Critical Approaches to GIS Research Paper

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Geographic information systems are computerized information systems, computer hardware and software, used to store, manipulate and map geo-referenced databases of information about the physical and human world. Growing rapidly since their development in the 1970s, GIS are now used in a wide variety of private and public organizations, and increasingly by individuals and grassroots organizations, for analysis, decision-making, and the display of geographical information. In response to this growing influence, critical assessments of GIS have emerged. These have analyzed their positivist bias, their potential to reinforce social inequality, their capacity for surveillance and ethical and legal implications, and have sought to examine these issues and to pursue alternative approaches to contemporary GIS. Critical approaches refer to analyses of GIS that are based in critical theory, i.e., that assess GIS in terms of their relationship to power hierarchies and wealth inequalities in society (Habermas 1984). This research paper:

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traces the origins of such critiques of GIS;

discusses the engagement between critical theorists and GIS researchers that resulted in development of a GIS and society research agenda;

examines critical assessments of the impact of society on GIS, and of GIS on society; and

summarizes attempts to seek alternatives to GIS that may reduce some of the problems identified through these critical approaches.

1. Early Critiques

Broad-based claims were made about GIS as the key to a new integrated scientific geography at the end of the first wave of GIS research. This was the point in time when the technology had stabilized around a layer-based GIS architecture, and when the US National Science Foundation had recognized the importance of GIS through establishment of the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (cf. Dobson 1983). Written at a time when human geographers were moving away from positivist and critical rationalist approaches to research, such statements catalyzed a series of critical responses (Pickles 1999).

These criticisms focused on both epistemological and practical implications of the spread of GIS. Epistemologically, GIS was argued to be a Trojan horse for the reassertion of broadly positivist approaches within geography, because of its quantitative and empirical nature. Critics argued that geography was too complex and varied a discipline to be analyzed with this approach alone, criticized the claims that positivist science is foolproof, universal and objective, and claimed that the use of GIS would marginalize critical theoretic and hermeneutic approaches to geography, thereby limiting its ability to make sense of the world. They also argued that this kind of scientific approach would not promote human emancipation, and would not leave space for investigation of other possible worlds than those observed and experienced. The benefits for geography of using GIS to enhance its status as a science were seen to be outweighed by the costs associated with a consequent narrowing of geographic inquiry.

It was also argued that embedded within GIS are certain conceptions of space ( particularly a geometric and relative space) and certain forms of reasoning ( particularly Boolean logic) that are unable adequately to represent non-European conceptions of space and communicative rationality (Habermas 1984, Rundstrom 1995, and Sheppard 1995). Practically, it was argued that increased use of GIS in society would enhance current social and geographical inequalities. It was noted that social actors have differential access to GIS; wealth, gender, race, and geographic location are all strongly correlated with access to the necessary equipment, access to training, and comfort in working with GIS. Consequently, GIS was seen as facilitating practices of surveillance, social engineering, opinion formation, and warfare by those with access to the technology. These arguments closely parallel more general analyses of the digital divide. These critical attacks provoked equally sharp responses by GIS specialists.

These specialists saw the critiques as simplistic, unduly pessimistic, and even paranoid, and as reflecting a lack of understanding of and experience with GIS and/or a lack of patience or aptitude for the rigors of science. They also resented the implication that GIS specialists are unconcerned with the social issues raised, and/or unaware of the social implications of science. At the same time, they saw such criticisms as a minor irritation that could be ignored given the growing interest in GIS among both students and practitioners. As a consequence, after some initial high profile exchanges, from 1983 to 1993 there was little communication between the two ‘cultures of indifference’: those critical of and those specializing in GIS (Pickles 1999).

