Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS and Spatial History

Edited by Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014. xix + 212 pp. $30.00 (paperback). ISBN: 978-0-2530-1186-2.

“[A]lthough many of our collaborators have had limited actual knowledge of the practicalities of GIS,” observes Humphrey Southall in one of the chapters of Toward Spatial Humanities: Historical GIS & Spatial History, “there is a high level of general awareness of GIS and enthusiasm for its potential” (113). Seemingly unaware of its own understatement, Southall’s sentiments deftly capture the situation humanities scholars (in this case, historians) find themselves in an increasingly digitally oriented academic environment. With the advent of digital humanities, there has been a concomitant interest among historians in geo-spatially visualizing “big data.” The Stanford Mapping Republic of Letters project, which was featured in the New York Times, was adduced recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage in The History Manifesto (2014) as an exemplary project braiding together historical data at scale, visualization, and geo-spatial and social network analysis. The enthusiasm expressed by Guldi and Armitage, among others, for similar “shock and awe visualizations” also speaks obliquely to the historian’s dilemma Southall adumbrates in Toward Spatial Humanities: plenty of ardor only to be matched by plenty of uncertainty.

Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes seek to redress this gap in Toward Spatial Humanities, which attempts to provide interested scholars with a basic introduction to understanding the affordances of what they term spatial history through scholarly object lessons by other researchers. Moving beyond heavily quantitative and positivist social science uses for GIS, Gregory and Geddes argue there has been more recently “deepening from an applied perspective,” and “broadening from a technical perspective” (x). What Gregory and Geddes mean by this is the migration of GIS and spatial analysis across disciplinary lines in the humanities (a shift from “‘historical GIS’—with its clear emphasis on technology” to “‘spatial history,’ an expression that stresses doing a form of history that emphasizes geography”), with the investigation of novel (for GIS research) topics driving new technological developments (instead of traditionally the reverse) (xiv).

Toward Spatial Humanities’ introduction, part GIS propaedeutic, part rationale for its use in historical scholarship, focuses on the challenges and advantages inherent to such an approach. The challenges the editors identify mirror other issues with which digital humanities scholars must contend in their own research: namely, data wrangling and preparation for analysis. Within the context of spatial history, this means “get[ting] the data into a GIS,” and “get[ting] information back from the GIS databases [to] turn it into new scholarship that advances our knowledge of the past” (xii). For Gregory and Geddes, the advantages are tightly complementary, with an accent on how data can be explored explicitly as spatial, visualized through mapping, analyzed spatially, and integrated into non-GIS humanities sources for that analysis.

Ranging from mapping railway growth and agricultural production in nineteenth century France and Britain to Song Dynasty territorial and environmental politics, the thematically diverse collection of six chapters comprising the bulk of Toward Spatial Humanities is arranged to emphasize the tropes of “deepening scholarship” and “broadening technology” that Gregory and Geddes argue are ingredient to the project of spatial history.

In “Deepening Scholarship,” the editors advance that the development of database indexing and the ordering GIS data serve as the basis for generating new historiographical insights. In his analysis of racial segregation patterns in urban areas in the United States, Andrew Beveridge sources census data from the National Historic Geographic Information System to illustrate how the dissimilarity index in cities such as Chicago betokened more historically entrenched segregation compared to other urban areas. Drawing from French and British georeferenced agricultural data, Robert Schwartz and Thomas Thevenin’s chapter illustrates the authors’ contention that “geographic resolution”—visualizing spatially data at scale—teases out the interrelationships and interconnectivities that fostered changes in production (28). In each instance, the assembly of historical GIS databases, and use of inventive querying, qualifies or measuredly revises received historiographical conclusions.

For Gregory and Geddes, “Broadening Technology” brings together three additional essays that explore challenges in incorporating, translating, and representing historical data not adapted to typical GIS elements (e.g., lines, polygons). Additionally, these essays discuss GIS projects that move beyond “traditional social science history” while in the midst of attempting to publically face with a sustainable resource infrastructure (90). Questions of visibility and sustainability occupy Humphrey Southall’s contribution, where concerns pivoting around reaching a wider audience with a web friendly portal to their HGIS Great Britain database are balanced against its usefulness for GIS researchers, or the expectations of funding agencies. Southall’s conclusions hew closer to HGIS than the spatial history approach the editors encourage: "[O]ur contribution is always about working with historical sources using GIS tools. This is vastly more fun than trying to convince cultural historians and cultural geographers of the “academic value” of our work..." (115).

Perhaps the strongest, clearest essay in the collection, Elijah Meeks and Ruth Mostern’s exposition of their Digital Gazetteer of the Song Dynasty, highlights how an HGIS database can be informed from inception to production by pressing historiographical questions and canonical debates within historical sociology. Diagramming the relations and the elements in their database (122), Meeks and Mostern afford interested scholars an opportunity to understand how data elements hang together in the construction of an HGIS database. By introducing historical events as a data element in their database, Meeks and Mostern demonstrate how “spatial historical methods can help scholars move between multiple geographies, bridging the divide that has often existed between local and political history” (139).

For an appendix, Gregory has authored a literature review that surveys HGIS and general GIS resources, as well as GIS work related to specific sub-fields in history, such as agricultural and environmental history, and demography. While helpful for investigating further aspects of HGIS research, the briefer entry for “Toward Humanities GIS and Spatial Humanities” hints at the absence of critical self-understanding that might be generally emblematic of this nascent area of scholarship. There is no interrogation, for instance, of the silent suppositions baked into HGIS work, whether related to mapping practices (“[HGIS] does not impose any approach other than the fact that the data within the GIS database have to be represented using attribute and spatial data and that spatial data must be in the form of points, lines, polygons, or pixels” (xiii)), technologies that enable and predispose analysis, the idea of the database, or privileging data at scale. Occasionally Gregory and Geddes evince a certain theoretical naïveté about HGIS, reifying it as an instrumental culvert for analysis rather than an actual hermeneutic device (“GIS merely provides a platform on which research can be conducted” (xiii), and “[GIS] is not a tool that forces any particular academic paradigm on researchers...” (xvii)).

But while ultimately more HGIS-driven than Gregory and Geddes’s preference for a more spatial humanities approach, Toward Spatial Humanities nonetheless provides a great primer for framing technical concerns around HGIS, with supporting chapters doing much to embroider points made by the editors about its analytical utility for historians. And while this volume constitutes a positive, important contribution for exploring how GIS and historical scholarship can be usefully conjoined, it also reflects GIS’s origins as a positivist, scientific enterprise, and suggests the critical distance that needs to be traversed to make the spatial history, as these editors urge, into a thoroughgoing humanities endeavor.

Bobby L. Smiley

Michigan State University Libraries