Blog Post #2: History and GIS, ‘Old’ vs. New


In the piece by Knowles as well as Bodenhamer I get the impression that Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is either a hit or miss depending on which historian you speak to. It seems that historians have a good understanding of GIS – its raison d’etre, what it is good for, but maintain some kind of reservation when it comes to the idea of adopting it. In Knowles’ piece there is one particular thought that I find most irritating: “The visual and mathematical characteristics count as a strike against GIS for many historians” which is essentially admitting, as a scholar, you do not like X because it isn’t what you’re used to. I understand that history has its own norms, just like any other field, but I’d like to believe that we are not going to be the only field stuck in the Stone Age while other areas such as the social sciences are growing along with modern day developments. (Arguments later attribute this difference to the fact history is viewed abstractly or it is less finite, which clashes with the very finite elements of GIS, but even then it seems to be an excuse?)


Bodenhamer seems to address my concern right off the bat, stating that it is well known that history lags behind other areas, but the tone of the piece to me seemed very much in line with Knowles’ work: understanding of the GIS, even becoming self-aware in stating that most historians find the GIS or technology in general as cumbersome and probably not worth the hassle. It baffles me how a field can understand the benefits of a system yet refuse to use it in some cases; these norms are far too deeply ingrained in my opinion. While I do realize the method of conducting oneself in history hasn’t changed in a while, when you see a better alternative, or in this case, a great supplement, you should take advantage of it as best as you can. In every other field this is known as being competitive, staying ahead of the game, but perhaps history is one of the few fields that has yet to face such a reality? Bodenhamer believes that the GIS should fit into the normative structure of history, which I suppose is acceptable, but it seems that the norm in history is to not change much. I do not think I’m being overly pragmatic here, I feel a little saddened at time in the field that could be spent learning how to use the GIS, or even just raise interest in it that is spent doubting it or brushing it aside. Could this simply be the consequence of a generation gap between historians?


To summarize, by reading these two pieces on the GIS, I feel some historians aren’t very open minded to new methods, and even when looking at their faults dead in the eye they don’t seem quick to fix it, both Knowles and Bodenhamer acknowledge this. It is deeply bothersome to me on a personal level, because even though I don’t think the GIS is going revolutionize every part of this field, there are some great uses for it that should not be ignored because it inconveniences the unwilling.

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