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Spatial Relations

April 1, 2013

This week’s offering of History and New Media presents an interesting topic: Spatial History. There are multiple takes on what exactly this means, but the writers considered here tend to agree that the digital age has advanced the capability to conduct and present results in this field. To that end, we will briefly review here its various aspects – how Spatial History can be defined, its applications, early utilization, methodology, and innovative approaches.

Richard White’s “What Is Spatial History?” is a fairly detailed assessment of a number of ways Spatial History can be delineated: From early and more recent studies of travel patterns within the US, to utilizing historical collections of botanical data to describe ecological change over time. We also have a more lengthy and detailed example of Spatial History in Stephen Robertson’s “Putting Harlem on the Map” Here Robertson uses geospatial tools to provide visualizations of housing, entertainment, and cultural locations over time.

John Corbet’s study, “Charles Joseph Minard: Mapping Napoleon’s March, 1861,” provides a classical example of Spatial History. Minard’s nineteenth century quantitative analysis of Napoleon’s March set a methodological benchmark for later historians using Spatial History. Likewise, Edward Tufte goes deeper in describing the issues raised by Minard’s study in “The Fundamental Principles of Analytical Design,” in terms of how Spatial History can demonstrate causality in historical events, be compared to others, and demonstrate complexity with multiple layers of data.

The last piece under consideration is more fun; in September of last year, The Guardian provides a brief discussion of Strange Maps by Frank Jacobs which demonstrate innovative (and humorous) approaches to recent Spatial History projects. This includes how far one would have to travel to find a McDonalds in the US, or the juvenile invectives against the French given by the British in the late eighteenth century.

In sum, Spatial History is a useful tool for visualizing data that involves our physical space in some way. Since maps are generally important for explaining history generally, it makes sense that access to new tools to deepen the level of analysis are helpful in producing more nuanced and rich ways of explaining human experience.

One Comment
  1. I am curious whether you think the “spatial turn” has any real salience or whether you think that space has always played a role in historical analysis? Do you buy White’s claim that digital tools lie at the center of a major shift in historians way of thinking?

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