2. Engagement: GIS And Society

This intellectual divide was challenged in 1993, when the National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis sponsored a conference organized by both GIS specialists and social theorists who sought a more constructive engagement. This and a subsequent conference in 1995 brought together prominent researchers (Poiker and Sheppard 1995 and Harris and Weiner 1996). Notwithstanding some early tensions, caricatures broke down as participants gained a greater appreciation for the breadth of skills and interests of those coming from the other side. A common desire among those present to learn from one another stimulated development of a GIS and society research agenda composed of the following themes:

the social history of GIS as a technology;

the relevance of GIS for community and grassroots perspectives and life-worlds;

issues of privacy, access to spatial data, and ethics;

the gendering of GIS;

GIS, environmental justice and political ecology;

GIS and the human dimensions of global change;


alternative approaches to GIS.

Formal collaboration continued, as collective research catalyzed by these meetings, in jointly organized sessions at GIS and geography conferences, and within the ‘Geographies of the Information Society’ research initiative workshops between 1997 and 1999 (Sheppard et al. 1999). In addition, critical theorists were asked to participate in key GIS events, and GIS theorists were given voices in critical theory projects (cf. Pickles 1995). By the end of the 1990s, the constructive engagement between GIS specialists and their critics had substituted overlapping cultures of respect for separate cultures of indifference, notwithstanding the continuing reluctance of many critical geographers or GIS specialists to engage with one another.

Tensions between different perspectives remain. For example, the renaming of GIS as Geographic Information Science revived concerns about attempts to reassert an agenda of normal, positivist science with all its trappings (Pickles 1997). Yet the tone of debate had shifted to a search for common ground; much to the relief of graduate students who had been uncomfortable about having to choose between GIS and critical geography (Sheppard et al. 1999). With the shift towards more constructive engagement has come a shift from critique, in which possibilities were suggested and individual cases cited to bolster their plausibility, to analysis of the GIS and society nexus, which attempts to trace the complex ways in which each influences the other in specific contexts. While the GIS and society research agenda consistently has pointed to the dialectical relationship between the two, more research effort has been put into the impact of GIS on society than vice versa.

3. From Society To GIS

The starting point of this research has been the proposition that, as for technological change in general, the evolution of GIS has followed only a restricted number of the many paths that could have developed (cf. Arthur 1994). On the one hand, research has investigated the evolution of the software and hardware itself, the rise to dominance, for example, of a layer-based GIS over object-oriented GIS. This research has closely examined processes of technological development at key sites and moments when paths of future development were set, and has speculated on the ‘paths not taken’; the alternative designs that never got off the ground or never became popular. The roles of key individuals, technical barriers, disciplinary tradition, and broader social forces in shaping paths of development have been analyzed (Chrisman 1988 and Curry 1998). Critical research has also stressed that the practice of GIS includes not just the technology itself, but the whole set of practices through which it is utilized, adapted, and connected with other related activities on a daily basis in the particular places where it is used. Drawing on insights from actor network theory and science studies, this approach has focused on how users, as well as inventors, go beyond learning-by-doing to shape the technology (Harvey and Chrisman 1998).

4. From GIS To Society

Critical approaches to examining the societal implications of GIS have focused on case studies examining how some of the hypothesized implications are realized in particular contexts. A number of the implications raised in critiques of GIS have been examined:

limits to GIS representations of the world;

limits in access to and in the appropriateness of GIS technologies;

legal and ethical implications of GIS use; and

the applicability of GIS for redressing social and geographical inequalities.

Those examining the limits of GIS representations of the world have taken seriously the criticism that GIS, as we know it, undergoes a process of representational stabilization, foregrounding representations which prioritize a Cartesian view of the world, reify geometric spatial objects, and rely on institutional databases for their information. More generally, such criticisms contrast the instrumental rationality of GIS with the communicative rationality of life-worlds, and conclude that GIS has difficulty capturing the latter. Rundstrom (1995), for example, argues that American Indian conceptions of space are inconsistent with those used in GIS, concluding that it is inappropriate for representing Indian life-worlds. Harris et al. (1995) experiment with incorporating into conventional GIS sketch maps made by local peasant farmers in South Africa, in order to determine whether the capabilities of GIS can be extended to incorporate life-world-based information. The sketch maps represent African farmers’ views of the landscape and their roots in local narratives about land alienation under apartheid. Goss (1995) examines GIS-based representations used in geo-demographic marketing, and how these may shape life-worlds and the places in which they are pursued.

