What use is GIS for the humanities and social sciences?

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As I’ve mentioned in a previous post about my favourite GIS tool QGIS, geospatial software tends to be used in a rather narrow subset of academic research, i.e. mostly environmental scientists and geologists. The reasons for interest there are somewhat obvious, I think, but this is not as much the case for the humanities and social sciences. I was recently having a conversation with a colleague who asked me why maps might be part of my research toolkit and this got me to thinking. There are some good reasons for researchers to be suspicious of cartography – particularly inasmuch as the “gaze” from above can tend to lend a sense of “mastery” and unwarranted epistemological confidence. James C. Scott conveys this powerfully in his book Seeing Like a State.

However, with a bit of humility in hand, geospatial data can be a terrific tool for learning and teaching. In fact, I think it should be considered an essential part of the digital humanists toolkit. In no particular order, here are a few reasons why I think maps and geospatial data is a terrific tool for research in religious studies & the humanities, and social sciences more broadly and some examples of ways this is coming through in my own work:

  1. Maps are a terrific visualisation tool! People connect with maps and if they’re done well, they can provide a really valuable context for data visualisations which can upset stereotypes or expectations. I’ve been exploring the demographics of Scottish environmentalists in order to show how they map onto levels of deprivation, literacy, income, and religiosity. The results are sometimes surprising!
  2. When researchers in HSS use geospatial data as a mode of critical reflection, we can contribute new previously unimagined data sets. I’m just about to release “CommunityMaps” into research repositories (more on that soon!), this is a series of geospatial datasets which provide geolocations of religious communities in Scotland, permaculture groups, transition towns, eco-congregations, and community development trusts. I’m hoping that other researchers will be able to use this data to enhance their own ongoing work with reference to community groups and bring more attention to the role of grassroots groups in British geo-political life.
  3. Maps can provide a marvellously post-dualist way of troubling our scholarly containers, showing how “social” and “environmental” can cohabit and entangle. The decolonial atlas blog has tons of good examples of how this can be done with cartography. In my research, I’ve been looking at the ways that churches and wilderness areas coincide (more on this to come soon!).
  4. For the social scientists in the audience: geospatial data sets provide a robust mechanism for testing the robustness of your sampling. I’m always a little bit dismayed when I see empirical research broken down geographically by regions in Britain and “Scotland” is treated as if it is a contiguous region. My short experience of six years in Scotland has shown that it is a tremendously diverse country with a variety of political and economic inflections which vary from one region to the next. With this in mind, for my ethnographic work with community groups in Scotland I’ve tested my sampling of sites for research against a range of demographics – and as a result, I’ve been able to redirect towards a more representative range of communities which was only possible using GIS.

That’s a good start – I’m sure there are other good reasons to use GIS in the digital humanities. My main point is that cartography may be time consuming to do well, but the technology is within reach for those who want to enhance their research and teaching with a bit of geospatial thinking.

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