Population Groups of The Balkans

Maps are social constructions that create a reality. They anchor populations within the space defined in the borders. However, the Balkans, the area that was formerly Yugoslavia, is fractured into a slew of ethnic and nationalistic pieces; it would be impossible to make a precise map of the area. A single piece of paper with ink and writing would hardly be enough to explain the centuries of geopolitical violence, diplomacy, and tension that the area has harbored. That being said, “Population groups in the Balkan region and Eastern Europe” by Philippe Rekacewicz, Le Monde Diplomatique, and UNEP/GRID-Arendal, published in 2007, attempts to illustrate both the scattered distribution of ethnic cultures as well as the changing nationalistic borders of the Balkans. This map is a functional document that serves to present the Balkans’ past, present, and future as an imperfect nationalistic struggle. It reminds us that no map is fully precise and reminds us about the complexity of global politics and identity.

Notice how the map includes the surrounding countries in gray. These gray masses serve more than just a contextual border for the Balkans, they demonstrate the normative expectation of how the Balkans should look – neat and organized countries with one or two major cities. The parts of the map in color shock the eye and confuse the viewer at first, relaying the chaos of the region. The authors also use the red captions in the map to show detail that the audience will find useful. Denis Wood examines this in his book The Power Of Maps by writing, “there are no self-explanatory signs; no signs that so resemble their referents as to self-evidently refer to them, they are inevitably arbitrary, inevitably reveal…a value.” [1]. That is, the signs and captions on the map reveal a different inference of information to each specific reader – there is no universal explanation.

Not only is the color an assault on the eyes, but the authors also condense the text as much as possible, labeling cities and towns, and using red captions to indicate places of interest too small for the map to detail. The most important thing to the author, one assumes, is the diversification of the color on the map, which signals areas and pockets of an ethnic community. It also tries to impress the viewer. The rich detail of specific areas and specificity of the captions and names signals to the viewer that the cartographers are talented and have the resources to create a truly authentic and objective map. But, Wood writes that, “maps create their own reality.”[2] The map creates the illusion that only people of the specified color on the legend live in that area. In reality, the color is symbolic of the majority in that area. Therefore, it may seem to the reader that “only Serbians may live in this area,” when the reality is that Serbians are only the majority, not the entire population. The implications of this construction of the map could be potentially damaging to the minorities living in each area. The map ignores these people; potentially millions of displaced ethnic neighborhoods, and favors only the majorities. Politically, it makes the map look entirely evenly segregated – each ethnic group having their own slice of the Balkans. But, the map lies and gives the viewer the wrong impression of the area – the cartographers made a subjective decision to omit any explanation of the majorities as the colored areas.

This map may raise more questions for the audience than it answers. For example: why are there pockets of Germans and Hungarians in Romania? What is a Valach? Which part of the Balkans is stable and which parts are not? These silences cannot all be answered within the same map, lest it become an incredibly dense, useless piece of material. This is more of an unseen decision made by the cartographers. This map is limited in its ability to display the long-simmering national, political, and ethical tension in the area. The lack of explanation succeeds in demonstrating persistent instability and hostility in the Balkans

That being said, the cartographers of this map decided to try and negotiate a fine line between fitting both national border and ethnic borders in the same map. While the borders of ethnic neighborhoods are clearly defined with different colors, the national borders rely on the native ethnicity present to show where the national borders should be. However, national borders are not strong enough to keep ethnic cultures from spreading outside of their borders. For example, according to the map, Albanians don’t live exclusively in the borders of the nation of Albania. The population spills over the borders into neighboring countries, next to other, perhaps hostile ethnicities. This map reminds us that borders are fluid, and, like the rest of the map, is subjective to the cartographers. This observation also lends itself to the argument among these states as to how the national borders are moved about. Do the national borders move to fit the people? Are the people supposed to move inside of their “home” countries borders? A map of this area is subject to so much change that immediately following its publication, the map became out of date.

This map, with its detail, color, and captions, looks at first  like a fairly benign construct. But this map constructs a reality for the viewer. The map’s borders, both nationally or ethnically, remind us the borders are contested areas that viewers tend to see as definite lines. But, the lines on the ground do not exist, as they appear on the map. They are a construct of the map. The chaos of colors on the map do not exist either. They are a way for the cartographers to demonstrate how advanced their map-making is. By adding as much color and information as possible, the mapmakers attempt to impress the audience with their knowledge. The colors also demonstrate the chaos of the area ethnically. However, like the colors, each area of the Balkans is not clearly defined into separate spaces. It is a mixture of all ethnicities and creeds. Finally, the map serves its purpose as a useful social document by describing just how hard it is to clearly define an area in such turmoil. By attempting to organize the Balkans, the authors have shown how difficult it is to organize such a chaotic area. This is the true power that the map wields.







[1] Denis Wood, The Power of Maps (New York: Guilford Press, 1992), 110.


[2] Ibid,  17-19


Map Bibliography:

Reckacewic, Phillipe, et al. Population groups in the Balkan region and Eastern Europe. (Balkan Vital Graphics, 2007) Accessed Feb. 25, 2014 http://www.grida.no/graphicslib/detail/population-groups-in-the-balkan-region-and-eastern-europe_139e#

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Population Groups of The Balkans

  1. bh9xd says:

    Coleman- I think this is a really cool map and you did a good job showing the intentions of the map. I like how the cartographer uses color to draw the audience right to the region he is interested in. The map really does portray how chaotic the balkans are by using a lot of different colors but there are a lot of questions that are raised that you point out. People that view this map are deceived because it shows that each nationality has its own region, but that is not the case. This proves that maps are lies and always outdated because as soon as the map is published there are changes.

  2. al3bb says:

    While reading Coleman’s post covering the map of the Population groups in the Balkan region, I was able to confirm all of the observations I had of the map. At first glance I noticed the color scheme and how the surrounding European countries were completely dismissed. I appreciated how Coleman described how one of the silences on the map, represented by the gray, was actually very necessary. He says in his critique “These gray masses serve more than just a contextual border for the Balkans, they demonstrate the normative expectation of how the Balkans should look.” This description exemplifies the idea of how a silence can sometimes have more importance than the actual information presented on the map. The next thing I liked that Coleman touched upon was the uncertainty with the color choices. The colors represent the majority of a certain group of people for that area but fails to mention any sort of minority with the use of color. However, one point that may have gone unsaid deals with the red notes that point to a small area and alert the viewer that a specific minority my be present. Overall I though Coleman’s critique was very informative and described many obvious expressions the map had but also the silences which may be more important.

Comments are closed.