GIS and Spatial History: Uses and Limitations

The first reading for this week, “Making a Map with QGIS” covered how to install and use QGIS. QGIS is a geographic information system that allows users to add different types of data using different types of “layers.” The article focused a lot on the frustrations that users face when trying to create a project using QGIS. The author described the program as a “general mapping tool” which does not automatically carry out functions without explicit instructions from the user. For anyone who has used QGIS “general” does not seem like the right word, as the user can easily be overwhelmed by the amount of functions on the screen. The symbols representing these functions do not seem to exist elsewhere, so the program requires lots of trial and error.
One of the reasons that first-time users often get frustrated is that QGIS does not automatically display a map. The user can choose the type of map they would like to use (like google maps) and then layer geographic and social data on top of that map. The author argues that by pulling in this information yourself and creating from scratch exactly what you are trying to display is why QGIS is such a powerful tool. This is because QGIS is not just used for geographic analysis. The user can analyze “people, commodities, ideas, political power…” and then relate that information to geographic space.
The next reading on the same site called “Linking and Styling Data with QGIS” walked the reader through how to make meaning out of data the user chooses to put into the program. “The challenge lies in finding (or creating) the data you need, as well as making different sets of data work with each other.” The author shows the user how to relate census information (population by U.S. counties) to the geographic information imported into the program in “Making a Map with QGIS.” It is the user’s responsibility to pull in all relevant information, but also to delete irrelevant information within the data (in this case, population by state). Through this process, the user not only places data in geographic space, but makes sense of it visually. Because the author of both these articles focused so much on the difficulties of using QGIS, it makes the reader hesitant to try a program like this. Having to “haul” oneself up the learning curve of QGIS sounds painful (it totally is).
“What is Spatial History?” by Richard White ( The Middle Ground Richard White) covers the way that historians have used and resisted digital history to study spatial history. White does not see spatial history as a major “turn” in the way that history is practiced, he just sees it as a new way to do history. While he may not see it as a turn, the early examples of data visualization of space seem to come from the same time that environmental history as we know it today became popular. William Cronon (White’s first example) is considered one of the pioneers of environmental history and White himself has frequently fallen into this category throughout his career. While not all of White’s examples in the article can be tied to environmental history, these two methods seem to be coming out of the same historical moment.

White argues that spatial history differs from traditional history in a few important ways. Spatial history is more collaborative. It often requires collaboration between historians, students, GIS specialists, and computer scientists. There is also a focus on visualization rather than text and it relies much more heavily on digital history. He says the most important difference is the “focus conceptually on space.” White then defines the ways that space can be studied, based on the work of a philosopher in “The Production of Space.” According to the philosopher, there is a difference between spatial practice, representations of space, and representational space. Spatial practice “involves the segregation of certain kinds of constructed spaces and their linkages through human movement.” Representations of space are things created by people like architects or surveyors that try to shape how people live and move. Representational space is the space that overlaps physical space but has symbolic meaning to people and shapes the way they live, like a church.

White argues that what ties all of these spatial constructions together is movement. This is why spatial studies cannot rely on maps and text alone. Text and maps are static while movement is not. Another issue that White brings up is that historians like GIS because it allows historians to make sense of historical maps using modern mapping systems and conceptions of space. While GIS can help to reveal something on the original map that was not obvious before, some historians have been resistant to this use of GIS as the construction of space has not been consisted across time or between cultures. White also points out that there is a difference between what he calls “absolute physical space” and “relational space.” This is particularly interesting for those working on the walking tours as physical space would be something measurable, like distance. Relational space could be anything from time of day the person was traveling, traffic, or mode of transportation. By creating a walking tour, we know the mode of transportation (and if it were scheduled, the time of day) and in a way are constructing space in relation to historic spaces.

White’s final point is what he considers most important. To him, visualization and spatial history is a means of doing research, not a way to display information discovered elsewhere. Creating these projects is a way to come up with new questions and see relationships that may not have been revealed using other methods. Spatial history is there to support research, not be the research itself. The final reading was a spatial history project that White worked on with some of his students. The project “Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” seemed to be a mix between a project created with GIS and a network project. It was not the easiest project to understand based just on the visualization, but the description showed that the project was intended to analyze how running a railroad in the west was tied to friends, families and investors in the east.

Discussion Questions:

Why does the author of “Making a Map in QGIS” differentiate geographic data from the social data tied to the maps (like census data from individual states)?

While the social data is not inherently geographic, how is the author understanding how the data is categorized if not by geographic (or constructed geographic, like state boundaries) space?

Do you see a strong connection between spatial history and environmental history? If spatial history is just a tool for writing traditional history, where do the other projects in the article fit?

Do you see any problems with using “modern space and mapping conventions” to georeference historical 2D maps? What potential problems or limitations could a user trying to overlay these maps run into?

Did you find the visualizations in Western Railroads and Eastern Capital” difficult to read? How helpful was the descriptive information accompanying the visualization?

4 thoughts on “GIS and Spatial History: Uses and Limitations

  • March 19, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    I would argue that spacial history is almost necessary for environmental history, especially if one is focusing on the environment itself rather than the people who shaped it. Spacial history allows one to show the change over time and since the environment outside of humans cannot write down its experiences with human interaction, the only way to write it back into the narrative is by using maps to examine such things as loss of animal habitat and forest destruction due to human events. Based on my incredibly limited knowledge of spacial history which involves these readings and an undergraduate geography class, it seems that while spacial history was originally tied to traditional history with things like the map of Napoleon’s invasion, it has slowly been used to embrace other forms of history including social and environmental.

  • March 22, 2016 at 1:18 am

    Is “spatial history is just a tool for traditional history” your argument or White’s? And do you think the same could be said, correctly or facetiously, of other methods? (ie, “art analysis is just a tool for traditional history” “archaeology is just a tool for traditional history” “analysis of rhetoric is just a tool for traditional history” — these are kind of trolly examples because, well, that’s how I roll)

    Is the Western RR project environmental history because it’s spatial history? What’s the Venn diagram of the two?

    Do you think QGIS has a particularly steep learning curve? I find it about equally non-intuitive as anything else, but at this point I go into everything expecting to have to bash my head against it to get it to work 😛

  • March 22, 2016 at 6:17 pm

    In response to your question about Western Railroads and Eastern Capital, I found that the interactive map and tree diagram were easy to understand although I did not completely understand the bottom bar graph component. I felt that the ‘About the Visualization’ and ‘How to Read’ sections actually made the process much more confusing that it needed to be. I think the authors would have accomplished what they intended to describe with just the interactive map and text that accompanied. Or if they had given extremely basic instructions that may have been best.

  • March 28, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    In regards to the question about spatial history being environmental history, I would say to an extent yes. Spatial history provides a visualization of changes over time in an environment, so it is a useful tool for those who want to study large sets of data within the context of environmental history. I believe that spatial history is both a tool of classic history, and in time will develop into its own recognized field.


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