A Guide to Spatial History: Areas, Aspects, and Avenues of Research
This guide provides an overview of the thematic areas, analytical aspects, and avenues of research which, together, form a broader conversation around doing spatial history.1 Spatial history is not a field with clearly delineated boundaries. For the most part, it lacks a distinct, unambiguous scholarly identity. It can only be thought of in relation to other, typically more established fields. Indeed, one of the most valuable utilities of spatial history is its capacity to facilitate conversations across those fields. Consequently, it must be discussed in relation to a variety of historiographical contexts. Each of these have their own intellectual genealogies, institutional settings, and conceptual path dependencies. Any attempt to approach spatial history in a hermetic way, as if it existed in a historiographical vacuum, would run counter to its very purpose. Spatial history is not merely one among many ‘hyphenated’ fields.2 It does not aim at further compartmentalization. At its very core lies a heightened sensitivity to the spatial dimensions of history in general. Historians may or may not choose to explicitly adopt the label ‘spatial history.’ Either way, there exists a sizeable body of spatially attuned historical scholarship that is eminently worthy of discussion.
This guide may be fruitfully read alongside the edited volume Doing Spatial History, edited by Riccardo Bavaj, Konrad Lawson, and Bernhard Struck.3 Divided into three parts, this volume offers fifteen case studies, with different entry points to the field: The first part provides examples of how to make use of specific kinds of historical sources such as maps, travel guides, and architectural drawings. The second part explores specific kinds of spaces, ranging from ships, to bars, and border zones. The final part contains chapters on concepts, tools and approaches such as ‘Lefebvrean landscapes,’ ‘maritoriality,’ and digital mapping methods. In his introduction to the volume, Riccardo Bavaj provides an overview of the wide variety of ‘spatial history,’ and traces its development from key early figures through the ‘spatial turn’ across multiple disciplines. Bavaj sees the value of ‘spatial history’ in its ability 1) to serve as a ‘signpost for historians to find inspiration in relevant cognate fields,’ 2) to ‘facilitate conversations among historians of different hues and specializations,’ and 3) to create new knowledge through a shared interdisciplinary perspective and a common analytical focus on ‘space’ and ‘place.’
If Doing Spatial History offers an introduction to the field followed by multiple case studies, this guide aims to give readers a stronger historiographical appreciation for the broad range of spatially attentive scholarship. Most of the works surveyed here were not authored by self-designated ‘spatial historians.’ To be sure, many of these contributions share a common analytical focus on ‘space’ and ‘place.’ Others, however, prefer cognate concepts such as ‘landscape,’ ‘nature,’ and the ‘urban environment.’ Moreover, some of this scholarship does not engage with spatial theory in any explicit, self-conscious way. And yet all of the works included in this guide can meaningfully inform a dialogue on the spatial dimensions of history.
Needless to say, our coverage is by no means comprehensive. It cannot possibly be so. Nor is it an outline for a ‘Great Books programme,’ or an attempt to build a sort of ‘spatial history canon.’ Such an enterprise would run contrary to the very notion of spatial history as an ‘expansive field.’ This guide is not meant to provide a definitive capstone. It serves as a possible springboard for a broader conversation.
Usually, the introductory part of a guide of this kind would be the proper place to articulate a compelling rationale behind the choice of areas, themes, and approaches. We might expect the usual invocations of the inevitably ‘timely’ and the seemingly ‘perennial.’ However, such rhetorical veils have worn thin. We frankly acknowledge the limited range of this guide. We offer neither a bird’s eye view nor a view from nowhere. What follows is informed by our respective academic socialisations, and by geographical as well as intellectual positionalities. This guide includes a section on ‘spaces of knowledge,’ which invites readers to reflect on the spatial conditionality of knowledge production. This guide is itself place-bound. To pretend otherwise would be to ignore a fundamental insight of spatial history.
Examples are drawn, in part, from our own research interests and teaching experiences. These are mainly situated in the history of Europe and East Asia from the late eighteenth to the twentieth century. At the same time, we have attempted to enter into the spirit of boundary spanning and to go beyond our individual comfort zones. We have drawn on the idea of spatial history as a translation aid in order to bring in perspectives from cognate disciplines. Readers may also want to browse the extensive endnote section for geographical areas and thematic aspects not covered in the text. With that said, however, many will note the absence of dedicated sections on, for instance, spaces of trade, commerce and consumption,4 sacred spaces,5 places of memory,6 and the large domain of spatial literary studies.7
We recognize that readers’ expectations will vary considerably. Some may never have heard of the term ‘spatial history,’ while others may have come across it in very specific contexts. These might range from historical geographic information systems (GIS) to particular subject areas such as Eastern European history, which has seen much spatially attuned research in recent decades.8 The ‘spatial turn’ manifested itself differently, and at different times, across both national and (sub)disciplinary boundaries. No doubt, there are many ‘varieties of spatial history.’ From our perspective, and in our engagement with spatial approaches to history, however, some intellectual lineages appear more prominent than others. These have been foregrounded in this guide. This is not intended to imply a judgment on the intellectual viability of other, unmentioned approaches, or approaches solely covered in the endnotes. Readers are encouraged to consult the handbooks and companions listed in the reference section of the introduction to the volume Doing Spatial History for a fuller picture of spatial thinkers and lines of thought.
Regardless of any subject-specific antecedents and trajectories, the individual sections of this guide reflect many of the general trends, and force fields, delineated in the introduction to Doing Spatial History: especially the ‘cultural turn’ in 1980s Anglo-American geography, with its growing emphasis on ‘meaning,’ ‘vision,’ and ‘text,’ but also the tension between ‘mind and matter,’ i.e. the relationship, and interdependency, between the constructedness and materiality of space.
