In this week’s digital history course, the class explored GIS as we read parts of Knowles & Hillier's Placing History: How Maps Spatial Data, and GIS are Changing Historical Scholarship. So what is GIS? Well, technically, GIS is stands for geographic information systems, and as Richard White describes it, GIS is “software, which enables one to display and analyze any kind of information that can be located on the face of the earth, or any other place with known location” (White, XIII). With this definition in mind, one can understand that historical GIS, using GIS as a research method to make scholarly arguments, might be both a superb tool for the field of history. Containing great potential, GIS is a promising “tool for mapping and geographically analyzing census data, social surveys, and other kinds of systematically collected information” (Knowles, 2). Yet, as Knowles shares, the “precision” that makes GIS such a wonderful tool for research and analysis can just as easily be a difficult tool when one’s sources cannot be condensed into a database (Knowles, 2). Knowles shares how GIS is also problematic given that GIS is a visual tool and historians tend to favor words and texts in narrative form. Furthermore, GIs is problematic in that it draws greatly from the fields of history and geography, yet unfortunately, there exists an “epistemological divide between geography and history”; where historians like to study the series of events through time, geographers like to study events within space (Knowles, 3). Yet, despite these potential problems, many researchers have used GIS to further the field of historical scholarship.
For example, consider Geoff Cunfer’s research on the Dust Bowl project. Traditionally, historians believe that the Dust Bowl of the 1920s-30s was caused by capitalism’s demanding pressure on the mid-west’s ecosystem. Then, recognizing the potential for GIS to reevaluate the traditional narrative of the Dust Bowl, Geoff Cunfer realized that “incorporating data about all of the counties on the southern plains into a GIS allows the researcher to view the [historical] questin at a different geographic scale” (Cunfer, 101). Where previous historians had based their arguments about the Dust Bowl on the studies of two counties, Cunfer sought to use new methods to widen the spatial scale of his research. But, not only was he able to expand the spatial scale of his research, GIS technology allowed him to expand his temporal scale as well (Cunfer, 109). Thus, using GIS technology, Cunfer was driven by the historical question: was the Dust Bowl really caused by capitalism’s demand on the ecosystem of the Midwest? Through GIS technology, Cunfer was able to look at the cause of the Dustbowl on a large scale spatially and temporally that could not have been done with traditional methods. As a result, through his research he concluded that dust storms are “a normal part of southern plains ecology…Dust storm activity can be exacerbated or locally enhanced by plowing for crops, but that was not the sole and simple cause of the Dust Bowl” (Cunfer, 118).
Still, even with path breaking projects like the Dust Bowl, there are still methodological and pedagogical issues with GIS. For example, as mentioned earlier, most historians prefer the “medium of words and narratives” instead of digital projects (Bodenhamer, 224). Bodenhamer explains this methodological concern as being rooted in a historians’ primary sources; he suggests, that since a historian’s evidence is usually from words within texts, historians are most comfortable using a narrative methodology instead of a digital, GIS methodology (Bodenhamer, 225). Another issue raised by Bodenhamer is the reality that GIS requires information that can be measured with precision, and historians, unfortunately, often deal with imprecise evidence. For example, historians might deal with temporal descriptions such as “a day’s ride from the capital” or “close to the river,” consequently making it difficult to translate such evidence into GIS format (Bodenhamer, 226). Additionally, as historians typically work with nations or people who live in a geographical area with changing boundaries, some boundaries are never formally established, consequently making it hard to translate to GIS mapping (Bodenhammer, 22). Along with the methodological concerns raised by historians, there are also the pedagogical concerns raised by individuals in the digital humanities. For example, the “scarcity of financial and technical resources” creates an impediment to the development of GIS in the humanities (Bodenhamer, 228). In the same light, not only is there a lack of resources needed to use GIS, but there is also a lack of individuals trained in such technology. This is a problem in that it requires historians (and other academics) to learn a new, specialized skill in addition to their established area of expertise. Nevertheless, in looking at all the potential GIS has to offer, I hope that digital humanities eagerly embraces all the opportunities provided by this new, emerging technology.