Envisioning Space: Geoinformatics Information Science Sheds Light on HumanitiesSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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We are used to thinking of location in space and of spatial awareness as inseparable from bodily existence, so much so as to be unproblematic. This does not mean that space has not had its moments in the spotlight in the past. Philosophers have pondered over it from the beginning. Astronomers have fought over its shape and extension. And, especially for Westerners, the experience of space was revolutionized by the Italian architects and engineers who articulated a mathematical theory of perspective. But even this surprising feat has been internalized and become obvious. Thanks to Kant we have become aware that space is crucial to our capacity to understand experience. Yet, by making space a precondition of knowledge, Kant has contributed as much to drawing attention to it as to its removal from critical analysis.
In recent decades, though, the problematization of space has become an ever more important trend in research, prodded in part by new technological tools. These go under the name "GIS," or geoinformatic information systems/science. This label is used to cluster the set of techniques that study space through the collection and analysis of electronically generated data. Used initially by geographers and urban planners, and then by social scientists who rely on statistical data, more recently GIS has drawn the attention of humanists, from art critics to historians and literary scholars.
GIS relies on one simple and classical notion: most things, phenomena, and events can be identified through coordinates, and can be located somewhere on a grid. The grid is related point by point to an electronically produced map, which can be a map of a real or a virtual place. The place may have been photographed by a satellite a few hours ago, or it may have been reconstructed out of a description found in a book or a document. Once we have a "map" we can superimpose other layers onto it: rivers and roads, data referring to population density and divorce rates, and images that turn a point on the map into a full-fledged reproduction of what we would see around us if we were "there."
GIS thus enables us to see plotted on a map (and a screen) data that are presented simultaneously (whereas they would be presented sequentially with other methods, as happens with different tables printed on different pages in a book), and that are identified spatially (which we can do crudely with other techniques). We can consider several sets of data at once, and we can visualize spatial relations like proximity (or distance). Whether spatial relations will be relevant to establishing the theoretical import of the sets of data we are considering is a question that the researcher or scholar has to answer, as she has to answer questions regarding the specific logical status of the relation/s between and among those data. One of the most interesting features of GIS is that it prompts us to reconsider traditional assumptions in the theory of knowledge. In particular, epistemological issues are presented visually rather than discursively to the researcher/observer. (Or to be more correct, they are presented in such a way as to induce the researcher to rely on the visual apprehension and on the discursive articulation of problems at the same time.)
In recent months the Center for European Studies and the China Data Center, with support from the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and the International Institute, have spearheaded a series of initiatives in support of U-M scholars who wish to add a GIS component to their research and teaching. These are mostly humanists: people who usually rely on qualitative rather than quantitative methods to conduct their research. The use of GIS in the humanities presents specific challenges, and leads the humanist scholar to ask questions she may not have asked otherwise.
For example, if we look at the spatial distribution of shrines and religious centers in pre-Reformation Germany using GIS techniques, we can draw a distinction between centers where worship focused on the figure of Christ, and centers where worship included the Virgin Mary and the saints. If we then correlate the spread of Reformation teaching to the locations of those shrines we can see that it overlaps to a remarkable degree with Christ-focused places of worship. Places where other figures were honored remained to a large degree Roman Catholic. Is this a coincidence? Does the fact that the local population was anyway leaning toward Christ as the only object of cult predispose them to accepting the Lutheran message that he is the only mediator between humans and God, and the only savior? Does Luther's message emerge as a synthesis of existing local practices? Does the worship of the Virgin Mary and the saints merely reflect greater strength of the Roman Catholic Church in those regions?
Similar questions arise from the application of GIS to various U-M projects we are now supporting thanks to a grant from the Office of the Vice President for Research. Some of these projects share in common the site of research: the ancient and medieval Mediterranean. Susan Alcock (Classical studies), Michael Bonner (Near Eastern studies), and Rudi Lindner (history), will analyze different aspects of life in the eastern Mediterranean: settlements, house or village plans, land use, coin distribution and its link to the centralization or decentralization of political authority, and the location of shrines, markets, trade routes, and the territory controlled by different tribes.
Other projects deal with European cities. Berlin is analyzed in a course taught by Karein Goertz (Residential College) and Mick Kennedy (architecture). GIS enables them not only to plot demographic and cartographic data, but also to link historic and contemporary images of specific points in the city. Students participate in, and help create virtual tours of Berlin. (And they are then taken there to walk zu Fuss im Kiez, on foot, in the neighborhood.)
We are also planning to explore more in-depth the epistemological issues I summarized above, bringing together the scholars mentioned above and others whose work ranges from modern literature (Sara Blair, English) to classical Chinese art (Martin Powers, art history and Center for Chinese Studies). We also aim to include psychologists, philosophers and IT experts, who can provide valuable insights into the relationship between visual and discursive modes of understanding, the mathematization of information that accompanies the translation of that information into electronic data, and the relationship between qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Conversations with researchers and scholars active in the GIS field both here and at other institutions are already taking place this year, thanks to a lecture series organized in collaboration with several U-M units that received grants from OVPR. Our first speaker this year was Karen Kemp, from the University of Redlands, California. Her talk on November 3, entitled GIS in the Humanities, was followed by a workshop where Michael Bonner and Tom Wagner (China Data Center), who works on correlating physical changes in metropolitan Detroit with demographic and social changes using census data, reported on their respective research projects.
Looking farther into the future, those involved at CES, CMENAS and CDC hope that the projects they are supporting on the classical and medieval Mediterranean will become the starting point for an initiative covering the entire region and spanning several centuries. "The Mediterranean" could thus become one of the teams included in the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative, an international initiative springing from Berkeley. (The other teams already fully operating are the British Isles, the Caucasus, Mexico, Central Asia, China, Circumpolar, Japan, Korea, South Asia, Southeast Asia, Southwest Asia and North Africa, Turkey, and the United States/Canada.)
Daniela Gobetti is the program associate for the Center for European Studies. She is a political theorist who received her PhD in political science from Columbia University in 1987.