Historical maps are colourful and compelling for many people. Geographers hold that maps are a way of introducing more context into our understanding of social patterns. Much intellectual effort now is aimed at figuring out how to better incorporate temporal and spatial contexts into our knowledge of social behaviour. However, if social action is a result of the various purposes and beliefs which individuals hold, then our social understanding, at least for some purposes, must become very local indeed.
Milton Friesen begins his recent article about mapping social fabric by discussing Jane Jacobs:
In the summer of 2010, I went on a month-long road trip with Jane Jacobs. She accompanied me in the form of her now-classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities ... I'd had a lifetime of opportunities to observe a significant number of villages, towns, cities, and landscapes across North America. But during that 2010 road trip I was challenged by the degree and kind of attention Jacobs gave to the invisible social fabric. When present, the social fabric of a city makes it a human habitation, but when it's thin or absent, city life devolves to the primal level of mere survival. Jacobs observed that the design and function of a city either enriched the human interaction and well-being of its citizens, or it warred against it. She especially lamented how often the latter was occurring in the face of postwar urban development in the beloved cities of her United States.
It should not come as a surprise, though, that the aggregated social science that is still practiced by government administrators, corporate managers, and property developers does no better job at mapping social fabric than it did in 1961 when Ms. Jacobs penned her manifesto criticizing modern urban development. The form of social science which developed between the First and Second World Wars focussed on vertical relations. It became dominant and universalized in the 1950s, diffused through the university expansion of the 1960s and '70s, and still captures the imagination of many through the identity politics of the last thirty years. These vertical relations are not concerned with relationships between actual people, but are constituted by the attributes of social class - income, education, religious affiliation, ethnicity, gender, and the like. Unlike the social physics of vertical relations where there are no spatial or temporal coordinates, the horizontal relationships of social action are always particular: the interaction of particular people at a particular geographical location at a particular moment in history. In this view, the cosmopolitanism of vertical relations cannot ever map social fabric which is constituted by the horizontal relationships of social action.
Work in the humanities and soft social sciences - historical studies, ethnography, literature, theology, and philosophy - has been our best vehicle for understanding social action. Workers in digital genealogy and historical geography, though, are now building other vehicles which may contribute to a better mapping of social fabric. Geography, by locating action in space, contextualizes it in another equally fundamental way to history which contextualizes time. We think, therefore, that Historical GIS which contextualizes both time and space is a tool which may be able to advance this kind of improved understanding of where we came from.
Over the course of several years, we build a prototype for a geo-genealogy infrastructure for the province, and are now - November, 2019 - opening it up to access. Initial working partnerships were formed with the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, the Genealogical Association of Nova Scotia, and the Durham Heritage Society. Several faculty at Dalhousie University - within the Business School, the GISciences Centre, and Faculty of Computer Science - also helped with this initial work. Subsequently, we reached out to other communities - the New Ross Historical Society and the Heatherton Development, Culture & Wellness Association to help us complete the prototype work.