The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Asking Spatial Questions

What is a spatial question?

Easy. It is a research question that investigates the significance of space. Spatial questions, with few exceptions, begin with either "where?" or "what?" They are interested either in location or in the nature of the relationship(s) among multiple locations. 

Spatial questions often sound overly simplistic - even reductive - to people used to asking other sorts of questions ("why?" questions in particular). It is worth bearing in mind, however, the two signature characteristics of a good spatial question. First, it is not always easy to answer a spatial question. Even one that sounds simple. Second, behind every simple-sounding spatial question (and don't get me wrong, not all spatial questions are or sound simple!) lurks a decidedly complex question of the "why?" or "how?" variety. 

For example, let's take the classic scenario in which a chicken is observed crossing a road. A garden variety historian might ask, "When did the chicken cross the road?" Or even "Why did the chicken cross the road?" A spatial historian might nod in approval but then go on to ask, "Where was the chicken when it decided to cross the road?" Or "How far did the chicken need to travel to get to the other side of the road?" These are classic, simple-sounding spatial questions. Why would any historian worth her salt ask them? First, because location always matters and should never be taken for granted. Second, these questions are not simply about establishing location. They suggest that in addition to understanding the social, cultural, political, and economic contexts in which the chicken made her decision, we have to understand the geospatial context in which the chicken made her decision. It matters whether the road was twelve inches away or twelve meters away. It matters how accessible the road was. It matters how the road was related to other sites. 

In the end, the key to mastering the art of asking spatial questions is to constantly recall Waldo Tobler's First Law of Geography, which famously holds that "everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things." One could do far worse than study proximity, distance, and the significance of the geospatial context in which history unfolded.

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