This guide is based on the idea of spatial history as a common forum which serves to link several pertinent fields. These include environmental history, landscape history, local and regional history, transnational and global history, urban history, architectural history, the history of cartography, and the history of science. With this in mind, we survey the following areas: territoriality, infrastructure, and borders; nature, environment, and landscape; city and home; social space and political protest; spaces of knowledge; spatial imaginaries; cartographic representations; and historical GIS research.
All the sections below follow a similar structure. First, they give an idea of where a field originated and how it evolved. Following this, they provide glimpses into the relevant research landscape. The examples chosen here tend to be indicative rather than representative of a certain area, trend or approach. Often, a particular facet of a given work is highlighted to this effect. Several works, of course, may fit into more than one category. Finally, each section concludes by offering a synoptic outline of a key work in the field. All of these selected key works have become central reference points in their respective fields. Most of them were trailblazing pieces of original research at the time of publication, such as Anssi Paasi’s Territories, Boundaries, and Consciousness (1996), Brenda Yeoh’s Contesting Space in Colonial Singapore (1996), and Thongchai Winichakul’s Siam Mapped (1994). Other contributions are more clearly works of synthesis and provide effective entry points to a scholarly discussion, such as David Livingstone’s Putting Science in Its Place (2003).
We would like to thank Alexander Akin, Fiona Banham, Alex Burkhardt, John Clark, Tim Cresswell, Sarah Easterby-Smith, Diarmid Finnegan, Vahishtai Debashish Ghosh, Dawn Hollis, Lauren Holmes, James Koranyi, Jacqueline Rose, and Lauren Nicole Vaughan for help, comments, and insights.↩︎
‘Über Räume und Register der Geschichtsschreibung: Ein Gespräch mit Karl Schlögel,’ Zeithistorische Forschungen/Studies in Contemporary History 1, 2004, 396-413, here 402.↩︎
Riccardo Bavaj, Konrad Lawson and Bernhard Struck (eds.), Doing Spatial History, London and New York: Routledge, 2021.↩︎
See, especially, Jon Stobart, Andrew Hann and Victoria Morgan, Spaces of Consumption: Leisure and Shopping in the English Town, c.1680-1830, London and New York: Routledge, 2007; Jon Stobart and Mark Rothery, Consumption and the Country House, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016; Frank Mort, Cultures of Consumption: Masculinities and Social Space in Late Twentieth-Century Britain, London and New York: Routledge, 1996.↩︎
See, for example, Veronica della Dora, Landscape, Nature, and the Sacred in Byzantium, Cambridge University Press, 2016; Sandra E. Greene, Sacred Sites and the Colonial Encounter: A History of Meaning and Memory in Ghana, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002; Will Coster and Andrew Spicer (eds.), Sacred Space in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005; Andrew Spicer and Sarah Hamilton (eds.), Defining the Holy: Sacred Space in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, London and New York: Routledge, 2005; James Robson, Power of Place: The Religious Landscape of the Southern Sacred Peak (Nanyue) in Medieval China, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009; Yoshiko Imaizumi, Sacred Space in the Modern City: The Fractured Pasts of Meiji Shrine, 1912-1958, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2013.↩︎
See, for instance, Sarah De Nardi et al. (eds.), The Routledge Handbook of Memory and Place, London and New York: Routledge, 2020; Danielle Drozdzewski, Sarah De Nardi and Emma Waterton (eds.), Memory, Place and Identity: Commemoration and Remembrance of War and Conflict, London and New York: Routledge, 2016; as well as the exemplary works by Nuala C. Johnson, Ireland, the Great War and the Geography of Remembrance, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003; Karen E. Till, The New Berlin: Memory, Politics, Place, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005; Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998; James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.↩︎
See, above all, the wide-ranging work by Robert T. Tally Jr. (ed.), Spatial Literary Studies: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Space, Geography and the Imagination, New York and London: Routledge, 2021; id. (ed.), Teaching Space, Place, and Literature, London and New York: Routledge, 2018; id. (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Literature and Space, London and New York: Routledge, 2017; id. (ed.), Literary Cartographies: Spatiality, Representation, and Narrative, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014; id., Topophrenia: Place, Narrative, and the Spatial Imagination, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2019; see also Anders Engberg-Pedersen (ed.), Literature and Cartography: Theories, Histories, Genres, Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press, 2017; Jon Hegglund, World Views: Metageographies of Modernist Fiction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012; Anne Lounsbery, Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800-1917, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019; Andrew Thacker, Modernism, Space and the City, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019; Russell West-Pavlov, Eastern African Literatures: Towards an Aesthetics of Proximity, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018; Eric B. White, Transatlantic Avant-Gardes: Little Magazines and Localist Modernism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013; Bertrand Westphal, Geocriticism: Real and Fictional Spaces, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, French 2007; and the earlier works by J. Hillis Miller, Topographies, Stanford: California University Press, 1995; and Franco Moretti, Atlas of the European Novel, 1800-1900, London and New York: Verso, 1998.↩︎
See, for instance, Mark Bassin, Christopher Ely and Melissa K. Stockdale (eds.), Space, Place, and Power in Modern Russia: Essays in the New Spatial History, DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2010; David Crowley and Susan E. Reid (eds.), Socialist Spaces: Sites of Everyday Life in the Eastern Bloc, Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002; Evgeny Dobrenko and Eric Naiman (eds.), The Landscape of Stalinism: The Art and Ideology of Soviet Space, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 2003; Karl Schlögel (ed.), Mastering Russian Spaces: Raum und Raumbewältigung als Probleme der russischen Geschichte, Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2011; see also Frances Nethercott, Writing History in Late Imperial Russia: Scholarship and the Literary Canon, London: Bloomsbury, 2020, pp. 117-37, for early Russian precursors to spatial history.↩︎