Reflections: Beyond Thriller in Spatial History

The ‘spatial turn’ has come to history in waves, and since the term carries multiple meanings, it has sent historians off in a number of directions with a new, or renewed appreciation for space. With some exceptions, the theoretical engagement has still been relatively limited – or at least relatively recent, when compared to fields such as anthropology, art history, sociology, literary studies, urban studies, and most of all geography. A student in the UK or the United States may well complete their undergraduate degree in history with only the opportunity to explicitly think about space in the abstract through the reading of Edward Said’s Orientalism, and since the work doesn’t not frame itself in such blunt or limited terms, this reading may not come to mind as one way to approach spatial history. Beyond this, for theoretical inspiration, we turn to Henri Lefebvre with ready enthusiasm (or else direct that enthusiasm to the few secondary works that can help explain him to us), dive into our notes on Foucault, and revisit our favourite forty pages of Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life.

I have not found it particularly unusual to encounter spatially interested historical scholarship exclusively embracing the terms, assumptions, and frameworks of theoretical scholarship published before the début of Michael Jackson’s album “Thriller” nearly thirty five years ago. I am reminded of a historian who excitedly introduced, at great length, the apparently innovative idea of a “public sphere” explored by one Jürgen Habermas, and applied it mechanically to the development of late Meiji period discursive space in Japan. One complaint I heard afterwards showed exasperation for any such use of “theory” in a “history” talk, but a horrified sociologist sitting next to me looked like she had dropped in on a telecommunications conference to find a key speaker demonstrating the use of the telegraphic Baudot code in the encoding of email messages. For the speaker, the term “public sphere” and one proposed way to theorize it some fifty years ago was embraced as a hammer of solid unrusted metal, with the source material a nail. Wack! And the work is done.

The tragedy here is not the embarrassment at discovering that we are wearing clothes that are out of fashion. In one way, it is closer to the opposite, it is the desperate grasp for an approach ready-at-hand itself that is a little sad to witness – the reach for something shiny protruding from the toolbox and immediately, uncritically, putting it to work. It is completely understandable, of course. As historians, many of us are often deep in our own source material or a gripping project of the moment, and can barely follow developments in our increasingly specialized fields, let alone find the time to take a crack at a rich and varied literature on the theoretical issues that hang like shadows over the fundamental assumptions, categories, and arguments in our work. The temptation then is to find a big name, a well-cited text, a tuple of concepts, a juicy frame – and then never look back. What is lost are the gains from making even some limited effort to explore classic theoretical questions in the context of a broader conversation, in a comparison with several voices from a time, or the development or rejection of particular approaches by other thinkers in the years thereafter – not only in the field they originated in, whether geography, philosophy, anthropology etc., but as they crossed disciplinary boundaries. In other words, to take theory seriously.

Unless you embrace a positivist history that peers transparently at the past, undisturbed by any distracting epistemological doubt, failure to take theory seriously comes at the cost of unexamined assumptions and lost opportunities to put our own scholarship into conversation across disciplinary boundaries. Limiting ourselves to spatial history, for example, if asked questions with such interdisciplinary interest as, “What is space?” “In what ways is it abstract or concrete?” “To what extent is it something experienced and/or the product of representation?” “What forms does it take?” “How does it come to be?” “What is its relationship to time?” “What is its relationship to culture? To gender? To economic structures? To the domestic and intimate? To politics and power?” “Why does it matter?” “What is place? What is its relationship to space?” we may have thought at some greater length about one or several of these questions as they pertain to our own problems of interest. We may know what a single favourite classic text had to say about this. We are likely to have come across historical work that engages with it in a deeply empirical way. But I believe that we often undervalue the time spent on the hard work of wrestling with not one or two towering classics in order to deploy them, but tracing the echoes of these often theoretically heavy works forward to consider the critiques and development of these ideas in the years beyond – especially the long afterlives of pre-Thriller classics. In other words, rather than just reaching for a knife and returning to our work, step into the kitchen and spend a little more time with the cooks of multiple shifts. Appreciate and refuse to be overwhelmed at the multiplicity of approaches, and feel no need to return to your work married to any one final answer.

