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STANFORD - On the eve of the Irish famine, merchants in 13 towns in Ireland sold stacks of feathers for pillow or mattress stuffing. Only in the colonial capital of Dublin, however, could one find a "plumasier" selling a single well-selected feather for a lady's hat.

Localized facts, such as these garnered from an 1846 commercial directory of Ireland, recently have become useful to social scientists seeking better understanding of large-scale social processes, such as the spread of a religion or capitalism, war or revolution, across space and time.

Geographic information system technology - widely used commercially for routing buses and trucks, investing in real estate, zoning land and gerrymandering electoral districts - is just getting its foot in the door with historians, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists, said Stanford University sociologist Leonard Hochberg.

As more researchers use it, we can expect revisions to long- standing theories about social change, said Hochberg, who teaches a course for student researchers on "spatial systems and social processes."

"Data disaggregated geographically will get you closer to the truth," he said, such as better analysis of election results.

In his own research on English colonialism in Ireland, Hochberg used the locations of merchants in 1846 to draw a commercial hierarchy map of Ireland. The software allows him to associate a market basket of goods with a geographical location. Statistical clustering techniques then break the 317 towns into five levels of commercial sophistication, which ultimately allows him to divide the country into regions of commercial flows.

The computer can overlay maps for different factors - for example, distribution of English colonial police and Gaelic speakers. Such a combination revealed a higher police presence in areas with a majority of Gaelic speakers.

New insights often emerge where the jigsaw pieces of two or three mapped factors do not have coterminous boundaries, Hochberg said.

He and historian David Miller of Carnegie Mellon University found that mapped factors in the western half of pre-famine Ireland reflected "the standard response of an imperial power to a religiously or linguistically distinctive, colonialized population," Hochberg said. The west of Ireland was more Gaelic speaking, generally less commercially developed and more highly policed than the east.

However, they also found a high police presence among English-speakers living in the hinterland of Dublin, but not inland from Belfast. Overlaying this data with their commercial map and showing land ownership patterns, they found that, in English-speaking regions, police activity coincided with greater inequality in land ownership.

Their analysis suggests that Ireland as a whole cannot be used to justify theories that suggest cultural distinctiveness - such as language use - is the primary factor associated with greater repression and inequality in a colony, Hochberg said.

Hochberg and geographer Carville Earle of Louisiana State University are currently editing a forthcoming book, The Geography of Social Change, from Stanford University Press.



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