AN INTERVIEW WITH MARTIN W. LEWIS, AUTHOR OF 'THE MYTH OF CONTINENTS'

Martin W. Lewis is a Senior Lecturer in International History in the Department of History at Stanford University. He is the co-author of The Myth of Continents: A Critique of Metageography (University of California Press, 1997) and the former associate editor of Geographical Review. In December 2009 he started Geocurrents.info, a blog which offers "brief, map-illustrated analyses of current events, both major and minor, from all reaches of the world."

You describe yourself as a "historical geographer." What does a historical geographer do, exactly? Could you give a thumbnail sketch of the development of historical geography as a research field? And how has new technology such as GPS and Google Earth changed your field?

By the standard definition, historical geography seeks to uncover the spatial patterns of earlier societies and to analyze the evolution of landscapes. The classic work in areal reconstruction is H.C. Darby’s six-volume Domesday Geography of England, which gives a snapshot of the English countryside in 1086 CE, based on the famous survey completed twenty years after the Norman conquest.

I was trained in the Berkeley school of historical geography founded by Carl Sauer, who emphasized the environmental consequences of the subsistence activities of rural peoples. But I now view the field much more broadly, regarding all works of historical inquiry that use maps to advance arguments as instances of historical geography. In this sense, more historical geography is currently being conducted in history departments than in geography departments. That said, the small number of geographers who conduct historical research produce some high quality work (see especially the Journal of Historical Geography).

Most historical geographers use basic documentary methods, focused on the close reading of primary sources. A few also employ scientific techniques, charting ecological change, for example, through tree-ring data or sediment cores. Another method is repeat photography; comparing archival and current photos can reveal all kinds of landscape transformations. Historical geographers use more maps than other historians, and they are generally keen to personally explore the places that they write about.

My own historical-geographical research has relied on a variety of methods. My current work entails examining old maps and geography texts to see how cartographers and other scholars divided the world in past times. My earlier work on environmental change in Northern Luzon in the Philippines was more multi-disciplinary. To determine the environmental baseline conditions of the late 1800s and early 1900s, I turned to papers of nineteenth century German ethnographers and Spanish officials, governmental reports of the American colonial administration, and unpublished diaries and photographs of early twentieth century American scholars, teachers, and administrators. To examine the transition from subsistence cultivation to intensive market gardening in the mid-twentieth century, I relied most extensively on living memory; I traveled widely to search out and interview elders, and then used standard techniques of oral history to assess the reliability of their accounts. Newspaper accounts and agricultural and forestry reports also proved useful.

The main technological innovation in geography over the past few decades has been GIS, or Geographical Information Systems, which weds mapping to digital databases to allow the ready construction of complex map overlays. A number of historical geographers and geographically inclined historians have made excellent use of GIS; see any of the works of Anne Kelly Knowles, especially Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History. I would also recommend the work of my colleagues in the Stanford Spatial History Project.


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