The Value of GIS, Part II

Historians deal with the “where” as much as the “when.” GIS and geospatial analysis provide a suitable platform to tackle the former theme. Yet, GIS remains underdeveloped or absent in history programs. It is strange that history departments have not adopted or promoted GIS in their programs. As a continuation of my previous blog, I will expand on the benefits of GIS to show how GIS skills can lead to research and professional development. Although this discussion will largely be geared towards history majors, much will also be pertinent to other humanities and social science students. 

First, as I mentioned in my previous post, GIS will open new career doors and benefit history majors. As seen with the data collected and analyzed by the American Historical Association, history majors enter a diverse array of professions. No significant percentage exists across career paths, which proves that history majors will acquire a vast array of jobs. Having GIS as a skillset can improve and expand their career choices. 

Second, learning how to use GIS can provide new methodologies in history. For instance, in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, historical geographer Anne Kelly Knowles describes how her team used GIS to determine what General Robert E. Lee could and could not see given his position during the Battle of Gettysburg. They then analyzed how his view of the battlefield informed his decisions. This example serves as one of many that shows how GIS provides an innovative window that provokes new questions and sparks fresh research.

Third, learning how to use GIS will motivate students to keep up with the “spatial turn” which sought to connect history and geography—temporal change and spatial variation. There has been a somewhat back-and-forth between historians and geographers. In his article, “What is Spatial History?” historian Richard White defines the field of history in relation to geography: “Chronology will always remain at the heart of a discipline that seeks to explain change over time, but this has left historians open to the charge from geographers that they write history as if it took place on the head of a pin. The charge is not true, but sometimes it is uncomfortably close to being true.” In order to ensure that historians recognize and consider the spatial dimension in their research, GIS lends itself to this task. On the other hand, in History and GIS: Epistemologies, Considerations and Reflections (2013), Historian Alexander Von Lünen criticizes geographers who have “for a long time indulged in a positivism that is staggering; cartography has stylized itself into a mathematical-geographical, or purely scientific subject…oozing a scent of objectivity since abandoned in other fields of humanistic inquiry.” If historians truly feel this way, then there must be a focus on historical GIS and a willingness to look at history through the geographer’s lens.

Fourth, students with GIS skills can join interdisciplinary projects. Universities like Stanford, Georgia Tech, and University of North Carolina have GIS research centers where students can participate in interdisciplinary projects by providing a historical and spatial approach and experience collaborative team projects. With GIS, history students can collaborate in projects and the number of historical GIS projects are vast: Projects and Programs List.

Finally, learning how to use GIS provides pedagogical benefits. History Professor Jim Brown, from Samford University, conducted a study where he “[required] students to give a GIS-based presentation of their research.” With this 5-year study, he produced two significant findings: “1) … increased class interest in the presentations of their peers, and 2) [it got the] class into a feedback loop between GIS and historical documents that deepened their interest and their research.” This is all to say that GIS education holds the potential to positively influence research outcomes, student learning outcomes, and foster collaboration in the realms of research and teaching alike.

Despite sounding like a broken record, I hope to show that learning GIS and geospatial analysis can benefit history majors, and other majors, in professionalization, education, and research. 

Fernando Amador

Graduate Student Intern at SBU Center for Digital Humanities
Fernando Amador II is a third-year Ph.D. student in the history department. He is interested in the environmental and migration history of Mexico. Currently, he is studying the town of Temacapulín, located in Los Altos de Jalisco. He is exploring how outmigration led to changes in the landscape. He is also interested in the digital humanities, particularly GIS. He is currently working on an article analyzing the distribution of haciendas in 16th century Mexico and collaborating with Professor Joshua Teplitsky in the Footprints project, which traces Jewish books through time and space.

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