Qualitative Space in the Digital Humanities

  • Date:
  • Time: 10:00 to 16:30
  • Venue: University of Leeds: Business School Maurice Keyworth SR (1.09)

A workshop from the AHRC Research Network: Space and Narrative in the Digital Humanities. Open to all. Information about participation is at the end.

What is it about?

Humanities scholars often discover that their interest in using computational methods runs aground when confronted with the uncertain, ambiguous, or missing evidence that is common in their research. This problem is especially apparent in work relating to spatial context. Historians, for example, may wish to locate the development of certain events or ideas geographically as well as culturally only to discover that the spatial identifiers in their evidence are too general or too poorly described to be of much use. An event may be noted as occurring near an event or development occurring elsewhere but without any sense of how close of how far the two are from each other. This problem arises frequently when using evidence from memory, which is inexact at best.

Spatial uncertainty causes a problem in literary studies also. Fictional worlds are full of spatial elements and clues that may be important to meaning but are not be related to any known geography. How can scholars understand the spatial significance of the fictional world when faced with such inexactness? Sometimes, layout of text itself uses space in making meaning —the spatial configuration of a poem, for instance. How could shapes of poems be described in a way so that scholars could study the variety of these shapes in a large corpus?

Qualitative Spatial Representation (QSR), from Artificial Intelligence, provides a way of thinking and computing with spatial relations without having to specify exactly where things are located. This makes it useful for some kinds of uncertain, imprecise, vague and ambiguous data. Examples of spatial relationships include next to, bordering, separate from, overlapping, to the left of, on top of, crossing, inside, on the boundary, and so on. Qualitative relationships about time can also be handled and combined with spatial relationships.

Research Network

With the help of an Arts and Humanities Research Council Network Grant, a team of humanities scholars (historians, literary scholars, and the like), geographers, and computer scientists skilled in QSR has been exploring how this approach may be made more useful to the humanities. Test cases have included poetry, Holocaust Studies, fictional literature, history, and cultural landscape studies.

The network is led by Ian Gregory from Lancaster, John Stell from Leeds, and David Bodenhamer from IU-PU Indianapolis.

Workshop Content

This workshop will provide interested scholars with an opportunity to learn from the work undertaken to date and to explore how QSR may be implemented and extended in the humanities. We are keen to encourage discussion about the need to support different kinds of spatial concepts within the digital humanities.

The day will include:

  • Keynote presentation by Erik Steiner from Stanford
  • a general introduction to QSR and its application to the humanities
  • presentations on the spatial challenges of specific topics and the relevance of QSR including (1) Holocaust studies, (2) the cultural landscape of the Lake District, and (3) shape and layout in poetry
  • roundtable discussions to probe more fully the potential for using QSR elsewhere in the humanities.


Participants who have an interest in the spatial turn within the humanities and/or who have used geo-spatial methods in their work will find this workshop to be valuable. Participants who are working on problems that grapple with spatial uncertainty will find the workshop to be helpful by offering the possibility of focused attention to the issues they confront.

The meeting is open to all, but registration is required. There is no fee for attending and lunch will be provided. We may be able offer some support for travel expenses for some participants without access to travel funds, especially postgraduate or early-career researchers. Please contact the organizer about this.

To participate email the organizer John Stell: J.G.Stell@leeds.ac.uk