The opening up of new markets and the nineteenth-century colonial conquests sparked a need for knowledge about the world that geography (in its scientific, state-sponsored, academic and popular versions) helped to fill, but the legacy of which still affects conceptions of the world and cartography. The pivotal science developed by Paul Vidal de La Blache (1845-1918) studied relations between natural and social phenomena, particularly through a direct visual approach to human environments. It accords pride of place to cartographic representation. The inseparable history-geography duo naturalized and imposed the national construct, and outlined identity and citizenship. The former had the responsibility of embodying these values in an edifying historical narrative. The latter, concrete, useful and instrumental, gave a hierarchized inventory of the world’s territories, their riches and their peoples. These basic teachings, deterministic regarding the relationship between nature and society and centered on the national territorial state, make it impossible to grasp material and immaterial circulations and leave us ill-equipped to understand a contemporary world in which these phenomena have suddenly accelerated.

The different paces of globalization

From the Renaissance to the early twentieth century, political scientists and geographers have depicted a world of territories, inside the boundaries of which each sovereign ensured the subjects’ security and forged relationships with other states in a more or less stable and violent balance of power. Ever since the Spanish and Portuguese set their sights on the New World, globalization processes have been at work – building networks, establishing regular patterns of circulation and integrating new spaces. Yet our understanding of the actors involved (trading companies, merchants, adventurers) and what they were spreading (capitalism, new markets, territorial conceptions, urban design, etc.), remained marginal. In the nineteenth century, French and British colonization brought more and increasingly varied societies into the world-economy without changing outlooks.

The end of the Second World War ushered in a period characterized by the great regulatory endeavor of multilateralism, the gradual erosion of the territorial nation-state model and the extension of trading and communication networks networks. Decolonization brought in tow a huge wave of state proliferation. While the welfare state slowly ran out of steam after the upturn experienced during the thirty-year-long post-World War II economic boom, instability gave way to tribal or religious autocrats in some new states. Yet, two binary conceptions reinforced geostrategic and simplistic representations of the world, even as economic interdependency became manifest to all with each economic crisis (oil crunch, debt crisis, etc.). These East/West and North/South models have been visualized in a now familiar, widespread cartography of dividing lines or fronts.

With the end of bipolarity and the process of regional integration underway, Europe is no longer the center of the world. International violence is changing and proliferating at the hands of new actors, the political integration of the world is declining even as inegalitarian economic integration is growing. The communications and information revolution encompasses ever larger segments of societies, consolidating the global operating model of finance and business and stimulating individual desires for mobility. While new powers are reconfiguring power relations, global corporations, legal and illegal financial networks and all manner of actors are taking on a growing role, heightening the transformative capacity of globalization processes. Power is changing register and is partly changing hands. The failure of development policies in Southern hemisphere countries and growing awareness of the scale of climate change and environmental threats have made it essential to think in terms of different scales of time and space and come up with new ways of representing reality.

Globalization: words and images

In the early 1980s, economists began to use the word globalization, which became central in all the social sciences after the end of the Cold War. Today, political science analyzes the “end of territories” (Bertrand Badie), sociologists study “global cities” (Saskia Sassen), “network societies” (Manuel Castells), the “archipelago economy” (Pierre Veltz); anthropologists reflect on “non-places” (Marc Augé). Paradoxically, the densification of economic, financial and information exchanges seems to erase space and suggest that this change in scale means the “end” or the “death” of geography. Yet, the primacy of flows that are partly indifferent to state territories does not make the spatial dimension of social phenomena irrelevant. It differentiates places more than ever, in a ubiquitous and networked global space.

Not only has geography’s anticipated demise not occurred, but geographers, along with historians, sociologists and economists, have contributed to thinking about globalization. Olivier Dollfus formulated the expression “world-system” (1984), situating his research in a resolutely cross-disciplinary approach, and with Roger Brunet published Les Mondes nouveaux (1990), organized following the global megalopolitan archipelago, giving rise to an innovative cartography. Jacques Lévy shows how the types of distances have multiplied, varying from degree zero (informational ubiquity) to immensity (of places excluded from any process of globalization) in a multimetric world (topology of exchange networks and topography of Euclidean distances). Flows, axes and poles, port ranges, airports, hubs, material and immaterial networks, outputs, connections, and nodes all become objects of study, and cartography is radically changing in its attempt to represent the entanglement of connections and exchanges.

The development of satellite imaging since the 1970s has given us detailed and comprehensive images of the Earth that have been widely circulated for a variety of social and political purposes (knowledge, land use planning or exploitation, control and surveillance of places and people, war conditions, etc.). Since the start of the 2000s, online localization and route planning tools have become common consumer products, focused on individuals and their mobilities. Their interactive possibilities and the feasibility of adding layers of information make them major cognitive resources. Yet, the deficit in representations of transnational flows of goods, people and information still persists.

At the same time, major publishers and a segment of the press offer up geography as a spectacle, by turns exotic and very classical, and atlases are in fashion. The exhaustion of the post-Vidalian paradigm and the symbolic devaluation of geography, which reached a peak in the 1970s, has diminished the role of cartography, the renewal of which has moved in three different directions: quantitative methods and what was initially known as automated cartography focused on typological classification; systems analysis and modeling based on research in the English-speaking world and a French sociological tradition attentive to ties and solidarity; and the development of graphic semiology. The emergence of globalization as a topic of study in the social sciences opens up a field of investigation for cartographers facing new regional or local entities that we do not even have names for, intertwined flows that resist legible representation unless considerably simplified, and the rapid growth of data repositories.

To quote this article

" World, Space, Time " World Atlas of Global Issues, 2018, [online], accessed on Mar 15 2021, URL:


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