GIS and the future of humanities scholarship

GIS spatial humanities

Book Review
The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship
Ed. By David J Bodenhamer, John Corrigan, Trevor M Harris
Indiana U Press, 2010. 203 p.

Can Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software provide new insights in humanities scholarship?

This book proposes the development of a spatial humanities that would revitalize and redefine scholarship by (re)introducing geographic concepts of space to the humanities.

The editors acknowledge that the term “humanities GIS” sounds like an oxymoron, both to humanists and to GIS experts. The qualitative-based humanities are problematic for a quantitative technology.

But the power of GIS for the humanities, the editors propose, lies in its ability to integrate varied kinds of information from a common location, regardless of format, and to visualize the results in combinations of transparent layers on a map of the geography shared by the data.

The authors include three historians, an archaeologist, a professor of religion, and four geographers: 3 scholars from the UK and five from the US, who participated in a 2008 workshop coordinated by the Virtual Center for Spatial Humanities, a collaboration among three universities.

At the moment, GIS technology requires that humanists fit their questions, data, and methods to the rigid parameters of the software. To remedy that, the authors propose taking what GIS offers in the way of tools, while urging new agendas upon GIS that will shape it for richer collaborative engagements with humanities disciplines.

The challenge for humanities GIS is to use technology to see, experience, and understand human behavior in all its complexity, the editors say. As in traditional humanities scholarship, the goal is less to produce an authoritative or ultimate answer than to prompt new questions, develop new perspectives, and advance new arguments or interpretations.

For example, in his chapter “GIS, e-Science, and the Humanities Grid,” Paul Ell describes an online resource called the TimeMap, developed by The Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative.

In the chapter “Turning toward place, space, and time,” Edward Ayers  discusses The History Engine,  a moderated wiki, populated by hundreds of students at five colleges and universities.

In his chapter, “The potential of spatial humanities,” David Bodenhamer discusses how one researcher used GIS to rebut the standard Dust Bowl narrative that blamed farmers in Oklahoma and Kansas in the 1920s and 30s for using ruinous, ecologically insensitive agricultural practices, thus turning a pristine prairie into wasteland. He illustrates how another researcher re-mapped Europe from AD 300 to 900 to show the connection between developments in communication and transportation that scholars previously had studied in isolation.

In their chapter, “The geospatial semantic web, Pareto GIS, and the humanities,” Trevor Harris, Jesse Rouse, and Susan Bergeron argue that the release of Google Maps in 2005 fundamentally changed the landscape of Web mapping. Google Earth, released in the fall of 2005, built upon that phenomenon and added a virtual globe and the ability to explore data in a pseudo 3-D environment. Google Earth and Google Maps support embedded multimedia including photographs, text, oral narrative, sketches, video, and audio within the map or globe representation.

The editors conclude with a discussion of six themes that mark the nascent field of spatial humanities.

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