Using GIS to Study Political History

August 17, 2018

The new Routledge Companion to Spatial History draws on work done at IATH by Don DeBats as part of his Resident Fellowship with Virginia Humanities. The volume looks at how GIS can be used to study the past: its three editors, Ian Gregory, Don DeBats, and Don Lafreniere, take case studies from a variety of topics and time periods and offer guidance in using GIS for different types of research.

DeBats's chapter, "White Maps and Black Votes: GIS and the electoral dynamics of white and African-American voters in the late nineteenth century," is part of a section focused on using spatial analysis in political history. In the U.S., the editors note, geographic distribution of voters and political influence has long been of interest to both scholars and politicians, but using historical GIS data with visualization and analysis tools generates new knowledge and makes the data accessible to a much wider range of users than previous methodologies.

In the case of DeBats's work with voter data, land ownership maps, and census and tax data, GIS is creating more representative displays of African-American political engagement in 19th century Garrard County, Kentucky. His work is based in part on "Newly Discovered Voices from America's Most Turbulent Time: Black and White Oral Voting in the First Enfranchisement," which received an NEH Collaborate Research Grant in 2016. The project can track individual votes, by dwellings, and compare that against other information about the voters. Contemporary maps were skewed towards larger landowners (rather than the residents on the properties), and often misrepresented class and race distributions. GIS data corrects this bias and allows for a more accurate and nuanced assessment of African-American political participation.