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  • Shannon Honl

What is the “spatial turn?”

To make a turn is to change course or direction. We usually think of doing these things through physical space – in a car, riding a bike, or on foot. But turns can take place in other dimensions. For instance, academic disciplines use “turn” as a metaphor to discuss trends in the field. In turn (pun intended, ha-ha), the simile becomes embedded in the jargon of the academy.

Recently, I began a graduate program in American and Public History at Loyola University. I have always been drawn to history but working on digital experiences for the Eisenhower Memorial affirmed my desire to interpret it for the public. But much to my bewilderment, my art history, architecture, and preservation degrees left me ill-prepared for what was to come. It felt like I was learning a foreign language during the program’s first year.

That new language included words like agency, ontology, historiography, and – who knew – turn. At the beginning of my 20th Century America reading seminar, we learned from Ian Tyrrell about the various turns in history. Essentially the history of history. Or otherwise referred to inside the academy as historiography.

Tyrrell discusses the various turns the discipline has taken over the 20th century. Progressive and post-World War II consensus (top-down) history dominated the first half of the century. Then, in the wake of the Vietnam War and Civil Rights movements, new left and social (bottom-up) history arose. Finally, cultural and public history emerged at the end of the century. Expanding beyond Tyrrell’s article (published in 2011), we learned in class that the latest trend is a turn toward the state or structural history.

These various turns, or schools of thought, represent scholars’ changing approaches to history over time. It may be easier to think of the different turns as a kit of tools. Each tool allows a scholar to see things that other tools (or lenses) may not reveal. It’s essential to be aware of all the options and choose the instrument that fits the task. For example, you wouldn’t use a lawnmower to remove snow from your driveway – although this guy might try. Sometimes the adaptability of a tool bridges multiple disciplines.

Spatial analysis is one such synergistic turn. According to historian Edward Ayers, the spatial turn is an “awareness of place, manifested in specific sites where human action takes place.” Harnessing the power of Geographic Information Systems (GIS), spatial analysis allows scholars to examine the intersection between human and physical occurrences – a fusion of time and place. Despite its origins within the discipline of geography, historians, digital humanists, and sociologists are also leaning into the new spatial turn.

History’s spatial turn uses GIS to analyze and map patterns. But spatial analysis is not simply about adding a map to the tool kit. Historians’ interpretations have relied on maps for centuries. In the old-school sense, a map is a simple static representation of a place. But mapping – in the spatial analysis sense – uses digital technology (GIS) to combine place and time to represent space.

The University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab launched a project showcasing this type of examination. Voting America, a GIS-driven program, tracks political movements across the United States from 1840-2008. Animated maps reveal patterns less discernable in static images. Instead, they show evolution in motion across time and place allowing for spatial analysis.

Dynamic map illustrating the flip in political trends from Hoover's 1928 election, to FDR's in 1932,

and again for Ike in 1952.

As Ayers points out, this type of analysis can be challenging for people to grasp. We tend to understand things linearly and struggle to make sense of complex, coinciding events. Dynamic mapping, such as Voting America, can bring these patterns to light in ways other tools cannot. It also leverages our brain’s natural capacity and desire to perceive trends and relationships. As a result, Ayers argues, “we can see more in the maps than we can easily say.”

The potential of spatial analysis is undoubtedly compelling. However, it raises questions about how else this type of exploration can be applied. For example, might it be capable of making reasonable inferences or predictions about patterns and shifts to come? Currently, presidential libraries are the subject of my research focus. How might I apply GIS and spatial analysis to study these institutions, their audiences, and the communities impacted by them? And what would it look like to layer tools such as GIS, architectural design, urban planning, and oral interview?

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Liz Ferry
Liz Ferry
Oct 20, 2022

Love the graphics!! I agree, spatial analysis isn’t the right fit for a lot of research projects. But it can provide an interesting new lense. Presidential libraries are such an interesting subject to look at in this way. I’m excited to hear your future ideas!


Oct 20, 2022

It's quite scary to imagine being involved in predictions for the future! I mean I guess lots of historians do try to do this already, like when we nervously said "hey everyone...Trump is kind of reminding us of Mussolini...maybe we shouldn't support him, right?" If historians were a stronger, louder, more authoritative voice when it came to the "future," that might help steer our societies down better paths. Obviously I'm preaching to the choir on this one. But as much as we like to imagine our work as implicitly suggesting how we should approach the future, I think most of us stay quite comfortable safely in the past. Only the bravest, like public historians and digital humanists (that's us!),…

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