A Different Way to ‘Do History’

We’ve talked about digital history. Now let’s discuss spatial history, or better yet, the spatial humanities.What are the spatial humanities? It’s perhaps too abstract to adequately define, but, it is essentially another way of looking at, and presenting the humanities that involves abstract and physical space. I’ll use history as an example. Traditionally history has been presented through chronological events. Richard White from Stanford University suggests that won’t change, but by adding the ingredients necessary to help the reader or viewer visualize space, too, the historian provides a clearer picture of the past. Humanists can do the same, by utilizing GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technology.

According to a recent book edited by David J. Bodenhamer, (read my book review here), The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, the use of time and space can be maximized by implementing GIS technology into humanities scholarship. The Spatial History Project of Stanford University asserts that history is chronological, but GIS allows historians to give “a graphic representation of the interrelation of time and space.” (White, “What is Spatial History?”)  These sound like really great things. Historians and Humanists are always looking for ways to better represent the human condition throughout time. There are problems, however.

The biggest problem in implementing GIS technology into humanities scholarship, that I gathered from these two readings, is how to translate cold and uninterpretable numbers and data to the interpretable sources required for ‘doing history’–or humanities. Studying the human condition is an abstract science, unlike the science used for gathering the data for creating maps. So how can there be any sort of union between these two disciplines that are at opposite ends of the academic spectrum? The editors of The Spatial Humanities nail this problem when they suggest that perhaps a language that bridges these disciplines is necessary. (Bodenhammer, pp. 8) This language has not been invented yet which is why, I think, there is some concern with using GIS in humanities.

Finally, is spatial history digital history? It doesn’t have to be. Historians have long used information from maps to write books and articles without producing a single pixelated byte. Historians may continue to do just that, however, by taking advantage of GIS technology, they just might be able to add several dimensions to their work. And, for those adventurous historians and humanists that do go the length and harness the full power of GIS, good for you.

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  1. #1 by Chris Cantwell on April 8, 2014 - 5:02 pm

    Great refletion, Emma. Two thoughts.

    First, I think you have the major challenge of GIS a bit backwards. I see the problem not how historians can read quantitative data, but how historians can translate primary sources from the humanities (letters, art, etc.) into quantifiable data.

    Also, I like how you ask whether spatial history is digital history. I think you’re right that it doesn’t have to be. But do you think we’d have this edited collection if it was not for digital history?

  2. #2 by emmaspeaks74 on April 10, 2014 - 12:34 am

    Well now that you mention it I see it. I usually need a few days to absorb and digest information. It helps to bounce thoughts off someone.
    To answer your question, no. We definitely owe digital history for this collaborative book.

  3. #3 by theabstractdetail on April 16, 2014 - 6:38 pm

    Reblogged this on The Abstract Detail.

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