Proposal preview

GIS methods in economic history

This session proposes to gather scholars working on diverse aspects of economic history, growth, and development who make use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) methods to answer important questions and debates appertaining to these fields.

GIS debuted in 1962 with a conference entitled “Canadian Land Inventory”. This conference presented the first GIS data collected by the Canadian government to handle their natural resources, and despite using old methods for constructing the maps, it was during this conference that the potential of GIS was revealed. With the ability of personal computers to handle complex datasets, today GIS analysis is living up to its early promise.

Connecting history and geography, combining temporal and spatial components, it is a paramount tool nowadays in understanding patterns in the past. The expansion of GIS and its wide application to historical and economic historical problems during the last 20 years have demonstrated the importance of geographical and spatial data in understanding historical phenomena (Schaffer and Levin 2015).

For example, GIS was at the basis of papers studying the relationship between the development of railways and the distribution of population in the 19th and 20th century Europe (Henneberg, 2011), as well as analyses about the impact of new technologies introduced in Europe, like the new crops of the Columbian Exchange or the heavy plough in Medieval Europe (Nunn and Qian 2011, Berger 2016, Andersen et al 2015). Further on, pivotal studies on African development (Michalopoulos 2012) presented novel approaches for using this software, utilizing variables such as elevation and land quality to investigate linguistic diversity, as well as analyzing the role of pre-colonial ethnic institutions in development measured from satellite images of night-time light density.

GIS has been a vital and diverse tool, allowing researchers to analyze new dimensions of social and economic phenomena and greatly enriching our understanding of the past. Its use has lent itself to stimulating and innovative research ideas and expanded the scientific frontier. As researchers continue to innovate, it is important also to continue to come together to share new techniques that make it possible to tackle questions than were difficult to answer before.


  • Cristina Victoria Radu, University of Southern Denmark,, Denmark
  • Kathryn Gary , Lund University,, Sweden
  • Christian Skovsgaard, University of Southern Denmark,, Denmark

Session members

  • Nathan Nunn, Harvard University,
  • Stelios Michalopoulos, Brown University ,
  • Jeanet Sinding Bentzen, University of Copenhagen,
  • Katalin Buzasi, University of Amsterdam,
  • Dan Bogart, University of California, Irvine,
  • Peter Foldvari, University of Amsterdam,
  • Christian Skovsgaard, University of Southern Denmark,
  • Thor Berger , Lund University,
  • Thilo Huning , University of York, thilo.huning at
  • Humberto Laudares, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva,
  • Ye Ma, University of Groningen,
  • Gustavo Velasco , Winnipeg School Division,

Proposed discussant(s)

  • , ,