New Publication: Where Are We? The Method of Mapping with GIS in Digital Humanities

I am terrifically honored to have my article, “Where Are We? The Method of Mapping with GIS in Digital Humanities,” in the the new issue of American Quarterly (70.3), “Toward a Critically Engaged Digital Practice: American Studies and the Digital Humanities.” is out! I hope this paper makes inroads between critical GIS as a product of geography and the equally innovative work on GIS in DH.

Research in digital humanities (DH) is at its strongest when interdisciplinary and American Studies makes a space for that sort of work. Edited by Lauren Tilton, Amy Earhart, Matt Delmont, Susan Garfinkel, Jesse P. Karlsberg, and Angel David Nieves and including work from colleagues and/or role models (many of whom I am lucky enough to call friends), I believe that this issue speaks to exciting interventions and contributions. Given that the article is fully open access (bravx to the editors and AQ again!), I am pasting the full content and below and also providing a link to my own contribution in PDF here.

Where Are We? The Method of Mapping with GIS in Digital Humanities

For decades, the “spatial turn” has shaped and been shaped by the thinking of scholars and students in American studies in regard to the production, meaning, and experience of space and place. The “digital turn” soon followed and intertwined with the previous twist: “The recent embrace of GIS and other digital tools by the traditionally technology-averse disciplines of English and history is connected to the theoretical recognition of the importance of spatiality.”1 Thousands of mapping projects using geographic information systems in the digital humanities have become increasingly online, interactive, and critical over the years.2 What is the state of GIS in the digital humanities, and what is next? In other words, where are we? And where can we go from here?

Geographic information systems can best be described as computer software to design maps and the spatial analysis of geospatial data, that is data that include a location.3 GIS is therefore a tool used to produce maps and not a method unto itself; to describe GIS as a method implies that the software will collect the data and evidence for the research project and conduct the analysis. The display and analysis of geospatial data (i.e., data that include a location) revolve around the selection and application of colors, symbols, and spatial statistics to identify patterns, themes, and trends. It can also be applied to many important data like government property data and many more. While the term spatial humanities has sometimes been used to describe the use of GIS in the digital humanities, it also evokes a broader meaning of the study of geography in the humanities. I use the term DH GIS to refer specifically to GIS in the digital humanities.4

The approach of GIS projects in the digital humanities often repeats Karen Kemp and Ruth Mostern’s assertion that GIS was designed in a way to require “scholars to change their methods to suit technology, rather than making the technology work for them.”5 In this brief essay, I draw on my experience as a cultural geographer and digital humanist to address what I identify as the five major issues/possibilities for the state of DH GIS. I build these five points from examples of DH GIS. The purpose of digital humanities is not merely the production of data visualizations or archives alone but the critical production and analysis of these materials. As such, I argue that digital humanities scholars in American studies are in a unique position to contribute to the growth and development of GIS and, in so doing, the growth of spatial thinking in and beyond the humanities.

Reworking GIS beyond the Military and Corporate Industrial Complexes

As Caren Kaplan and others have noted, GIS was created as a military technology and is now also equally embraced as a tool to further capitalism:

Two primary ways in which militarization operates in U.S. contemporary culture are the pervasive use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), the primary model of data collection, sorting, and storage in use for over thirty years, and the practice of so-called target marketing, a geographically based form of classifying neighborhoods through subsets of demographic information.6

Building from Kaplan’s arguments, Siva Vaidhyanathan carries this point farther and adds that “technologies that we purchase as tools of access, choice, opportunity, and freedom, Kaplan asserts, actually acculturate us to an invisible rigidity by keeping us always logged on, always present and accounted for.”7 Collection of mobile geospatial data which also can be used in tracking Google Maps rankings has transformed target marketing to what you have bought, liked, posted, and read. In 2017 Republican members of Congress introduced bills that would prohibit the collection, storage, access, and distribution of geospatial data regarding race or public housing, including the US Census.8 The ASA and other organizations signed statements condemning these bills, which have not passed.9 Corporations the likes of Target also issued complaints, as they rely on geospatial data to map and, therefore, spatially profile target markets, using race, class, gender, and other census data, as well as data from other sources.10

I add that choosing to accept the affordances and design of GIS-as-is only replicates the militarization and corporatization for which this software was created. The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab’s “Renewing Inequality” website includes maps, graphs, and videos of oral histories regarding the racist and classist history of urban renewal.11 The collaboratively developed companion site, “Mapping Inequality,” conducts similar mapping and statistical analysis of US redlining, as well as historic maps.12 While both projects use GIS to support social justice—which has been a use of GIS since the advent of the software—using GIS for DH-specific projects, including historic maps not drawn with the accuracy of modern maps can prove, at times, impossible.13 Vincent Brown’s “Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760–1761: A Cartographic Narrative” makes use of maps from that period but draws the paths of revolt directly on top of them.14 Many ancient and medieval maps were drawn with landscape, 3-D views that did not and could not perfectly attend to scale. New and easier-to-use technologies, algorithms, and tools need to be created to reinvent GIS beyond its militarized and commercial past and present.

Developing a Technological Imagination, and the Resources Required

As scholars in the social sciences and humanities alike have (fairly) bemoaned, some GIS software is complex and requires a great deal of training and support. As a result, many of the maps produced by DH GIS lack complexity and “share a common limitation in that they tend to rely on the analysis of point-based cartographic representations.”15 GIS is made up of points (locations of buildings or cities), lines (rivers or roads), and polygons (lakes and nation-state boundaries). In other words, DH GIS scholars are sometimes unable to make use of the richness of the software.

