HGIS Bibliography

Bodenhamer, David J, John Corrigan, and Trevor M. Harris.  The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010).

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Table of Contents


1. Turning Toward Place, Space, and Time by Edward L. Ayers

2. The Potential of Spatial Humanities by David J. Bodenhamer

3. Geographic Information Science and Spatial Analysis for the Humanities by Karen K. Kemp

4. Exploiting Time and Space: A Challenge for GIS in the Digitial Humanities by Ian Gregory

5. Qualitative GIS and Emergent Semantics by John Corrigan

6. Representations of Space and Place in the Humanities by Gary Lock

7. Mapping Text by May Yuan

8. The Geospatial Semantic Web, Pareto GIS, and the Humanities by Trevor M. Harris, L. Jesse Rouse, and Susan Bergeron

9. GIS, e-Science, and the Humanities Grid by Paul S. Ell

10. Challenges for the Spatial Humanities: Toward a Research Agenda by Trevor M. Harris, John Corrigan, and David J. Bodenhamer

Suggestions for Further Reading

List of Contributors



  1. The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the future of humanities scholarship (Bodenhamer, Corrigan, and Harris, 2010) draws its reader into the evolving landscape of Humanities GIS scholarship as it is currently unfolding, engendering a sense that the spatial turn is here to stay (at least until the next “turn(s)”). The aim of the book is to provide a road map for humanists desirous of incorporating GIS and related technologies into their work while maintaining their disciplinary integrity. The authors’ call for humanists to fully embrace the turn and the technology its foundations rest upon, namely GIS and new “spatial multimedia” including geovisualization, cyber geography, exploratory spatial data analysis, and virtual reality (pg. xi). They argue that these new technologies are better at handling the complex, multidirectional, imprecise, fragmented, and subjective interpretations of space and the past than earlier versions of GIS. Drawing on Clifford Geertz’s notion of “thick description,” the authors optimistically suggest that these new technologies cannot only help humanists understand space in the past more efficiently but that indeed they may revolutionize how humanists search for and identify intersectional patterns and relationships (this despite Ian D. Gregory and others caution about using such transformative language). Yet despite rapid advancement in spatial technologies in the last decade, the authors lament that humanists have only used them in piecemeal fashion, cautious to move beyond cultural practices now deeply rooted in post-modern methods, training, and philosophies that reject positivist reductionism. In part, this reluctance is attributable to long-standing tensions between the humanities and science – scholarly pursuits the authors admit “rest on distinct epistemological footings” (pg. viii). The volume does a good job of tackling this fundamental divide, suggesting scholars incorporate this host of new spatial research technologies into their work that have the ability to answer qualitative questions and attend to the “complexity, nuance, and abstractionism” (pg. xiii) inherent in humanities inquiry. However, the authors regrettably spend little time actually empowering the humanist to engage with these new technologies; beyond instilling a good dose of enthusiasm and introducing the new technologies the collection is not a technical manual. Rather, this is a collection of sophisticated, thought-provoking essays on the state of spatial scholarship.

    While the volume is impressive in its scope (especially for its length), written in exquisite prose, and refreshingly optimistic it does have some limitations. Firstly, the technophobic reader isn’t equipped at the end of the book to fully engage in the technologies suggested; further training would still be required. Secondly, there is little discussion that problematizes the spatial turn and the wider implications this will have (and is having on) humanities scholarship especially for those not engaging with the turn and the new technology. Finally, as much as the authors call for humanists to engage in a robust practice of GIS and related technologies, and that GIS-practitioners and software developers need to be more “sensitive” (pg. 176) to humanist methods, the need to learn not just GIS but a handful of additional technologies remains daunting for the uninitiated. As much as humanists understand and are attentive to space, a more comprehensive program of training is required for them to fully respond to the call these authors make. That said, this is an excellent, enjoyable, and readable book that raises a number of important and timely methodological questions. The discussions on spatio-temporality and the idea of creating a “virtual world” (pg. 28) with GIS are particular strong. It would make good reading for any graduate seminar in Historiography and Methodology. It is equally essential reading for any humanities scholar incorporating GIS and related technologies into their research. There is no shortage of encouragement on that point here.

