The emergence and development of grassroots political history has invigorated the study of politics and the U.S. Congress by asking new questions about local constituencies and the electorate; about the role of geography and space in politics and policymaking; and about the value of regional histories and frameworks for understanding American politics.1 Scholars, journalists, and the public are increasingly intrigued by notions of space in the humanities, questioning just what constitutes "the local" in local politics, and how this has changed over time.2(Click here to read further...)
Until now, there has been no means of making systematic inquiries into political space and connecting the changing demographics of the American electorate in fine-grained analysis to Congressional elections and policymaking. Despite the existence of a plethora of data-driven social scientific inquiries into politics, space has been a factor that has not been clearly understood in the political process. Since former House Speaker Thomas "Tip" O'Neill asserted "all politics is local," historians have struggled to understand the relationship between local communities and national elections and the policymaking process.3 When historians assess a handful of electoral landslides such as 1968 or 1932 as realigning elections that changed the face of American government, they are forced to rely upon state-level data, most often for the presidential election, and are unable to analyze or represent how solid this realignment was or how region and geography played into the results at a fine grain.
Thus, the development of a data-driven interactive site using geography as a lens for understanding the U.S. Congress would allow historians to begin to examine demographics' role in the meaning of race in Congressional elections, for example; to attach geography to policy decisions; and to do this at a much broader scale, through time and space, than even the most insightful examples of political studies in the spatial turn have done. With this ability to visualize and to analyze data over longer periods of time and across the United States, historians will be able to assess what are isolated votes where region or constituent demographics hold no importance, and what are the truly realigning elections or key pieces of legislation wrought by race, by immigration, by economic growth, or by industrial interests. Simply put, this digital technology and the breadth of this data will allow historians to assess "the persistence of localism," in the words of historian Thomas Sugrue, across space and through time, in a way that has never been possible, and to understand in new ways the meaning and responsiveness of the federal government to the American people--whether Congress and the Senate are representative bodies and to what extent policy outcomes have demographic bases.4
GIS stands for Geographic Information Systems or Geographic Information Science. It is an approach to studying spatial information and managing large amounts of geographic data.(Click here to read further...)
There are several different GIS software packages. The industry standard is ArcGIS, a commercial product created by ESRI. There are also a few open source applications, including GRASS and QGIS. These are free and more flexible/less proprietary, but they do not have the same kind of support and integration of Arc.
There are generally two parts that come together in a GIS map. The geographic information is represented visually by the shapefiles, while the tabular data (elections results, roll call votes, etc.) tells us what went on within these geographic boundaries. When you bring the two together, you can do two especially interesting things. First, you can visually represent geographic phenomena fairly easily, for example, show the results of a House election. This might be considered a qualitative input or source that historians or political scientists might think about and that would prompt more detailed investigations. Second, you can enable the asking of new questions of the tabular data or, now that you have the geographic shapefiles, can think about other data you have geographically.
Shifting this information over from analog, hard copy archives to digital formats readable by computers also allows you to be more systematic about asking certain questions of larger bodies of information. Knowing the demographics of a single Congressional district might help you research why a House member voted the way he or she did. Knowing the demographics of all Congressional districts might help you make broader, more structural arguments about the activities of Congress as a whole.
This kind of research will never take the place of close reading of Congressional papers in an archive, but it should be a very helpful means of contextualizing a particular representative's actions within the whole chamber, providing a back-and-forth between structural Congressional analysis and individual political agency within the body.
First off, you can browse the teaching resources for things to incorporate into classes or lectures and talks. Second, you could take a look at our video tutorials on how to do some basic work with the data we provide.
All of these data come from a variety of sources, whether archival sources, previous investigations and data aggregation efforts, or new aggregation of digital data. See the Documentation page for more information. While many of these sources existed in digital format, Mapping Congress is the first broad effort to bring all of these historical geographic resources together with historical political data in a digital format.
Good question. Much of the information already exists, but likely in an analog format if you're talking about anything before 1980. Once you find the maps of political boundaries like urban ward maps or state representative districts, you can turn them into GIS shapefiles, either by scanning and georeferencing the maps, then creating the shapefiles by hand, or by using a raster to vector function in ArcGIS. Some of these tutorials and learning resources are available here. Then you can create the tabular data by entering it into an Excel spreadsheet or CSV or some other spreadsheet-friendly file format.
- Created by LaDale Winling as a resource intended for public use and distribution under the Creative Commons license of attribution.