Monthly Archives: January 2017

Call for participation: Seeing and Describing the Earth: Geographical Knowledge in Context

Call for participation:

Seeing and Describing the Earth: Geographical Knowledge in Context

Workshop organised by the History of Science Working Group

Date: Wednesday 22nd February 2017, 15:00-18:00

Geographical knowledge is hard to define and delimit. As a concept itself, it has evolved over different historical periods and in relationship to different contexts and issues experienced by various actors. J. B. Harley stressed the importance of taking into consideration the layers of mediation standing between the map-reader and the territory. This deconstructivist approach towards maps has become a general tendency among historians of geographical knowledge.

Yet this perspective has to be extended to other approaches in order to situate the history of cartography within a broader framework, namely the history of the relationships between human beings and the world they inhabit. Jean-Marc Besse book’s Voir la Terre (2000) addresses the same question: does the human existence need both a spatial and a temporal framework? How can these two parameters interact? This is the central issue this workshop wants to address, by reflecting on the links between history and geography, and trying to break through artificial disciplinary borders in order to give a more complex understanding of both history and geography.

This workshop intends to  explore the following themes:

1)Understanding, Constructing and Disseminating Knowledge about the Natural World

How can we conceptualize geographical knowledge and understandings of the world in the light of recent anthropological studies challengeing Euro-centric views of the world? New decentered views among researchers encourage us to reconsider different ways of understanding the Earth, mainly through the study of other systems but also history of intellectual practices, stressing the constructed and situated aspect of geographical knowledge. Sensory engagements with the natural world, as well as physical and human interaction with it, will help us to understand the construction of geographical knowledge.

2)Structuring Space

What role do institutions (learned societies, academies, universities, private associations, publishers etc.) play in inscribing the geographical world with meanings and in establishing norms of seeing, ordering and classifying the geographical world? How can we understand the relationship between exercising interpretative power and territorial claims of geographical spaces? The workshop aims to provide a forum for researchers working on different periods and areas of the globe to discuss the production and circulation of geographical knowledge in different contexts.

3)Materiality of Geographical Knowledge

In the literature in recent years, there has been a shift from focusing on geographical discourses, to a return to thinking about the materiality of our interactions with the natural world. Different medium and genres for constructing and representing geographical knowledge – such as museum displays, books, maps, globes, artwork, travelogues etc. – arise out of different historical actors’ sensual and emotional engagement with their surroundings. How does the use of a particular medium to communicate knowledge affect and shape cognitive understandings of the geographical world?

We invite short 10 minute presentations engaging with how geographical knowledge is collected, constructed, represented and communicated, as well as theoretical or methodological reflections on the relationship between history and geography. We would like to emphasise that this workshop is intended as a space to air ideas and get feedback on your work-in-progress.

Please send the title of your presentation and a short abstract to Catherine Gibson and Martin Vailly by Friday 3rd February.

EUI History of Science: Spring/Summer Calendar

Thinking Sciences at large: Towards a Connected History of Sciences

Convenor: Stéphane Van Damme

In collaboration with the Working Group in History of Science

– 6 February: Dagmar Schäfer (Max Planck Institute, Berlin): ‘Ming China disintegrated. The chances and pitfalls of the global view’

-9 February: Antonella Romano (EHESS, Paris): ‘Putting the globe in print: a 16th century European perspective, its processes, actors and challenges’

-14-15 February: Bruno Latour (SciencesPo, Paris), ‘Political organization in the New Climatic Regime’.

– 16 February: Workshop with Bruno Latour (SciencesPo, Paris), 11h-13h, Sala di Levieri, Villa Salviati

– 22 February: Seeing and Describing the Earth: Geographical Knowledge in Context. Workshop organised by the History of Science Working Group

– 23 February: Paolo Galuzzi (Director of the Museo Galileo)

-13 March: Bert de Munck (University of Antwerp): ‘Useful knowledge and the urban imaginary: a contested history’

– Last week of March, date tbc.: Aina Palarea Marimon (EUI, HEC 1) ‘Transmission of the Technical Knowledge in the Late Middle Ages’

-30 May: Hélène Miallet (York University, Canada): ‘The thinking person disease: Rethinking the subject in the digital age’

-22 June: Jessica Riskin (Stanford University): ‘Restless Clock’

-26 June: Forum on Hans Sloane with James Delbourgo (Rutgers University) and Simon Schaffer (Cambridge University)


Lists are often treated as a ‘matter-of-fact, unrhetorical, and innocent’ source by historians (Delbourgo & Müller-Wille 2012, 711). At the same time, they can be daunting to work with because of the sheer volume of information they contain: inventories and census data often run to many hundreds or even thousands of pages. Taking as our inspiration the 2012 special issue on “Listmania” in Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society, in the November meeting of the EUI History of Science Working Group, we explored some of the ways in which we might begin to tackle lists as a historical source.


