ITSH Introductory Blog Post by Katherine Bellamy
Since completing my MLitt in Transnational, Global and Spatial History at the University of St Andrews in 2016, I have continued to incorporate Digital Humanities methods into my historical research. The ‘Skills in Transnational History’ module at the ITSH, situated within the broader contexts of Transnational, Global and Spatial History, was a fantastic opportunity for me to explore Digital Humanities methods and understand more about their application in historical research. The spatial elements in particular spoke to my own interests, with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) offering a different method to present and investigate research questions. Prior to studying for the MLitt, my only experience of using GIS was within the discipline of Geography (during the first year of my undergraduate degree). Working with GIS in a historical context, therefore, was a perfect opportunity for me to engage meaningfully with historical geography.
I am currently a PhD researcher at Lancaster University, investigating Indigenous representations of space, place, and landscape and their changes in Central Mexico between the Late Postclassic (1325-1521) and the Early Colonial period (1521-1585), with a particular focus on the geopolitical unit called the altepetl. My research incorporates the use of Digital Humanities methods, especially in relation to historical geographies and the digitisation of spatial information in GIS for the aggregation and analysis of archaeological, historical and geographic data. In the last few years, I have also been fortunate enough to contribute to various academic projects that have involved the computational analysis of various textual and pictographic historical sources, using techniques ranging from Corpus Linguistics to digital annotation and historical map analysis. You can find out more some of these projects at the following links: Digging Into Early Colonial Mexico, Pathways to Understanding 16th Century Mesoamerica, Subaltern Recogito, Pelagios in the Indian Subcontinent. Working in these interdisciplinary contexts has been an incredibly rewarding experience, demonstrating the many benefits of collaboration, not least of which is being introduced to a greater range of tools and approaches.
Of course, I would be remiss if – when talking about the benefits of adopting and adapting digital methods in and for the Humanities – I failed to address the challenges this can bring. In my own research, I am increasingly aware of the limitations of certain digital tools to appropriately represent the complexity of historical material. I would also emphasise that this is not necessarily a problem with the tools themselves but is rather a question of our expectations of these tools and and how we frame our investigations. With GIS, for example, we are looking at a tool that is built upon Euclidean, Cartesian views of representing space and place. And GIS serves its intended purpose well. Yet, if we attempt to use this tool to represent other ways of knowing, there is a clear dissonance (I write more extensively about my thoughts on mapping and GIS here). This is not to say that we should therefore completely overhaul or retrofit an existing tool in order to serve our own particular purposes, but rather to suggest that we must be aware of how and why we are using a given tool.
Some of the historical documents that inform my research, for example, are intricately designed documents that require considerable expertise in order to understand the complexity with which they convey meaning. Documents such as the map of Cempoala shown above are a reflection of the time and contexts in which they were produced. This particular document was produced in response to the Relaciones Geográficas (a series of questionnaires that were ordered by the Spanish Crown in the sixteenth century) and reflects a merging of Indigenous and European traditions of representing space, place, and meaning. The complexity of documents such as these cannot be fully represented through digital analyses alone, though there is great capacity to investigate aspects of these documents when approached with due care and consideration. Working in an entirely different medium brings different intentions and implications, which will inevitably impact the results of any analysis. As such, it is imperative that research questions and methods are crafted with these caveats in mind to ensure that intent and meaning is not lost in translation.