restricted access Introduction: From Historical GIS to Spatial Humanities: Deepening Scholarship and Broadening Technology
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ix When Geographical Information Systems (GIS) first began to be used by academic geographers in the late 1980s, their use was nothing if not controversial. Proponents of the new field argued that it had the potential to reinvigorate geography as a discipline under a more computational paradigm.1 Opponents argued that it marked a lurch toward an unacceptable form of positivism with no epistemology or treatment of ethical or political issues.2 One thing on which they both agreed – or perhaps took for granted – was that GIS was a quantitative technology that was to be used in a social scientific manner (to its supporters ) or a positivist way (to its antagonists). When GIS first began to be used by historians it was not surprising that much of the early focus was also quantitative and social science based. It is no coincidence that the first special issue of a journal dedicated to historical GIS (HGIS), published in Social Science History, included essays on topics such as fertility, migration, urban history, and economic growth, all well suited to quantitative analysis.3 In 2008, eight years after this issue was published, a conference devoted to HGIS was held at the University of Essex.4 It attracted 125 delegates, with papers organized in 21 sessions. While some of these sessions were themed on topics that still had a strong quantitative bent – demography, urban history , environmental history, transport, and so on – there was also an increasing number of papers and sessions that concentrated on topics that were clearly qualitative and did not follow traditional social science paradigms. These topics included art, performance culture, literature, the Bible, and medieval and early modern history. What was happening Introduction: From Historical GIS to Spatial Humanities: Deepening Scholarship and Broadening Technology Ian N. Gregory and Alistair Geddes x Introduction in the quantitative sessions was also interesting. Rather than concentrating on issues associated with database construction and potential applications, many of these papers had developed to focus on conducting applied works of history – studies that developed the historiography by answering applied research questions. This was an indication of two emerging trends within HGIS that have continued since: HGIS is deepening from an applied perspective, and it is broadening from a technical perspective. It is deepening in that it has reached a stage where researchers apply it to scholarship that develops new knowledge about the past. This must be the ultimate aim of the field, as it takes HGIS beyond a narrow technical specialism and makes it relevant to a much wider audience. HGIS is also broadening its technical scope in terms of the ever-widening potential for its application to both qualitative and quantitative sources. This means that GIS is thus able to expand beyond social science history – a fairly narrow field – to be applicable to the discipline more broadly, and beyond that to spread outside the disciplinary boundaries of history into other humanities disciplines. GIS and Historical Research There are many different definitions of GIS and related terms such as GISc (Geographical Information Science).5 The emergence of new geospatial technologies such as Google Earth that do not fit traditional definitions only complicates these definitions. Originally, “GIS” was considered as the umbrella term for the field, and it is often still used in this way. The more recent trend, however, has been to use “GIS” to describe the tools offered, while “GISc” emphasizes the broader understanding of how these tools can be developed, used, and applied.6 To take this further, GIS can be thought of as a type of software that provides a way of representing features on the Earth’s surface and a suite of operations that allow the researcher to query, manipulate, visualize, and analyze these representations. The representations, or data models , combine two types of data: attribute data, which were traditionally held in a table and tend – or perhaps tended – to be quantitative, and spatialdata,whichlocateeachitemofdatausingapoint,aline,apolygon (which represents an area or a zone), or a pixel. Points, lines, and poly- Introduction xi gonsareusedtorepresentdiscretefeatures,anddataintheseformatsare referred to as vector data, while pixels are used to represent continuous surfaces and are referred to as raster data.7 In this way the attribute data saywhat,whilethespatialdatasaywhere.Thus,fromthisperspectiveGIS is a type of software that allows the user to store, retrieve, visualize, and analyze data that are georeferenced to a location on the Earth’s surface.8 GIS allowsresearcherstoaskquestionsabouttheirtopicsorsourcesthat stress the importance of location and thus geography. This emphasis on geography, combined with the tools to represent...


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