The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship

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9780253222176: The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship

Geographic information systems (GIS) have spurred a renewed interest in the influence of geographical space on human behavior and cultural development. Ideally GIS enables humanities scholars to discover relationships of memory, artifact, and experience that exist in a particular place and across time. Although successfully used by other disciplines, efforts by humanists to apply GIS and the spatial analytic method in their studies have been limited and halting. The Spatial Humanities aims to re-orient―and perhaps revolutionize―humanities scholarship by critically engaging the technology and specifically directing it to the subject matter of the humanities. To this end, the contributors explore the potential of spatial methods such as text-based geographical analysis, multimedia GIS, animated maps, deep contingency, deep mapping, and the geo-spatial semantic web.

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About the Author:

David J. Bodenhamer is Executive Director of the Polis Center and Professor of History at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.

John Corrigan is Lucius Moody Bristol Distinguished Professor of Religion and Professor of History at Florida State University.

Trevor M. Harris is Eberly Professor of Geography and Chair of the Department of Geology and Geography at West Virginia University.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

This book proposes the development of spatial humanities that promises to revitalize and redefine scholarship by (re)introducing geographic concepts of space to the humanities. Humanists are fully conversant with space as concept or metaphor―gendered space, the body as space, and racialized space, among numerous other rubrics, are common frames of reference and interpretation in many disciplines―but only recently have scholars revived what had been a dormant interest in the influence of physical or geographical space on human behavior and cultural development. This renewal of interest stems in large measure from the ubiquity of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in contemporary society. From online mapping and personal navigation devices to election night maps colored in red and blue, we are more aware than ever of the power of the map to facilitate commerce, enable knowledge discovery, or make geographic information visual and socially relevant.

GIS lies at the heart of this so-called spatial turn. At its core, GIS is powerful software that uses location to integrate and visualize information. Within a GIS, users can discover relationships that make a complex world more immediately understandable by visually detecting spatial patterns that remain hidden in texts and tables. Maps have served this function for a long time: the classic example occurred in the 1850s when an English doctor, John Snow, mapped an outbreak of cholera and saw how cases clustered in a neighborhood with a well that, unknown to residents, was contaminated. Not only does GIS bring impressive computing power to this task, but it is capable of integrating data from different formats by virtue of their shared geography. This ability has attracted considerable interest from historians, archaeologists, linguists, students of material culture, and others who are interested in place, the dense coil of memory, artifact, and experience that exists in a particular space, as well as in the coincidence and movements of people, goods, and ideas that have occurred across time in spaces large and small. Recent years have witnessed the wide application of GIS to historical and cultural questions: Did the Dust Bowl of the 1920s and 1930 result from over-farming the land or was it primarily the consequence of larger term environmental changes? What influence did the rapidly changing cityscape of London have on literature in Elizabethan England? What is the relationship between rulers and territory in the checkered political landscape of state formation in nineteenth-century Germany? How did spatial networks influence the administrative geography of medieval China? Increasingly, scholars are turning to GIS to provide new perspective on these and other topics that previously have been studied outside of an explicitly spatial framework.

Spatial humanities, especially with a humanities-friendly GIS at its center, can be a tool with revolutionary potential for scholarship, but as such, it faces significant obstacles at the outset. The term humanities GIS sounds like an oxymoron both to humanists and to GIS experts. It links two approaches to knowledge that, at first glance, rest on different epistemological footings. Humanities scholars speak often of conceptual and cognitive mapping, but view geographic mapping, the stock in trade of GIS, as an elementary or primitive approach to complexity at best or environmental determinism at worst. Experts in spatial technologies, conversely, have found it difficult to wrestle slippery humanities notions into software that demands precise locations and closed polygons. At times, applying GIS to the humanities appears only to prove C.P. Snow’s now-classic formulation of science and the humanities as two separate worlds.

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