(P7): The Map is Never the Territory

A map of native tribal territories from the time before Europeans came to North America.
Tribal Map

No matter how hard we try to make it so.

No matter how many times we convince ourselves.

No matter how hard we wish.

The map is never the territory.

We use our ability to abstract as a way of making a map of some territory. We use the map to get some insight into, say, the target of our advocacy work. Once we have the insight, we are supposed to put that insight back into the territory. But we often stop before putting it back. Instead, we treat the insight as though it were the truth of the territory.  We confuse the useful map for reality, and we make decisions based on our now false sense of reality.


We can use the base metaphor as our example. I am old enough to remember when I had to use an actual book of maps to find my way around for the many advocacy activities I di at Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service. I might have 3 separate advocacy meetings across six counties in the Thumb of Michigan in a single day. It was common that I was traveling to a place I’d never been to before. I had to plan my trips to assure I had a decent chance of arriving on time. Poring over the maps was necessary most days.

But it was easy to forget that, especially back then, there were no notices of road conditions, accidents, construction schedules. The map route was not the actual process of traveling in the real world. And that is the difference between the map and the territory. If I did conflate them, I could very well get caught up short in my plan by reality, in a dead end, blocked by an accident, by the change of location of the meeting, and so on.

But a lot of map-territory conflation is not so easily detected or so quickly punished. Confusing the map for the territory is a common kind of misinformation that often goes undetected because believing the map to be the territory allows for political and financial control over the distribution of power, reputation, and wealth. There are no obvious consequences to the belief that the map is the territory (at least not in the short run), This failure of thought becomes habitual, and undermines our ability to see and plan with some level of clarity.


This fallacy arises from the way we use language, and so is unavoidable. We must question our abstractions, not just use them for real world analysis. By not questioning, we make strategic errors in our advocacy, and undermine our ability to create valued outcomes. We use planning and the logic of the “logic model” to organize “things” that don’t exist. We assume that people will change according to the way we manipulate them as abstractions (director, asshole, enemy, ally, etc.)

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Author: disabilitynorm

hubby2jill, 2dogs, advocate45+yrs, change strategist, trainer, geezer, pa2Loree, gndpa2Nevin