Blog #4 – Geography and Visual Sources, a Critique of the Discipline of History

“If GIS is ever to become central to historical scholarship, it must do so within the norms embraced by historians and from a sophisticated understanding of the philosophy of history and not simply its methods.” – David J. Bodenhamer in “History and GIS: Implications for the Discipline”

It is difficult to believe that geography and history only really began to come together in the modern discipline of history in the mid-20th century, when, according to Anne Kelly Knowles, Fernand Braudel wrote his prolific history of the Mediterranean. It was my impression that geography and history were intimately linked, and furthermore it was to my surprise that Knowles stated that: “Scholars in the two disciplines are fond of saying that history is he study of when, geography the study of where.” This artificial boundary between the two disciplines seems troubling, as “space” is as important, if not more important, as “time” when studying history. Not to mention that space is paramount to many sub-disciplines (to name a few: military, urban, architectural, economic, political, environmental, and diaspora history).

Data is beautiful and tools like GIS give a rare opportunity to synthesize raw data into patterns that help us visualize numbers, distances, and regional change over time. According to some historians, one of the most problematic aspects of utilizing discrete systems like GIS is that one can’t really map uncertainty, and if one does, as Knowles states, it tends to be “unattractive”. If the problem is that data can be misinterpreted, the same problem persists in textual analysis and interpretation, the key is to make these visual tools as clearly as possible (clear legends, representations of uncertainty, and proper demarcation of graphs and charts). The problem seems to be a nitpick if anything.

“We construct textual images that we embed in our story, but we struggle to create visual images that convey our interpretation”, this statement by David J. Bodenhamer is, in my opinion, completely bunk. Visual images existed far before textual ones in human history, the only people afraid or not imaginative enough to utilize these “visual images” are historians, who have been ingrained by their discipline’s high-hatted view that texts top images in traditional scholarship. (Like wow why aren’t images conventionally used, or even allowed in university papers? There’s such an abundance of sources from visual history.) Like Theibault states, it’s not usually the historians that create innovate ways to use visual data, while this is beginning to change, I legitimate critique of the traditional discipline of history is its unwillingness to embrace fully visual sources and tools.

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