What is the “Spatial Turn”? GIS and the Historian

W&M’s Center for Geospatial Analysis recently brought Peter Bol, professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations and Director of the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard, to campus.  Bol’s lecture, titled “A Spatial Perspective in History and the Humanities,” provided an introduction to GIS for non-specialists and helped to provide an answer to those of us asking, “why would you spend the time to plot information on a map?”

If we know where, then we can ask why.

Bol gave a quick overview of GIS and what it allows historians to do.  He asked us to think of GIS first as a database, not as a map. Researchers input information into a database and each piece of information has some sort of geospatial data associated with it to locate it in a specific place.  Then, by overlaying this information onto existing maps (as points, shapes, or lines) and other databases, historians can see relationships between different sources.  Visualizing information spatially allows historians to form new research questions and ask why something happened in a specific place.  As he put it, ”if we know where, then we can ask why.”

World Map Project: China Map

Harvard's World Map Project: China Map (http://worldmap.harvard.edu/chinamap/)

GIS, according to Bol, is perfect for the “greedy historian.”  Speaking of his own research style, Bol said he “likes to see lots of stuff.”  Once the databases are filled with information, GIS allows historians to process large numbers of sources quickly.  Bol’s work with Harvard’s World Map project gives us a good example of how many historical sources can be layered spatially on top of one another.  The World Map Project’s China Map allows users to toggle on and off different geo-coded statistics.

Unexpected Directions and Logistics

It seems to me that there might be some logistical issues lurking in GIS-based historical research.  Bol mentioned how looking at a lot of geospatial information can send you in directions you did not anticipate.  When talking about his own work he touched briefly on his research process, which had him forming research questions after setting up a GIS-database, and mining whatever sources he had for spatial information (such as government documents).  This must take a lot of time to do if you are working by yourself (Bol stressed that GIS-based research is inherently collaborative as historians and Academic Technologists need to work together the build the databases and use the GIS software etc.).  I could imagine myself doing a lot of research and data entry and ending up with some sources projected onto a map, but not in any way that I find compelling.

This lecture left me more comfortable with what a historian might do with GIS.  Though I still have questions.  What does the process look like for creating the GIS database and what does the final scholarship look like that GIS-based historical research can generate?  Sites like the World Map Project are good examples of a stage of research somewhere between the archive and publication (or perhaps are a combination of the archive and publication), but I am curious about the process on either side of the map.

About Evan Cordulack

Evan Cordulack is a Web Applications Specialist for Academic Technology. He helps faculty members with Web-based projects related to their research and teaching. He earned his PhD in American Studies at William & Mary in 2013. Find him at http://cordulack.net/