  2. This sometimes combative book aims to “reorient, and perhaps revolutionize, humanities scholarship” (p. ix) by forcefully asserting the advantages of GIS to humanities scholars. It is not enough, say the editors, to use GIS in census boundary delineation or map making. Instead, they advocate critical engagement with the technology with the view of using GIS to reconceptualise how space is understood within time. While they accept that humanities GIS has yet to provide an approach fully sensitive to the needs of humanities scholars, they assert that by fully embracing its potential (rather than borrowing piecemeal from the vocabulary of spatial analysis) GIS can have a dramatic impact on the humanities.

    The book makes a good case that we need not see the precisions of the sciences and the software’s demand for precise locations and closed polygons as inconsistent with the more amorphous needs of the humanities. David Bodenhamer’s chapter explains that critics of GIS ignore the extent to which the software can appreciate fuzzy evidence and neglect the significant efforts made in getting the software to appreciate ambiguity. Bodenhamer actually makes the compelling argument that GIS opens up the potential for a unique type of postmodern scholarship, one that recognizes how history and culture is constructed in ways that supposedly authoritative narrative text cannot. While Bodenhamer (and his fellow editors Corrigan and Harris) accepts that positivism may have been a feature of early GIS, they show how the scholarship and technology is constantly evolving to ask new questions, and in more refined ways. By explaining how historians have always mapped and fashioned the past, the book argues that GIS is not simply cartographic but conceptual.

    The great appeal of the book is its conceptual framework. The book does not provide case studies of the use of GIS but, rather, conceptual approaches to the spatial humanities. This is combined with a very real effort to bridge the disciplines. Chapters by Ayers, Bodenhamer, Gregory, and Lock provide conceptual investigations of GIS in the humanities. Edward Ayers’ chapter, for example, examines the project at the University of Richmond that are attempting to map presidential voting patterns, though his concern is the project’s conceptual framework rather than the details per se. Other chapters, however, balance this conceptual approach with technological or practical issues, albeit within a highly conceptual framework. Karen Kemp’s chapter, for example, focuses on the science and technology behind GIS while John Corrigan provides an interesting analysis of how the software is also becoming part of the process of data analysis.

    One downside to the volume, for a historian’s perspective at least, is the book’s focus on the humanities rather than History specifically. Geographers provide four of the ten chapters and it becomes easier to advocate for the utility of GIS to the humanities when a number of the authors (and quite possibly the readers of the book) are geographers. It was geographers who first pushed for GIS in the humanities so there is a certain preaching to the choir element to this volume. Nevertheless, the book is a highly interesting and convincing argument for the advantages of GIS.

  3. The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship is an important contribution to the existing literature linking the benefits, and subsequently, challenges of using Geographic Information Systems to portray data gleamed from the humanities. One of the most important take-aways from this collection is that as humans we are all spatial beings, with our everyday lives and histories rooted in physical, cultural, racial, and social space. As David Bodenhamer explains in Chapter Two, “The Potential of Spatial Humanities,” physical landscapes are “modified by class, capital, gender, and race, among other things.” Given our world’s spatial complexities, this book defends the important position of GIS within the humanities. Researchers of the humanities often take for granted the mass of quantitative data within their research, such as Census data. As Paul S. Ell argues in Chapter Nine, since humanities research already dissects, digests, computes, and publishes this data, mapping is not a far reach outside of the scope of traditional research.

  4. As the editors outline in their introduction, Spatial Humanities has the noble goal “to revitalize and redefine scholarship by (re)introducing geographic concepts of space to the humanities (p. vii).” Yet, the way in which the authors seek to convince humanists to conceive of time and space — through the use of GIS — is presented as a mild perversion of both the sciences that GIS was designed to serve and the epistemological frameworks of the humanities. This assessment owes much to the focus of the collection on the humanities rather than on history. Perhaps the greatest strength of history as a discipline is the ability of historians to employ a multitude of methodologies in our research. Historians do not on principle shy away from quantitative methods as parts of the Spatial Humanities suggest. Furthermore, even if some historians do not feel comfortable with the use of such methodology this does not mean that their work is somehow lesser then those who fully embrace the spatial turn or the digital humanities.

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