History on the Head of a Pin

Richard White, in his article “What is Spatial History?” discusses the common lack of spatial analysis in historian’s explanations of change over time. While there is not always a lack of attention to space, the preferential analysis of chronology elicits criticism from geographers claiming that historians write history as if it occurred “on the head of a pin”. Of course he proceeds to show examples where that is not the case. I was struck by this criticism that I had not previously considered. Clearly, space is a very important consideration that must be made in historical research. I am considering some interesting spatial research questions concerning South Africa in the 1920s. First, natives who represented 90+% of the population where restricted to 13% of the land. I question the state of the land allocated to natives. Many historians have claimed that it was substandard land that was inaccessible to primary population and economic centers. Second, I am curious about population density maps and how they altered as South Africa transformed into an Apartheid state. Finally, I am curious about transportation between these spaces, similar to the research done by Stanford University’s project on the Roman Empire.

As we begin to think about the implications of space on change over time, a couple points that white points out beg some discussion. Absolute space, the measurement of distance in terms of miles or meters, I would argue is less important to historians than relational space, which interprets space in terms of cost, time or other changing factors. I think of extreme examples. South African natives during Apartheid may live merely a few miles from family or work and yet because of regulations and danger, these locations are inaccessible. While these factors are challenging to represent visually in absolute space, the ORBIS Project, The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World represents some of the possibilities of representing these factors. Cost analysis, both time and money, play a major factor in the connections made in this interactive map. Ironically to me, what does not play a major role in this spatial network is implications of time, specifically the change over time of these routes. In the nearly 500 years of the Roman Empire, transportation must have undergone some technological changes which alter route, cost and time, all of which are not represented as far as I could tell. It is as if the historians working on this project traded history on the head of a pin for history frozen in time.

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