Warren Roberts, GIS Specialist, Honnold Library, Claremont University Consortium
"Mapping the Socio-Politico-Cultural History of Los Angeles"
On October 5, the ISS sponsored a multimedia presentation that illustrated the potential of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software to inform scriptural studies research. Almost everyone has been exposed to some form of this mapping software, which can generate visual representations of geographically-coded data: weather reports, public policy analyses, real estate agencies, and conservation efforts all rely upon GIS technology. Warren Roberts, GIS specialist at the Libraries of the Claremont Colleges, introduced the ISS community to the basics of GIS and its possible applications for the study of scriptures and culture.
GIS software, now available at the ISS, essentially abstracts layers of data and anchors that data to spatial imagery, or maps. It allows researchers to ask meaningful questions and make correlations between available sets of information. One could engineer a map of Los Angeles County that overlays resident income levels with their religious affiliations, for instance. GIS maps can operate on any scale, from global to the very local, and the types of data that can be mapped are virtually limitless. Roberts mentioned the following, which represent only a small slice of the demographic statistics available online: education levels, ethnicity, race, class, political party affiliations, the spread of diseases, home ownership, citizenship, and age. Crime rates, places of worship, topographical details, landmarks, and voting statistics can also be plotted graphically. All data, however, is not maintained at one central location or by any one organization; researchers use their networks of personal contacts and search the World Wide Web to locate pertinent information sources.
Perhaps one of the most promising capabilities of the software for ISS purposes is its ability to track changes over time. If designed effectively, GIS digital cartography can demonstrate stages of social formation, which can then be incorporated into historical sketches of scripturalizing practices based on ethnographic research. For example, a scholar could use GIS to chart research on the changing numbers of traditional African healers in Los Angeles over the last 30 years. Even ancient-world cartography can be integrated into GIS programs; archaeological data can thus be overlaid with contemporary research to support transhistorical projects.
Roberts reminded Brown Bag attendees that maps, because they can be tailored so well to particular projects, have the power to both clarify and deceive. The software is powerful insofar as it allows users to present layers of data visually, which facilitates meaningful analysis. But maps also project an aura of objectivity that makes responsible handling essential. When used conscientiously, GIS-generated maps support the establishment of relationships between data layers, laying the groundwork for thick description of socio-cultural phenomena such as “scriptures.”
Instead of offering discussion questions based on the content presented by Warren Roberts, we will register several possibilities for interfacing GIS with the work of the ISS and ask list-serv participants to share with one another their experiences, ideas, and data sources.
1. Possibilities for GIS-based research on “scriptures” and culture:
· Constructing backgrounds for particular communities of study.
Example: Plotting the locations of places of worship upon a map showing the average incomes of residents in East Los Angeles neighborhoods.
· Testing hypotheses.
Example: “Crime rates are highest in neighborhoods with churches.” Color-coding locations of crimes and the locations of churches to see if clustering occurs.
· Showing change over time:
Example: Comparing the 1980 racial demographics of Central Los Angeles with statistics from 2000 census.
· Creating striking appendices and supporting materials for major research projects.
Example: Visually correlating race or ethnicity with religious affiliation in Detroit for use in the ISS project Scriptural Fundamentalisms Among Peoples of Color in the United States.
2. What kinds of Humanities and Social Sciences projects are best supported by GIS mapping technologies?
3. What data sources have been most useful, or show most promise, for socio-cultural scriptural studies?
4. What institutional services and support (i.e., library references, workshops, web destinations) are useful for the student of “scriptures?”
Key Online Resources:
- The official guide to Geographic Information Systems.
- The Association of Religion Data Archives.
- North American Religion Atlas. Includes maps and data on religion at national, state, and county levels.
- Humanities and GIS. Tutorials, data archives, and projects hosted by Stanford University.
- “Mapping the Mainline” abstract of a project illustrating spatial changes in adherence to Protestant denominations between 1970 and 1990, and a website with an essay that uses data from the North American Religion Atlas (NARA) to inform a preliminary geographical analysis of American mainline Protestantism from 1970 to 1990.
- Claremont Colleges GIS Services, with links to presentation slides.