GIS and History: Epistemologies, Considerations, and Reflections

AHA Session 222
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Beekman Parlor (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Alexander von Lünen, University of Huddersfield
“Is It about a Bicycle?” Digital Spatial History and Its Pitfalls
Alexander von Lünen, University of Huddersfield
Postcolonial Technoscience: GIS for Indigenous History
Mark H. Palmer, University of Missouri–Columbia
Is There a Place or Space for GIS in History?
Marianna Pavlovskaya, Hunter College, City University of New York

Session Abstract

This session will consider the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) and other digital / spatial methods in historical scholarship. We want to discuss the intellectual and methodological benefits and limitations of historical GIS (HGIS) and digital approaches. We will discuss whether such systems expand, or place boundaries on our understanding of the spatial dimensions of history, and its narrative methodologies. While HGIS have gained some traction in recent years – just as “spatial history” has – there seems to be no general appetite among historians to engage with them, apart from statistically engaged sub-disciplines such as economic or social history. Is this due to the steep GIS learning curve; its quantitative focus or rather due to an ill-informed concept of the mapping potentials emerging in broader humanities GIS applications?

The “spatial turn” in the humanities, in a way, has instigated a de-territorialization of spatial historical discourses, as it focused almost exclusively on abstract, idealized spaces. Historical GIS, on the other hand, re-territorialize the historic discourse by dealing with very concrete, physical, Cartesian and Euclidian conceptions of space, which are often used to visualize statistical data. This is maybe the reason why conventional GIS approaches are not too appealing to “mainstream” historians (intellectually), but remain on the fringes of the subject.

Simply put: what is the intellectual benefit of using GIS in historical research? What can historians gain by using GIS compared to paper maps, etc.? Which type of mapping / GIS techniques and approaches best explore historical themes? What spatial and visual concepts do historians engage in, and why do they seem to be incompatible with GIS (or how could they be more easily translated for use in GIS, and vice-versa)?

Our session comes on the heels of a book publication on this topic: Alexander von Lünen and Charles Travis (eds.), History and GIS: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections, Dordrecht: Springer, 2013 (see; in this book, we brought together historians and geographers to discuss these questions from an intellectual point of view, i.e. the book is about the why of historical GIS and not the how. Meaning: we don’t discuss technical issues, but historiographical ones.

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