe. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:1875_Dumont%27s_geological_map_of_Europe.jpg

Wikimedia Commons. (2020b). File: BLANK in North America. Svg. URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:BLANK_in_North_America.svg

The Wikimedia commons maps are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Showing Theory to Know Theory Copyright © 2022 by Peter Andrée is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)


Share This Book