Knowing, Being, Mapping: Dr. Craft and GIS

The digital scholars meeting this month with guest lecturer and classics fellow Dr. Sarah Craft brought up fascinating questions on how we engage with traditional humanities methodologies when using digital technologies like geographic information systems (GIS). In this post, I’d like to briefly list the four major questions I saw arising from Craft’s research and the related readings and then address how Craft responds to these.

Perhaps the most straightforward question was on the nature of GIS: Is GIS a tool or technology? In Knowles et al.’s article “Inductive Visualization: A Humanistic Alternative to GIS,” the authors share how GIS has been considered both a tool for analysis and a technology worthy of academic study in its own right. Each perspective brings with it underlying assumptions on the relationship between researcher and program. Craft addressed these questions within her own research in Serbia, where GIS is used as a “compilation tool.” She and her undergraduate student research assistant used the program to “iteratively explore and visualize” the landscape before their upcoming field research. It allowed them to “integrate different data sets” and pinpoint areas for further fieldwork by filtering using factors like proximity to water and elevation. Such high-resolution data allows Craft to understand the physical terrain in a macro scale and run broad analysis that may not have been possible without GIS.

However, it is not without challenges; Craft describes the challenges that arise when working with published data. In his post, Jim asks a great question related to this problem and to the increasingly economized nature of GIS and similar digital programs: “Are we limiting our data collection to the immediate research or are we collecting enough data so that future scholars can ask new questions?” In her presentation, Craft describes the limitations that accompany using data not specifically gathered for her ends. The ways in which GIS is built might better facilitate specific kinds of analysis over others.

The second question arising from these readings and research is more epistemological. How do we “know” as researchers? Llobera argues against the traditional perspectives in archaeology where “the source of knowledge about prehistoric landscapes can only be obtained through the body of the archeologist” (499). He finds this perspective limiting and an unnecessary privileging of so-called “passive records” (499). Considering static images as being free from the “technological determinism” that troubles some archeologists about GIS is ultimately a fallacy. He questions whether the claims made from a physical study are intrinsically different from similar insights gleaned from digital mapping software. Instead of supposing physical experience as direct knowledge versus the mediated knowledge gleaned from representations, this perspective understands knowledge as being formed through embodied experiences and digital mapping programs.

Dr. Craft takes a similar approach to the issue; when she describes her work with GIS and her field surveys, she portrays them as complementary components of forming knowledge. Her lecture on her use of GIS reflects Knowles et al.’s claim that “cartography is a form of semiotics” (237). The mapping allows her to come to new places of insight; it is generative and symbolic. Her perspective reflects Llobera’s description of the “agential capacity of landscapes” and the way meaning is co-constituted through interaction between researcher, technology, and material world.

The third question I saw as integrally connected with Craft’s work and our discussion was ontological. How might we internalize concepts from theories to develop methodologies and interpretive frameworks? If one of the arguments against GIS is its tendency to shape our methods for research, then this question is of critical importance. I think our discussion following Craft’s presentation hit on this issue the most, but it’s difficult to tease out the implications of such dialogue.

The fourth and final question(s) in my understanding is about the relationship between GIS software and the material world when composing analytical maps. In what ways does GIS affirm, break, or problematize the perceived “direct correspondence” between software and material world? What happens when researchers try to map affective realities as in Knowles et al? What about when time is mapped as in Craft’s diachronic project on pilgrimage?  Craft described how she layered the chronological and spatial progression of her dissertation project, but also described her work as contradicting the move towards geographic visualization proposed by Gupta et al and Knowles et al.

Ultimately, the questions  accompanying this research are not necessarily new questions for researchers in the digital humanities, but they do represent new possibilities — what Guldi describes as the spatial turn’s “impulse to position these new tools against old questions” (n.p.)


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