Mapping In a Material World

Two weeks ago I made a few statements about mapping that I now regret. In my post on networking, I argued that networks provided a link between statistically driven text analysis and the visually driven map. Networks could be used to visualize topic models or other textual analysis outputs. Networks could also provide a more mathematically rigid framework for maps (thinking specifically of ORBIS). This week, I realized that most historical uses of maps are actually very mathematically or statistically driven. Especially projects, like Andrew Beveridge’s work on racial segregation, that are GIS based using national level databases.

I also learned that geography and mapping ask similar questions compared to my field of environmental history. In some ways, geographers have even moved past determinist ideas of nature that sometimes drive environmental historical scholarship. In Tim Cresswell’s introductory textbook, I realized that many of the ideas have a strong relevance to my potential dissertation topic. While the idea of regionalism is mostly passe in Geography, the idea of the “region” of the United States could have an interest for my work on Federal environmental policies and the impact of policy on region. Other humanities driven geographical frameworks ask similar questions of movement and space over time that I would be interested in exploring in map driven portions of my dissertation.

The digital and spatial history are a particularly happy marriage as they have similar strengths: changing scales, computing large quantities of data, and examining different perspectives. I hope to examine the “thick descriptions” which Todd Presner, et. al. use in HyperCities. The many disparate sources, layers, and perspectives can provide a variety of new meanings when placed in the same geographical space. A major caveat of HyperCities being that it doesn’t actually work on my computer (Google Earth plugin not available for linux. I guess I’m not the intended audience for their work?). From the introduction’s caveats, functioning is not a major goal of the project which is intended to be “prototypes, experiments, code modules, and projects that more or less work.”[1]Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Harvard University Press, 2014), 13. Most dissertation committees won’t accept an idea of a map, unfortunately.

I also have to be aware of the many challenges that humanities GIS practitioners have in Spatial Humanities. There appears to be a major gap between the theory of HyperCities and the reality of Spatial Humanities, that is not a function of technological expertise. Where one set of authors show the possibilities of mapping complex humanities data, the others explain the difficulty inherent in formatting the complex heterogeneous data of the material world into a comparable homogeneous format comparable in GIS software.

As I plan to document changes in the physical world over time and rigorously examine policy decisions, statistically where applicable, geographical perspectives hold much promise for me. There are many possibilities as long as I can ensure that my work does not become one of the unreproducible prototypes that litter digital history.



1 Todd Presner, David Shepard, and Yoh Kawano, Hypercities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities (Harvard University Press, 2014), 13.

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