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Bodenhamer, David, The Polis Center at IUPUI, USA,
Gregory, Ian, Lancaster University, UK,
Ell, Paul, Centre for Data Digitisation and Analysis at Queens University of Belfast, Ireland,
Hallam, Julia, University of Liverpool, UK,
Harris, Trevor, West Virginia University, USA,
Schwartz, Robert, Mount Holyoke College, USA,


Developments in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) over the past few decades have been nothing short of remarkable. So revolutionary have these advances been that the impact of GIS on many facets of government administration, industrial infrastructure, commerce, and academia has been likened to the discoveries brought about by the microscope, the telescope, and the printing press. While concepts of spatial science and spatial thinking provide the bedrock on which a broad range of geospatial technologies and methods have been founded, the dialog between the humanities and geographic information science (GISci) have thus far been limited and have largely revolved around the use of ‘off-the-shelf’ GIS in historical mapping projects. This limited engagement is in stark contrast to the substantive inroads that GIS has made in the sciences and social sciences, as captured by the growing and valuable field of a social-theoretic informed Critical GIS. Not surprisingly, the humanities present additional significant challenges to GISci because of the complexities involved in meshing a positivist science with humanist traditions and predominantly literary and aspatial methods. And yet it is the potential dialogue and engagement between the humanities and GISci that promises reciprocal advances in both fields as spatial science shapes humanist thought and is in turn reshaped by the multifaceted needs and approaches represented by humanist traditions. We use the term spatial humanities to capture this potentially rich interplay between Critical GIS, spatial science, spatial systems, and the panoply of highly nuanced humanist traditions.      

The use of GIS in the humanities is not new. The National Endowment for the Humanities has funded a number of projects to explore how geo-spatial technologies might enhance research in a number of humanities disciplines, including but not limited to history, literary studies, and cultural studies. The National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health also have supported projects related to spatial history, such as the Holocaust Historical GIS (NSF) and Population and Environment in the U.S. Great Plains (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development). Although successful by their own terms, these projects also have revealed the limits of the technology for a wider range of humanities scholarship, which an increasing body of literature discusses in detail. Chief among the issues are a mismatch between the positivist epistemology of GIS, with its demand for precise, measurable data, and the reflexive and recursive approaches favored by humanists and some social scientists (e.g. practitioners of reflexive sociology) who wrestle continually with ambiguous, uncertain, and imprecise evidence and who seek multivalent answers to their questions. The problem, it seems, is both foundational and technological: we do not yet have a well-articulated theory for the spatial humanities, nor do we have tools sufficient for the needs of humanists. Addressing these deficits is at the heart of much current work in GIScience and in the spatial humanities.      

The panel, composed of scholars who have successfully blended geo-spatial technologies with cross-disciplinary methods in a variety of projects, will discuss how these digital tools can be bent toward the needs of humanities scholars and serve as a platform for innovative work in humanities disciplines. Emphasis will be on three important themes from the spatial humanities that also address the broader interests of the digital humanities:

  1. Exploring the epistemological frameworks of the humanities and GISc to locate common ground on which the two can cooperate. This step often has been overlooked in the rush to develop new technology but it is the essential point of departure for any effort to bridge them. This venture is not to be confused with a more sweeping foundational analysis of ingrained methodological conceits within the sciences and the humanities, and certainly should not be misunderstood as a query about the qualitative approach versus the quantitative approach. Rather, what is desired here is for the technology itself to be interrogated as to its adaptability, in full understanding that the technology has, in its genesis, been epistemologically branded and yet still offers potential for the humanities. What is required is an appropriate intellectual grounding in the humanities and draws the technology further out of its positivistic homeland. The payoff for collaboration will be a humanities scholarship that integrates insights gleaned from spatial information science, spatial theory, and the Geospatial Web into scaled narratives about human lives and culture.
  2. Designing and framing narratives about individual and collective human experience that are spatially contextualized. At one level, the task is defined as the development of reciprocal transformations from text to map and map to text. More importantly, the humanities and social sciences must position themselves to exploit the Geospatial Semantic Web, which in its extraordinarily complexity and massive volume, offers a rich data bed and functional platform to researchers who are able to effectively mine it, organize the harvested data, and contextualize it within the spaces of culture. Finding ways to make the interaction among words, location, and quantitative data more dynamic and intuitive will yield rich insights into complex socio-cultural, political, and economic problems, with enormous potential for areas far outside the traditional orbits of humanities research. In short, we should vigorously explore the means by which to advance translation from textual to visual communication, making the most of visual media and learning to create ‘fits’ between the messages of text (and numbers) and the capabilities of visual forms to express spatial relationships.
  3. Building increasingly more complex maps (using the term broadly) of the visible and invisible aspects of a place. The spatial considerations remain the same, which is to say that geographic location, boundary, and landscape remain crucial, whether we are investigating a continental landmass or a lecture hall. What is added by these ‘deep maps’ is a reflexivity that acknowledges how engaged human agents build spatially framed identities and aspirations out of imagination and memory and how the multiple perspectives constitute a spatial narrative that complements the verbal narrative traditionally employed by humanists.

After an introductory framing statement by the moderator, panelists will each take no more than 10 minutes to offer reflections and experiences drawn from their own projects that will address one or more of these themes. Several questions will guide these presentations:

  1. What advantages did geo-spatial technologies bring to your research? What limitations? How did    you overcome or work around the limits?
  2. How did your project address the mismatch between the positivist assumptions of GIS and the multivalent and reflexive nature of humanities scholarship?
  3. What lessons have you learned that would be helpful for other scholars who use these technologies?

Following the presentations, the moderator will guide a discussion among the panelists and with audience members to explore these themes further in an effort to distill an agenda or, more modestly, a direction for future work.


Bodenhamer, D., J. Corrigan, and T. Harris, eds. (2010). The Spatial Humanities: GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana UP.

Daniels, S., D. DeLyser, J. Entrikin, and D. Richardson, eds. (2011). Envisioning Landscapes, Making Worlds: Geography and the Humanities. New York: Routledge.

Dear, M., J. Ketchum, S. Luria, and D. Richardson (2011). GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place. New York: Routledge.

Gregory, I., and P. Ell (2008). Historical GIS: Technologies, Methodologies, and Scholarship. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.

Knowles, A., ed. (2008). Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press.