Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Incorporating the Subjective into GIS

by Benjamin Sacks

THE PROLIFERATION of Geographic Information System (GIS) frameworks in an ever-increasing number of applications has undoubtedly altered the way society interacts with the physical and cultural environment. Whether on our mobile phones, vehicles or mining, GIS serves a critical role in re-visualising our world.  If we look at current GIS applications, the bulk are quantitative, not qualitative in nature. Designed around statistical, logistical  and empirical data, most GIS programmes are designed to process and document algorithmic calculations via cartography. But, some disciplines, particularly the humanities, are far more difficult to quantify; there is rarely a ‘right-or-wrong’ answer, a binary ‘one’ or a ‘zero’ that GIS will easily understand.

Recent research authored by David Cooper and Ian N Gregory (Lancaster) entitled ‘Mapping the English Lake District: A Literary GIS’ seeks to expand GIS to the qualitative sphere. Featured in the January 2011 issue of Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, their work explored the less-definable vision of maps – or what F Moretti described as, ‘A good map is worth a thousand words, cartographers say, and they are right’ (Moretti 1998, 3-4; Cooper and Gregory 2011, 89). Analysing what they term as ‘literary GIS,’ Cooper and Gregory digitally mapped two important travelogues on the Lake District: Thomas Gray’s Correspondence (1769) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Collected Letters (1802). The authors noted that, although both Gray and Coleridge travelled through the Lake District, their geographical memories of the region stood markedly different from one another (91-92). Through mapping the locations and interactions highlighted in Correspondence and Collected Letters, respectively, Cooper and Gregory calculated their overlapping and distinct geographic spaces.

The beauty of Cooper and Gregory’s research lies not in their narrow examination of literary geographies in the Lake District, but rather in the sweeping potential their work signifies in GIS usability. With appropriate interpretation of qualitative sources, many global history texts can be visualised from a host of different parametres, including (but by no means limited to) literature, scientific advancement, economic and social development, and revolution and reform. The rise and fall of empires could be analysed via the journeys of period literary figures, rather than through the single-perspective lens of historians. Artists, musicians and architects can be ‘mapped’ in a simliar manner, opening exciting new possibilities in understanding geography past and present.

David Cooper and Ian N Gregory, ‘Mapping the English Lake District: A Literary GIS‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 36 (Jan., 2011): pp. 89-108.

1 comment

  1. Very interesting and exciting work, at least from a literary perspective. My most immediate question is: how will this type of research apply to literature more broadly, outside of the very specific parameters that make these two authors’ “literary journeys” ideal for GIS analysis?

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