Thinking About Space

Historyonic’s post “Place and the Politics of Past” hints at what I find to be the real value behind digital mapping and geo-referencing. Sadly, as the author admits, the technology is still not there yet, so to speak, to be able to capture this capability in its entirety. In fact, the very idea is almost too nebulous to pin down. I am thinking about “networks” and what they might mean for the historian.

The word itself has three definitions–As a noun, it’s an arrangement of intersecting horizontal and vertical lines or a group or system of interconnected people or things. As a verb, it’s to connect as or operate with a network. For our sake, I think of a network as a group or system of interconnected people or things, which is still rather ambiguous. But the ambiguity is, perhaps, a good thing for the historian because it suggests that nothing is out of reach.

Anyway, I find the concept of a “historical network” rather interesting and pertinent to my own project. I am attempting to text mine a database of blues and old time country lyrics in an effort to compare the two. In addition, I want to be able to create a database of place names, meaning various locations like states, cities, towns, and counties, and then build a heat map from that database. The goal is to be able to see which places registered the most “hits” and then create an imagined geography for both the Blues and Old Time music based on those locations.

From these place names, we can then pin people to them. For instance, we can tag each bluesman that sang about Memphis to the city, and we can do the same, to be impartial, for each old time artist that mentions Nashville or Atlanta. What we will then have is data allowing us to see how interconnected each genre’s artists were based on the places they sang about. Who knows, this interconnectivity may even cross genres, revealing that the U.S. South, at least in its music landscape, was much more integrated than we might think.

On a related note, “Toward Critical Spatial Thinking in the Social Sciences and the Humanities” brings up another good point about spatial projects and, in my mind at least, networks. The article suggests that rather than thinking “spatially,” we should really be thinking in”spatio-temporal” terms. As in, we should be thinking about and trying to capture not a static representation of space but a dynamic one, where change over time can be easily visualized and understood. Thinking in this way only enhances our understanding of historical networks. If we can project a supposed network over time and space, can we not then see at what points in time the network changes? For instance, drawing again from my own example, if we can situate “memphis’s blues network” over a timeline, can we not start to see changes in that network over time or across certain time periods, say decades or years? Then, we can start making broader historical conclusions about what caused or even what altered human interaction to space.

I am sure there are holes in what I am trying to do, and I am sure this type of project may be more than I can do in a semester. But thinking about both articles has helped me formulate just exactly what I want to do with my project and where my limits might be.

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