Robert Schwartz, “Railways, Uneven Geographic Development, and a Crisis of Globalization in France and Britain, 1830-1914”


In his digital history presentation, Dr. Robert Schwartz’s mission is to re-interest historians in using geography—to reengage [the field] with spatial thinking. He contends that when historians speak of space, most are speaking metaphorically. As an example, in the last decade, no articles on “geography” or “spatial” have appeared in the American Historical Review.


He believes, however, that despite this lack of geography in the field, historical processes can only be explained through geographic analysis. In his estimation, the best definition of geography is “the study of social relations in space and time.” He recognizes the definition’s difficulty, however, because its value depends on the meaning given to “space” and “time.”


On a dynamic GIS (Geographic Information Systems) map of France, Dr. Schwartz pinpoints the rail lines being constructed across the countryside year by year from the early 1800s to the twentieth century. The lines grew rapidly starting in the 1840s, especially in the area around Paris. The map easily demonstrates how railroads expanded across the country, but this revelation makes the standard textual analyses seem shabby by comparison. Simultaneous change in space and time can be difficult to get a handle on. This is especially true when trying to present two (or more) concurrent narratives and keep the conclusions clear in a reader’s mind. Schwartz’s dynamic GIS map shows the radiating nature of the lines and makes it easier to see the uneven development in France. Since the government wanted all railroad lines to lead to Paris, the area around the capitol city shows tremendous growth. A series of static maps helps support his argument that the development of a complex process, such as railroad development, can best be demonstrated with GIS and other geographic tools.


His examples show how French railroads expanded, but the more important question is, why? This is an even more complex question, but Schwartz stipulates that topography, among other factors, played a key role in railway development. A static map shows that flatlands and plateaus have many railroad lines, but the highlands do not, except in one isolated area, a mining center. This mining area lies on the border with
Germany, a region with important strategic military functions.


In England, he attempts to demonstrate more advanced methods of examining railroads, and his concept of “uneven development.” His key question is, “When did railroads come into the countryside and what were the patterns of migration from the 1860s to 1880s?” Further, he is interested in the relationship between rail transportation and migration. The literature (or lack of it) says that few historians or geographers have thoroughly studied this topic. To investigate it further, Schwartz uses his GIS tools to learn more about these relationships.


Schwartz began working on the question by speculating that when railroads entered the countryside and new economic advancements followed, the railroad would stem outward migration, not facilitate it. He believed that the associated economic revitalization in the rural areas (with the railroad’s arrival) would likely last for 10-20 years. After mapping the construction of rail lines, he discovered that the country contained more than 3,000 railroad lines—far more than he originally thought. Once mapped, Schwartz realized that in-migration in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s was significant near London and out-migration in the rural areas differed based on the year. In general, the rural agrarian heartland experienced some out-migration, but the railroad did stem out-migration in the first years after they arrived.


This spatial analysis allows visualization of change in migration and allows a historian to make a correlation between transportation systems like the railroad and human movement. Schwartz’s georeferenced data is a good tool to make hidden connections, but it only works well when put to use answering the right questions. Asking proper questions, it seems, is the best way to make many aspects of geography applicable to the historian. This seems like an obvious statement, but when historians try to incorporate geography’s tools and methods, the questions need to be strictly defined.


His geographically weighted progression, when combined with good GIS maps, leads to comprehensible results that demonstrate significant migration-transportation variances throughout England. Indeed, the accessibility of rails in rural area pushed down migration. His overall thesis, then, proved valid: railroads do not hasten out migration, but actually keep people in rural areas because of new economic opportunities. One drawback to Schwartz’s analysis, however, is the lack of information on canal and river travel. His argument could be far stronger if railroad and land travel were supplemented by information on water travel. The relationship between these two competing forms of transportation would strengthen the validity of Schwartz’s thesis.


On the “Crisis of Globalization,” aspect of Schwartz’s title, he investigates the cultural change brought on by rail service, newspaper circulation, magazine subscriptions, etc. He argues that in small rural French communities (around 1894) advertisements began to acquaint urban people with rural products. In both England and France, commercial advertisements served as a lesson in geography—people began to investigate where their good were produced based on the information printed on the packaging. This instigated cultural change as the city began to come out to the countryside—people left the city to see the nearby places they had never seen before. In this manner, things they had never seen before became registered in their minds.



All this, the cultural change, spatial analysis, and dynamic representations of history, speak to the importance of geography to history and historians. Using exploratory data analysis, it is possible to discover information throughout space and across time not readily apparent on the surface. These types of analysis help historians tell better stories, while the use of digital tools allows more sophisticated analyses. These strategies enable scholars to dig deeper and ask more sophisticated questions.

1 thought on “Robert Schwartz, “Railways, Uneven Geographic Development, and a Crisis of Globalization in France and Britain, 1830-1914”

  1. Pingback: carlsonmilliss on adaptive reuse » Blog Archive » Trains that don’t run on time

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