“Thick mapping”

Thick mapping is an idea derived from Geertz’s idea of thick description (Presner et al. 2014, 11). It is a method of doing ethnography – extensive description about cultural context and meaning – a path to understanding (see an outline of Thick Description and Geertz’s use of it here http://culturalstudiesnow.blogspot.ie/2012/05/clifford-geertzs-thick-description.html).

Thick mapping is

“…the processes of collecting, aggregating, and visualizing ever more layers of geographic or place-specific data…[to]… embody temporal and historical dynamics through a multiplicity of layered narratives, sources, and even representational practices.” (Presner et al. 2014, 15)

The Hypercities project (see http://www.hypercities.com/ and http://hypercities.ats.ucla.edu/) is seen as one of the most extensive examples of thick mapping.*

Cork Folklore Project now has several iterations of digital oral history maps that use excerpts from the oral history archive. (With the first version created in 2010.) The idea of all of these projects is to associate excerpts from oral history interviews with places on the map, short text and pictures. As an exercise in thick mapping this involves collecting oral history excerpts and associating them with other media (images and text), aggregating lots of these together to form a multi-layered story of the city as a new way of visualising place.

Why develop a thick map? Burdick et al. say that the point of thick mapping is that it

“enables an unbounded multiplicity of participatory modes of storytelling and counter-mapping in which users create and delve into cumulative layers of site specific meaning.” (Burdick et al. 2012, 47).

This is quite an enthusiastic statement –thick mapping as part of the digital utopia. Just looking at Cork Folklore Project practice in relation to two of these issues:

1. Is the practice unbounded? In the sense that material can continually be added, yes. But in terms of editorial control, no. Cork Folklore Project retain control over material and dissemination (seen as part of the duty of care towards contributors and a feeling that unbounded is not always a good thing on the internet). In this oral history dissemination differs quite markedly from other areas of the digital humanities especially ones that are dealing with out-of-copyright text. (Control v. openness is a feature of the digital humanities debate.)

2. Is Cork Folklore Project practice counter-mapping? Sometimes there is a view that oral history is simply elderly people telling stories of their childhood. But, the point of CFP maps, and of the organisation’s practice in general, is to gather multiple perspectives of everyday life in the city – and one of the aims (and an aim of oral history in general) is to include people who might be excluded from official histories. The original Cork Memory Map was built to “access the rich tapestry of memory and informal histories that overlay the city” (O’Carroll 2011, 184). One of the ideas is to expose the city (through overlapping narratives) as it is to others, many with very different views when juxtaposed with official and historical narratives.

“The Project maintains a critical engagement with the question of who our communities of contributors and resource users might be, and how they might be meaningfully represented, served and/or challenged.” (O’Carroll 2013, 25)

The more traditional aspect of oral histories are certainly the most plentiful – but this can be challenged and changed in the future.

There are also criticisms of thick mapping. It is:

“…dismissed by practitioners of spatial analysis on the grounds that it never actually
engages with any spatial methods or mapping tools, neither designing environments for
analysis nor creating “humanistic” systems for probing spatial relations.” (Presner et al.
2014, 49).

This criticism comes from a quantitative /qualitative divide and also has echoes of
the code /don’t code in Digital Humanities (http://stephenramsay.us/text/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out/). However, this criticism is about spatial analysis, but I would argue that thick mapping is a process of representing place (space invested with meaning) and not about space. Thick mapping is more like a process of, or a practice that contributes to place-making.

* As an aside, many of the examples of thick mapping that I have come across are urban, rather than rural.


Burdick, A., Drucker, J., Lunenfeld, P., Presner, T., & Schnapp, J. (2012). Digital_Humanities. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT Press.

O’Carroll, C. (2013). Public Folklore Operating between Aspiration and Expediency: The Cork Folklore Project. Irish Journal of Anthropology, 16(1), 23–29.

O’Carroll, C. (2011). The Cork Memory Map. Béascna Journal of Folklore and Ethnology, 7, 184–188.

Presner, T., Shepard, D., & Kawano, Y. (2014). HyperCities: Thick Mapping in the Digital Humanities. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from http://escholarship.org/uc/item/3mh5t455 (accessed 26 February 2016).

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