In a few upcoming posts here in the coming months, I want to occasionally practice what I preach and share one historian’s reading of some of the broader literature on space. With a few initial exceptions, I want include works beyond the 1970s, “beyond Thriller” and the 1980s, and reflect on some the critiques of earlier work that we can find there. I’ll begin this summer, with a few postings on the pre-Thriller works of the “humanistic geographer” Yi-Fu Tuan, and the Japanese ethnographer Kon Wajirō.

Student Reflections: Skills in Transnational History Module

This guest posting is by Katherine Bellamy, who completed the MLitt in Transnational, Global and Spatial History in 2016 with the dissertation “Ninnimissinouk Networks: The Endurance of Identity in a Transnational Context.” Katherine showed particular aptitude and a well-rewarded curiosity in the skills component of the programme, and made use of geographic analysis, network visualisations, and also impressively mastered some particularly challenging ‘regular expression’ high wizardry to extract and clean data from historical databases. We have invited her to share her experiences.


The Skills in Transnational History module proved to be a valuable opportunity for me to explore my interests in the digital humanities, in a way which complemented the broader themes of transnational history. We explored numerous avenues open to historians wishing to pursue digital methods, including the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) software as a tool for analysing historic and geographic data. Having previously used GIS myself, though in a purely geographical context, the opportunity to use this tool in a historical context was of particular interest to me. My first project for this module aimed to present John Murra’s theory of the ‘vertical archipelago’ in the Andes with a GIS map. I had initially planned to utilise both climatic and agricultural data from Alexander Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland’s 1805 map, Géographie des Plantes Equinoxales, but ultimately chose to omit the agricultural data as there was no clear way to show the significant variations across different altitudinal ranges. This meant I was unable to clearly demonstrate Murra’s link between the varying agricultural production zones, ecological zones, and settlements as I had first hoped. The first of my final maps depicted the average temperature and population figures within key intendancies, aiming to demonstrate any correlation between population size and environmental circumstance (though the result suggested large population sizes could be sustained at both ends of the spectrum); the second map depicted the altitude of the cities associated with the intendancies of the previous map, alongside the varied vegetation zones within the Andes.


These maps drew on various sources, including the aforementioned 1805 Géographie (providing temperature data); an 1875 map of South America authored by Louis Stanislas D’Arcy Delarochette (from which I identified the intendancies/cities depicted on the maps); and an 1822 map of Peru which I georeferenced in order to establish accurate contemporary boundaries.

Whilst the georeference was not entirely precise, it allowed me to create an additional polygon within the GIS software to represent the area of the Arequipa region which previously extended beyond current boundaries. Neither map is by any means perfect, both as a result of inherent issues with map creation (all maps lie!), as well as the broader problems associated with utilising largely qualitative historic data in a quantitative setting. The lack of detailed, accurate quantitative data created difficulties throughout the process of creating these maps.

Good data is of the utmost importance when pursuing these research methods. For the second assignment, which focused on the application of other key skills learnt in the module – namely the creation of relational databases and/or social network analysis – I was able to utilise data which was more appropriate. The source of my basic dataset was a list of 2,855 employees of the Hudson Bay Company (roughly ranging from the mid-eighteenth to mid-twentieth centuries), which included employee names, dates of birth, dates of death, and dates active with the HBC. This relatively rich dataset offered the potential for a substantial database, and even some network analysis. However, the amount of information available for each employee varied significantly, nor was the ordering consistent. As such, I utilised regular expressions in order to limit my selection to only those employees who had complete date ranges, and then further narrowed my selection to include only those active between 1821 (when the North West Company and HBC merged) and 1860. I was left with a list of 211 employees, and pdfs corresponding to each employee with further biographical details and their various postings with the HBC. Inputting all this data into a LibreOffice database, I created a form linking the basic biographical information (obtained from using regular expressions) to the more detailed position information (from the pdfs). On a larger scale, a digital humanities approach could yield valuable results, through the creation of a searchable database, displaying biographical information alongside each individual’s career history with the HBC. I had personally hoped to create some form of social network graph utilising this data, but was unable to do so due to time constraints and the nature of the data. Instead, I used the data to create a series of QGIS maps which depicted key HBC post locations, and how frequently these posts were mentioned over the course of the nineteenth century.

