Harley analyzes maps, and the cartographic principles involved in their creation, through a post-modern lens. His views expose the influence that knowledge and power have over the map making process and the resulting impact on the map reader. Harley examines the discourse of cartography, map rhetoric and the resulting form of power-knowledge by relying on the ideas and techniques of Derrida and Foucault.
The technical and cultural production methods used by Western cartographers have been honed over time to provide a spatial inventory according to standards of ‘objectivity’, ‘accuracy’ and ‘truthfulness’. The resulting implication is that Western maps are void of any non-scientific information while showing the most accurate representation of the landscape. Harley deconstructs these paradigms by revealing practices such as centering specific territories based on the society that generated the map and also the hierarchical placement of map elements. Harley explores the hidden meaning within maps by arguing that the categories of literature and art more accurately define a map’s cultural utility. By the looking at the inherently rhetorical process of map creation, Harley urges the reader to recognize the distinction between the social purpose and content of the map.
Harley examines the cyclical relationship of power exerted on cartography and the power exercised with cartography. He shares Foucault’s belief that knowledge is central in the pursuit of power and therefore cartography is another mechanism that can be used for political gain. Thus, the neutrality of maps, according to Harley, should forever be questioned with regards to their authoritarian characteristics.