Thinking about Time and Space

In “What is Spatial History?”, Robert White refers to the Spatial History Project at Stanford as part of a larger spatial turn in history. As David Bodenhamer explains, the spatial turn in history occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, and can be described as a revival of interest in space in an effort to understand society and culture. Bodenhamber, quoting Edward Soja writes:

“Rather than being a seem only as a physical backdrop, container, or stage to human life, space is more insightfully viewed as a complex social formation, part of a dynamic process.”

Nevertheless, as White argues, “historians by definition focus on time”. That is, historians seek to explain change over time, but with a little sense that changing spatial relations may also explain the patterns of change over time. Parting from this focus on space, the Spatial History Project looks for developing collaborative projects, relying mainly in visualizations that depend on digital history. They are also open-ended projects grounded on an ongoing experimentation. But, what is different, and what can be gain or lost in applying computational tools to the analysis and representation of space across history?

Geographic Information Systems (GIS)

One of the technologies that is used for representing space are Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS is software that captures, stores, manages, displays, and analyzes information linked to a location on earth. As Bodenhamer explains,

“It is a structured database that describes the world in geographical terms. It is also an intelligent or interactive map that allows users to query the database and see the results visualized. Finally, it is a set of tools that allow data to be analyzed spatially”

GIS can relate different types of data - quantitative, textual, image, audio - to each other based on their shared location. Furthermore, it allows a visualization of these relationships on a map of the geographical space in which they all occur. Nevertheless, GIS delineates space as a set of coordinates with characteristics or attributes attached to an identified location, rather than as relational space that maps interdependencies linked to the location. The emphasis is on physical or geographical space, rather than in space as a social construction. This last aspect has been the focus of the critiques that scholars from the humanities have raised to the use of this computational tools.

Should historians then, discredit the use of these tools just because they are not meeting all their needs in the analysis of space? I would say that, rather than that, these tools can complement and expand existing perspectives and approaches to the analysis of space across time. Anne Kelly Knowles, in “A More Humane Approach to Digital Scholarship”, connects the discussion between close versus distant readings techniques in text-mining to the debates about the use of GSI in geography. Along the article, she explains that the very process of preparing the data for computational analysis requires an awareness of the textual and visual sources that is generally undermined. That is the same slow process of “translating” the sources into data that we read in Wilkens’ “Geolocation Extraction and Mapping of Nineteenth-Century U.S. Fiction”. Close readings are still there, but become invisible if we only see one part of the process. Additionally, this process of translating different sources into data that a computer can read enables the possibility of a collaborative project that becomes conscious of the errors and uncertainties that arise when preparing that data. Experimentation then, becomes part of the process. Moreover, as Bodenhamer stresses, geospatial technologies offer powerful platforms for interdisciplinary work. Building on that, White argues that

visualization and spatial history are not about producing illustrations or maps to communicate things that you have discovered by other means. It is a means of doing research

I agree with this last quote. I think that including these technologies in our research can seek for generating new questions and historical relations that might otherwise go unnoticed, pushing us to keep rethinking and revisiting existing narratives about the past.

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