Recent research has also begun to address patterns of movement, such as the Spatial History Project’s “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World,” which has afforded breakthrough understandings around ancient transportation and political economies shaping and shaped by them. Innovation in DH GIS requires a greater number of collaborators with which to embrace new technology and further hone a DH-specific spatiotechno-logical imagination. Another powerful example is Dana Byrd’s collaborative work with a digitally savvy student and GIS lecturer Eileen Johnson to create a 3-D model (using GIS) of the first town of freed slaves in South Carolina. An art historian, Byrd was able to bring Mitchelville to life and allow users to virtually walk through the past of a people whose history was often destroyed or unrecorded.16

Crossing the Qualitative–Quantitative Divide

Stuart Dunn writes that “humanities discourse has always formed and transmitted concepts of place.”17 However, geohumanities research has primarily dwelled on text, images, video, performance, and archival evidence, while the social sciences are painted as objective because of their use of “data.” The false binary between qualitative–quantitative and evidence–data requires interrupting. Researchers across disciplines have long dwelled in the interstitial and debated space between quantitative and qualitative projects.18 Here, relying on a technological imagination becomes imperative to discursively shift from a framework of “evidence” to one of “data,” while also allowing different ways of gathering and structuring research to produce digital projects, namely, through spreadsheets that include categories and variables.

A project mutually qualitative and quantitative, the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project (AEMP) drew on a mixed-methods approach to qualitative storytelling through oral histories and quantitative spatial analysis to show the effects of displacement and gentrification because of the technology boom. The AEMP, in the San Francisco Bay area, won the 2016 ASA Garfinkel Prize in Digital Humanities for its “Narratives of Displacement and Resistance” site. Ian Gregory and Alistair Geddes argue that if GIS software is

able to cope with qualitative sources, then not only will it become applicable to a much wider range of fields within historical research, but it will also become usable across many other subjects within the humanities—potentially in any humanities discipline where geography is seen as relevant.19

In other words, bridging the qualitative and quantitative divide returns to my first point: DH GIS has the power and the responsibility to shape the future of GIS itself.

A Conversation with Critical GIS

To date, only three articles mentioning the digital humanities have appeared in the two flagship US geography journals, and of the three mentions of GIS in American Quarterly, only one of these articles addresses GIS at any length.20 A burgeoning series of conversations and approaches within geography, critical GIS is the reflective assessment, ethics, and critique of geospatial data in GIS algorithms or spatial analytics, software and hardware selection, design tools and elements, data sources and availability, data structures, and the maps that come from them, with a particular eye toward using GIS on behalf of social justice.21 At the same time, DH GIS insights into historical geography would further the role and prominence of historical study in the field.

The politics of software selection are part of the critical GIS debates. A recent project by Caleb Elfenbein and his students, “Mapping Islamophobia,” provides the viewer with two main maps: sites of reported Islamophobia and sites that record American Muslim responses to the hatred, harassment, and violence in counter-Islamophobia actions and spaces. The site relies on Carto to host its interactive, embeddable maps. A long-term favorite DH GIS project among many historical geographers, “The Atlas of Early Printing” relies on Google Maps and other tools to produce an interactive map that allows users to see the spread of early printing through fairs, trade routes, universities, and so on. Yet, if a reader looked at either site, could she, he, or they recall what software was used? Could a reader do the same for other DH GIS sites without reading the documentation? And how many scholars read the technical documentation?

Many scholars lack the technical acumen, funds, or time needed to learn and deploy more complicated GIS software—let alone to read about it—so that many projects rely on the partially free (with limits on functionality or data size) Carto, Mapbox, or Google Maps, the last of which also possesses the license to use the data you upload. Alternatively, educational technologists and institute workshops tend to teach ESRI’s ArcGIS, Tableau, or the Neatline package for Omeka. What is left out of this equation? Free and open source software such as QGIS, OpenStreetMaps, R, or Scalar: DH GIS is in an especially rare position to demand and create more free, open source, and even more accessible software that fits its needs.22

Projects of Public Humanities on Behalf of Social Justice

The majority of DH GIS projects are produced for online consumption, and these projects often receive the most attention when they examine issues of social and spatial justice. Maps are incredibly popular and therefore are accessible to larger publics, and digital maps and geoweb projects are a huge proponent of public humanities in their proliferation. In more recent years, the Holocaust Geographies Collective (HGC) provided previously unavailable insights into the historic geographies of murder, violence, and genocide across Europe and the Soviet Union.23 In the HGC’s “Budapest Ghetto” project, Tim Cole and Alberto Giordarno write, “Alongside the binaries of concentration v. dispersion and absence v. presence, we work here also with a series of other productive binaries: center v. periphery, visibility v. invisibility, accessibility v. inaccessibility.”24 The HGC unpacks these important analytic terms by bringing the atrocities of the Holocaust to bear in real-world geographies. Anne Kelly Knowles, a member of the HGC, also created the “Decisive Moments in the Battle of Gettysburg” map, which sparked significant national interest and was featured on the Smithsonian website. These projects of public humanities reveal the range of possibilities open to scholars.

Linking back to many projects I have mentioned above and others I referenced in my footnotes, Sarah Bode recently wrote that “digital mapping has changed our understanding and access to issues regarding race, segregation, and social justice in the United States.”25 Other matters of injustice are equally confronted in these maps. Because of the power of maps, DH GIS projects promote education, conversation, and representation on behalf of the common good in the public sphere.


As David Cooper and Ian N. Gregory stated, “There is a move towards using GIS technology to highlight the imbricated relationship between the locatedness of everyday life and the spatialities of cultural practices.”26 The production of maps and other data visualizations related to history, literature, and the arts is an important contribution in and of itself. However, the most significant impact of the digital humanities is that step farther: the critical analysis of the data visualizations and archives that come from its research. Much has come of DH GIS projects, and time will reveal the future places we will go together.