Whilst I was faced with obstacles which often prevented me from achieving what I had initially planned to show, the process of dealing with these challenges in this course proved immensely useful for me. Not only did it demonstrate the challenges faced more broadly by historians wishing to adopt digital humanities methods, it also improved my knowledge and understanding of these tools, and, critically, the best way to utilise them. The digital humanities have been viewed with a certain degree of scepticism, yet it is important to recognise that, when applied correctly, the results of adopting these tools can be extremely rewarding. Ongoing projects such as Stanford University’s Spatial History Project, and the University of St Andrews’ own Digital Humanities Network, continue to demonstrate the value of adopting this interdisciplinary approach, utilising innovative methods to yield results which enrich historical enquiry.

Map Sources

– Alexander Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland, ‘Géographie des Plantes Equinoxiales(1805, Langlois)
– Louis Stanislas D’Arcy Delarochette, ‘Map of South America’, (1875, James Wyld)
– C. Carey and I. Lea, ‘Map of Peru’ (1822, H. C. Carey and I. Lea)

Student Reflections: Antonino Scalia

Antonino Scalia, who joined us from Sicily, completed the MLitt in Transnational, Global and Spatial History in 2016. His coursework included a study of the impact and reception of the Greek Colonels coup in Italian culture and research on the manifestation of Palestinian causes in Italian theatre. In the skills module, he developed maps that visualised the distribution of political violence in Italy, 1969-1982, and developed a historical database of 588 Italian left-wing prisoners in order explore connections between across a range of attributes. He completed the degree with a masters dissertation entitled, “Encounters across borders. Left-wing Italian and Greek activists (1967-1974)”

My experience as a former student in the MLitt in Transnational, Global and Spatial History has been highly positive because of the welcoming environment, the stimulating style of teaching (and learning) and the fitting training it provided to meet the challenges of 21st History writing.

To start with human relations, in my view the friendly course’s staff attitude towards students was both able to mitigate stress from academic work and boost the quality of scientific output. In fact, being treated on an informal and equal basis worked for me as a strong incentive and help to overcome initial anxieties, insecurities and obstacles that derived from being accustomed to a totally different educational system. Moreover, the Master’s experience proven to me just how much the quality of research also depends on the quality of dialogue with other scholars. Therefore, a welcoming environment such as the one that is found at the School of History in St Katharine’s Lodge was also conducive to raising the level of one’s scholarly performance.

A second major strength of the Mlitt, which is solidly grounded on its friendly atmosphere, is its style of teaching, which is based on discussion and collaboration as an approach for progressing in historical research. Classes, seminars, writing workshops and “surgery hours” have been fruitful moments of debate with lecturers and other students. It resulted very often in the development of new ideas or the refinement of old ones. The countless chances for dialogue offered by the programme – even in form of one-to-one conversations – profoundly contributed to my intellectual progress.

Antonino (Antonio)

Finally, the formula could not have been completed if the relaxed, fertile atmosphere and the attention to dialogue had not been combined with a serious training. This included, amongst others, an emphasis on theoretical approaches to history, the teaching of cutting-edge methodologies and the study of a very large set of subjects. Particularly, the considerable importance given to theoretical issues made me fully aware that historical writing must first and foremost include a strong reflexive component. Also, research about the past is a practical undertaking and the introduction to innovative methods such as the ones connected with digital humanities (maps and databases) kept me and my colleagues in pace with the on-going, rapid transformations that the discipline is experiencing.  Finally the multiple geographical and thematic areas covered by the Mlitt’s lecturers are important tools for becoming global and/or transnational historians in the full sense of these words. Indeed, I think that  these approaches require intellectual curiosity and the will to find inspirations in realms which are (even if only apparently) far away from one’s own interests.

After this year in the MLitt, I am persuaded that the combination of each of the abovementioned elements has positively influenced my evolution as a scholar. As a result, I would highly recommend the master program to anyone who, like me, intends to pursue a career in historical research.

