Some words…

Traditional. Home. Real. Irish-owned. Safe. Mixed. Characteristic (meaning full of character). Love. Struggling. Local.

These are some of the words used to describe North Main Street in Cork during oral history interviews. They were selected in response to the question: “If you could choose three words to describe North Main Street, what would they be?” The words convey a mix of different attitudes, from the extremely personal, to those looking for the unique selling point for the street, to the realistic/pragmatic perspective on how the street seems today.

Personal

The response with the most personal resonance choose the words “home”, “love” and “safe”. The choice of words was prefaced with the qualification “to me, it’s really personal” and the individual’s selection of words indicate a deeply felt attachment to the street, it is somewhere bound up with feelings of home, family, love and safety/security.

Unique selling point

Words such as “traditional”, “characteristic”, “Irish-owned”, “local” and “historic” were chosen by two traders who work in businesses that had been in their families for several generations. Both of these traders are facing problems associated with a steady decline in footfall on the street, and both were keen during their interviews to think of ways to promote the street, to halt or reverse its decline in fortunes. They focused on things that they see as the primary attractions of the street for visitors; the fact that it has its own particular character and has a traditional feel (the implication being that this street could be a place for tourists to come, and for local people to use an alternative place to shop).

Realistic/pragmatic

A realistic assessment of the street today was summed up by the words “real”, “mixed” and “struggling”. These words were chosen by a more transient resident, someone who has lived in the area for four years and who is thinking of moving away. This individual also has a work interest in the street, and has spent time discussing the future of the streets with traders and studying the census data from the street. The choice of words is realistic, but also devoid of the kind of long-term emotional attachments that bind the other three respondents to the area.

Representing place (words, image & in digital contexts)

These are all words about place, reflecting people’s relationships to the place, and the meaning it has for them, as a home, a place of business, a place to be studied. The words, expressed in the context of a conversation (albeit one that happens to be recorded for an oral history archive), are one way of representing place. Other ways include photographs and maps.

There has been an increasing focus on the presentation, representation and analysis of place in DH, sometimes known as “Spatial Humanities”, but there is often the sense that this is primarily about using tools that can analyse data spatially:

“The recent surge of interest among digital humanists in mapping…is indicative of a trend that recognizes the importance of developing geo-temporal visualizations and mapping platforms to analyze complex social, cultural, and historical dynamics.” (Burdick et al. 2012, 17).

For this kind of data, GIS is an obvious choice of tool, as it helps researchers to analyse quantitative data. In 2010, Cooper and Gregory discussed the possibilities of using GIS for the purposes of displaying qualitative results (in a paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers), indicating the

“growing recognition of the need…to test whether GIS can be used to map out the qualitative ‘data’ provided by the articulation of subjective spatial experiences.” (Cooper and Gregory 2011, 89).*

One of the solutions adopted as Cooper and Gregory tried to create a literary GIS was the creation of mood maps (see Cooper and Gregory 2011, 102 and 103) portraying responses to different places (in this case the places were in the Lake District in England). Moods were mapped by converting the feelings about place, expressed as text, into numbers – ranging from 1 (unpleasant) to 10 (sublime). I would argue that this is not qualitative GIS; it is the conversion of qualitative results into quantitative data. The GIS itself remains quantitative.

Is this approach a good parallel for my work as I try to convey the relationships and meanings (such as those expressed in the words “home”, “traditional” and “real”) when creating a representation of a place in the digital world? Essentially Cooper and Gregory have converted words into numbers, and I also want to find a way of presenting words, (expressing feeling about place). But my words are from different context and different relationships with the place, whereas Cooper and Gregory’s words were all written as an evaluative response to different places within the Lake District, all written from the perspective of two touring visitors (Gray and Coleridge). It is difficult to see how “love”, “mixed” and “local” could be converted to a numeric scale.

Instead, the thick mapping approach seems to be the way to go for this kind of data – with a focus on multi-layered presentations/representations that allow users to explore for themselves the varied, complex and competing narratives that can be tied to place. The key difference between this and the GIS approach is that the software/interface is not being used as a tool to analyse the data, but instead it is being used as a presentation/dissemination tool, in which individual researchers and users still need to bring their own experience and interpretative capabilities to the data in order to analyse it.

“…practices of thick mapping in the Digital Humanities place a primacy on experiential navigation, epistemologies of representation, and the rhetorics of visualization…in the digital realm it becomes an interactive site for creating, representing, and navigating knowledge.” (Burdick et al. 2012, 46-7).

I will be exploring the practice of thick mapping in digital humanities as a way of understanding and interpreting humanities data (qualitative data in particular) in future posts.

* I am interested in the fact that qualitative results are only considered data when surrounded by inverted commas in this quote; it suggests a bias towards quantitative approaches. My research has involved a big shift, a move from a background in quantitative methods (environmental archaeology) to ethnography and oral history, where methods are qualitative. This has involved me changing my mindset to the idea that data is not just numbers. I’ve mentioned this in passing before (see this blog post where I touch on concepts of empiricism, and wrestled with the idea that ethnography- collecting qualitative data – uses empirical methods).

References

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

Cooper, D., & Gregory, I. N. (2011). Mapping the English Lake district: A literary GIS. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 36(1), 89–108.