EUI History of Science Working Group. Photo courtesy of Déborah Dubald @_dbrh_ 


Bringing Ethnographic Lists and Maps Together

At the outset of my research on ethnographic cartography in the Russian Empire, I was reluctant to focus too heavily on statistical data. Not only has this topic already been extensively researched, but I was also more interested in the spatial definition of ethnographic areas rather than the quantitative numeration the Empire’s inhabitants. However, as my research developed, I became increasingly aware that list-making was closely intertwined with map-making in fascinating ways.

Firstly, the data used to make ethnographic maps was taken from lists and tables compiled as a result of fieldwork expeditions, local censuses, and provincial statistical data books (памятная книжка). The job of the cartographers, who I was focusing on in my research, was to translate this statistical demographic data into a graphical and cartographical medium.

Secondly, on a deeper level, lists and maps have in common that they communicate information based on a two-dimensional spatial logic. In lists and tables, words, or numbers are placed on the page in vertical columns and horizontal rows. On maps, coordinate points are plotted along the x- and y- axes. So, in addition to studying the maps themselves, I became increasingly interested in thinking about the similarities between list-making and map-making as ways of communicating ideas about ethnographic classification.


Statistical Tables

Not all cartographers went on fieldwork expeditions themselves and most relied instead on statistical data gathered from other sources, such as the provincial statistical commissions. This data was presented and circulated in the form of tables, which generally followed a similar format: ethnographic groups were listed horizontally across the page as column headings and provinces, districts, or parishes (depending on the scale of the statistical study) were listed vertically down the page as row headings. The number of inhabitants pertaining to each ethnographic group was listed for each locality. In this way, an overview of the ethnographic composition of the population of all “European Russia” could be synthesised onto a single sheet of paper.


Petr Keppen, Ob” etnograficheskoi karte evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg: Izdannoi imperatorskim” russkim” geograficheskim” obschestvom”, 1852). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.


Ethnographic Taxonomies

Ethnographers worked with the same statistical data tables, however they were more interested in schematising the information to say something about the relationships between the ethnographic groups lists in row or column headings. Curly brackets (or braces) were often used to indicate that groups were part of a single ethnographic “family”. This technique also allowed ethnographers to create hierarchies by portraying branches and nesting sub-groups.


Petr Keppen, Ob” etnograficheskoi karte evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg: Izdannoi imperatorskim” russkim” geograficheskim” obschestvom”, 1852). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.


Legends: Another Kind of List?

Map legends often closely resembled taxonomic lists in the way that they arranged information about the ethnographic groups depicted in vertical columns. Some maps, such as Aleksandr Rittikh’s Ethnographic Map of European Russia (1875), even incorporated curly brackets into the legend to sort the ethnographic groups into “families”. Compiling a map legend, however, also took the taxonomisation process a step further by assigning a corresponding colour to each ethnographic group. Ethnographic groups perceived as being close kins to one another, were rendered in similar shades of a single colour. Differences between the various ethnographic families were emphasised using contrasting colours.


Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg, 1875). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki


Lost (and Gained) in Translation

As in every translation process, some aspects of the statistical and ethnographic lists were “lost” in the transformation of the data into a cartographical medium. For example, ethnographic maps in the mid-nineteenth century mostly did not convey any information about the relative numbers of inhabitants belonging to each ethnographic group or population density. Moreover, itinerant or nomadic populations who had no sizeable or fixed area of permanent habitation often simply disappeared. Instead, these choropleth maps converted the information contained in each row of the data table into a flat, enclosed, and homogeneous block of colour.

At the same time, cartography was not simply a method for graphically visualising the information contained in a statistical list, but also played a significant role in shaping the ideas about population categorisation. As Georg von Mayr (1841-1925), a statistician and professor of statistics at the University of Munich, observed: ‘The map differs significantly from the diagram, in that it contains not merely a sensual illustration of the table provided as evidence, but also something new that the table cannot represent’ (Mayr 1874: 15). By using graphical techniques such as shading, lines and chromatics, maps could make powerful statements about the distribution and borders between ethnographic groups, as well as the nature of their relationship to one another.


Aleksandr Rittikh, Etnograficheskaia karta evropeiskoi rossii. (St Petersburg, 1875). Reproduced with permission from the National Library of Finland, Helsinki.

Thank you to Déborah Dubald for the opportunity to collaborate in putting together this session of the EUI History of Science Working Group and to think about my research from a new perspective.

Catherine Gibson

Researcher, European University Institute

For more information about Catherine’s current research on ethnographic maps, see


Delbourgo, James and Staffan Müller-Wille. “Introduction.” Isis 103:4 (2012), 710-715

Mayr, G. von. Gutachten über die Anwendung der graphischen und geographischen Methode in der Statistik. Munich: gedruckt bei J. Gotteswinter, 1874.