Workshop Report: Nation, Culture and Civilisation: Talking about and beyond ‘the West’ (1860-1940)

Building on the recently published volume “Germany and ‘the West’: The History of a Modern Concept” (2015), this workshop sought to explore the transnational discourse on ‘the West’ from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century (1860–1940). While the first part of the workshop, held at the Institut für Zeitgeschichte in Munich, focused on Germany, Britain, France, Russia and the US, the second part, held at the University of St Andrews, shifted the geographical focus to Japan, Korea, China and the Ottoman Empire. The workshop sought to answer a variety of questions: When, where, and why did ‘the West’ become a central point of reference in intellectual and political discourse? Why did people begin to talk about the West in a socio-political and often civilisational sense? Did the concept of the West, as Christopher GoGwilt has argued, eclipse the concept of Europe around the turn of the century, or did it displace the notion of ‘whiteness’, as Alastair Bonnett suggests? What influence did racism, social Darwinism and imperialism have on conceptualisations of the West? How did different spatial identities relate to each other: national, European / Asian / Islamic, Western / non-Western, and civilisational? Did countries typically seen as paradigmatic of ‘the West’ today consider themselves part of such an imagined community at the time? In what ways were conceptions of the West deployed to shape national identities in non-Western regions that had become increasingly incorporated into the communicative networks of Europe and America?

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Workshop: Spatial History and Its Sources

On 2 September, the Institute for Transnational and Spatial History will hold a workshop on “Spatial History and Its Sources.” You can find out more about the workshop and its schedule here.

The workshop will bring together historians with a selection of sources that can help us explore the new field of Spatial History. Spatial History can be understood in multiple ways: First, there is the historical exploration of physical-geographical realities, including cities, mountains, rivers, and oceans. Second, there is the historical exploration of spaces that are constituted by social relations and human interaction, including traveling, letter writing and any other form of social communication (acts of violence included). Third, there is the historical exploration of spaces that are imagined and discursively constructed, including mental maps and infrastructure plans. Needless to say, of course, that these three modes of historical exploration may all be employed in regard to a given subject: A mountain range, a landscape, or architectural site are as much a physical reality as they are an imagined space. The Alps are a physical reality – one that can be measured and gauged; as a lived and appropriated space, however, they can mean different things to different people: to local dwellers, travelers, painters, or mountaineers. Likewise, a ship is as much a physical space as it is a social space: a microcosm of social norms and codes of conduct, with a specific language attached to it as a vehicle of knowledge and means of communication. Considering these issues through the materials we work with, this workshop is the first step towards a new critical and engaging volume around “Spatial History and Its Sources.”

ITSH Podcast #1: Roundtable Discussion on the “Refugee Crisis”

On 29th June, 2016, a few colleagues of the ITSH gathered for a roundtable discussion on the “Refugee Crisis” and explored some questions and problems related to recent coverage of the issue in Europe from our perspective as transnational historians.

Discussion participants were: Nikolaos Papadogiannis, Tomasz Kamusella, Konrad M. Lawson, and Bernhard Struck

Writing Global History and Its Challenges

There is an exciting graduate student workshop coming up at our neighbour, the University of Dundee: 

Writing Global History and Its Challenges
Saturday, 4 June 2016, 9.30 AM-4.30 PM

The workshop will include Jürgen Osterhammel (University of Konstanz) and Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University).

Graduate students at Scottish universities are invited to participate in a one-day workshop on Saturday, 4 June 2016, organized by the Scottish Centre for Global History at the University of Dundee.  The workshop theme is “Writing Global History and Its Challenges.” Professors Jürgen Osterhammel (University of Konstanz) and Geoffrey Parker (The Ohio State University) will assign readings in advance of the workshop, and lead the discussion.  The workshop is free of charge for graduate students at Scottish universities.  However, places are limited.

In order to reserve your spot, you need to send an e-mail to Dr. Martine J. van Ittersum (m.j. vanittersum [at] by Monday, 9 May 2016, at the latest.  The e-mail should include a one-page CV and a one-page summary of your research interests (500 words maximum).  Please do not wait with submitting your materials until the last possible moment.  You may be disappointed.


Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism

From Quebec in the west to Crimea in the east, from Scotland in the north to the Balkans in the south, peoples of the Western World have recently sought to redefine their relationships with their states. The international conference “Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism”, organised by Tomasz Kamusella and Frances Nethercott from the University of St Andrews, treats modern Central and Eastern Europe as a point of departure to discuss the concepts of federalism, autonomy, and centralism in Europe and beyond.

Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism, May 2015 (Round Table)

Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism, May 2015 (Round Table)

On Friday, May 29, the Byre Theatre in St Andrews will house nine speakers from universities and research centres across Europe. Their papers, which vary in scope and regional focus, will deal with connections between the official state model on the one hand, and issues of ethnicity, religion or identity on the other.

The event will also feature Neil Ascherson and Colin Kidd, who will comment on the talks and lead a round table discussion on the topics raised.

The organizers of the event, together with the Centre for Russian, Soviet, Central and Eastern European Studies and Institute for Transnational and Spatial History at the University of St Andrews, invite all students, academics, and members of the general public to participate in this event. Admission is free for students and staff of the University. Other attendees can register and pay the conference fee at:

Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism, May 2015 (Participants)

Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism, May 2015 (Participants)



Conference Registration

The conference’s detailed programme can be found at:

Between Federalism, Autonomy and Centralism:  Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th and 21st Centuries


Tadek Wojtych
University of St Andrews

Reflections: Communism in a Single Country?

Tannu TuvaWe continue our series of staff reflections on various issues from a transnational historical perspective. Dr Tomasz Kamusella FRHistS, is a Reader in Modern History. He is the author of the extensive monograph The Politics of Language and Nationalism in Modern Central Europe (Palgrave 2009).

There is a unique value in leisurely leafing through various historical atlases and old geographical atlases, as sometimes, an unexpected leaps up to your face. It happened to me some years ago, when I was enjoying the third volume (entitled Neuzeit, or ‘Modernity’) of the Grosser Historischer Weltatlas (1957), edited by Josef Engel for the Bayerischer Schulbuch-Verlag in Munich, West Germany. On the map depicting the world in 1926 (pp 180-1), I spotted, marked in distinctive blue, the polity of Tannu Tuva, squeezed between the Soviet Union and Mongolia. It does not feature on any maps of the postwar period, which is worrying, as one tends to believe that states the size of Greece should not disappear without anyone noticing. Leaving no trail of protests. Without a whimper.

But I may be wrong. Who cares about the 600 odd polities of the Holy Roman Empire or the same amount of these in the British Raj India. Human attention to detail is fickle in the West, unless changes brush off directly on the very West: as reflected in statements delivered by its politicians, and reported in newspapers of wide circulation.

Having spotted Tannu-Tuva I could not let it go. Most Western textbooks of history when commenting on the interwar period, tend to brand the Soviet Union the ‘sole communist state’ on the globe’s face then, making the distinction sound as a blemish. But contrary to this piece of received knowledge, between the two World Wars, three communist states existed; apart from the aforementioned Soviet Union, also Mongolia and our forgotten Tannu-Tuva.

Where is it now? An explanation lies in the law of unexpected parallels. During the First World War, Montenegro was a member of the Allied camp. The Allies won this war, and duly, Montenegro was erased from the map by the Serbia-led Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The Montenegrins did not even make it into the novel kingdom’s name.

When victory means demise, the story is similar in the case of Tannu-Tuva. The Tuvans valiantly offered to assist the Allies by sending the country’s army to fight alongside the Red Army against the Wehrmacht. From the Tuvan capital of Kyzyl (or ‘Red’ in the Turkic language of Tuvan) the state’s gold reserves were despatched to Moscow for bolstering the Allied war effort. And again, the Allies won the war, but Tannu-Tuva was gone. In 1944 the polity was annexed by the Soviet Union. No one batted an eyelid in the West. Jstor offers four or five short English-language articles on the history of Tannu-Tuva, but not a single one on the history of this essentially interwar polity. Not a single monograph has been devoted to it yet.

The topic is for grabs, and may yet transform a PhD student who gazes the direction of Tannu-Tuva a famous historian of the short-lived nation-state. A risk worth taking, because disappeared states have a tendency to pop back up onto the political map of the world. The case of Montenegro shows that it is far from impossible.

March 14, 2014

Image from Wikimedia Commons