Those examining limits in access to and in the appropriateness of GIS have often begun with the observation that GIS was developed initially for large organizations, universities, corporations, state agencies, and the military, raising questions about its appropriateness for other (more marginal) social actors. Public participation GIS (PPGIS) research has been examining whether GIS, as we know it, is accessible to grassroots organizations; whether it is appropriate to the goals of such organizations, and thus to their empowerment; and whether it enhances or undermines the participatory decision-making processes characteristic of such organizations (Obermeyer 1998). Barriers to the use of GIS by grassroots organizations have been identified, and strategies to overcome these have been suggested. Studies of the impact of GIS use on the empowerment of, and on democracy within such organizations are beginning. Research into legal issues has focused on undesirable social implications of the spreading use of GIS and geo-referenced databases, for which legal remedies may be desirable. It has also focused on how the laws governing information policy and intellectual property shape the social implications of GIS use. Prominent social implications include:

violations of privacy resulting from the capability to map individual actors and events (such as AIDS cases);

the consequences of inappropriate GIS use, and the question of who bears legal responsibility; and

reduced public access to publicly funded spatial databases, as a consequence of intellectual property laws and the cost recovery strategies of local government agencies (cf. Curry 1998 and Sheppard et al. 1999).

Legal questions frequently revolve around ethical issues, but ethical implications of GIS are far broader than this. Curry (1998) suggests not only that there are significant ethical issues revolving around GIS use, but indeed that a close examination of GIS reveals that conventional models of ethical behavior are them-selves problematic. The use of GIS to redress social inequalities has been dominated to date by GIS-based analyses of environmental equity (Nyerges and Mc-Master 1997). Much of this research employs GIS, as we know it, in fairly conventional ways to gather empirical information about the significance, pervasiveness, and correlation of social and geographical inequities in the potential exposure to toxic hazards. Considerable complexities in the relationship between exposure, social characteristics, and location have been revealed, and measures for determining their significance explored. Research into the historical processes behind such patterns has helped unravel the roles of social actors, and of race and class in creating such patterns (Pulido 2000). Some research is beginning to go beyond this, exploring ways to make information about exposure available to communities, and examining the utility of GIS as a tool for neighborhoods to carry out environmental inventories and develop sustainability indicators.

5. Prospects

Critical approaches to GIS are an even newer field of endeavor than GIS themselves, although they draw their inspiration from longer standing traditions of critical social theory and critical geography. The growth of the information society, and the central role of GIS and GIS-related information technologies (such as navigation systems, geo-referenced cellular phones, geographical positioning systems, and on-line real time mapping systems) in shaping the geography of the information society, mean that the questions raised in this research will remain important. Yet, the novelty of this field and its considerable potential for growth make it hard to predict major areas for future research. In addition to further elaboration of current research, however, two topics are likely to become increasingly important. First, the path-dependent nature of how GIS developed, and concerns about its limitations, suggest that an important issue, raised in the early 1990s but as yet little examined, is the potential for using digital technologies to convey geographic knowledge in ways that are very different from those instantiated in GIS as we know it (Harris and Weiner 1996). Possibilities of alternative GISs have been broached, based perhaps on forms of rationality and information and opinion exchange that have more in common with the communicative logic of the Internet than with the instrumental logic of current GIS (Harris and Weiner 1996). Little research has been done, however, examining how such systems might be developed, and whether their social implications are likely to be more emancipatory than current GIS designs.

Second, we know little about reasons for inequalities in access to and use of GIS as yet. While the great majority of GIS researchers and users are white males, there has been little research into why this is the case as yet, and how it might be mitigated. Research taking a critical perspective on GIS has matured from postulating significant potential problems and limitations, to some selected case studies examining actual interrelationships between GIS and society in individual concrete cases. Such case studies are a vital step forward, and much more of this research is necessary. Yet a fuller understanding of these interrelationships will require comparative case study analysis, to tease out which kinds of contextual conditions affect which kinds of outcomes. Research designs should compare both case studies of similar organizational contexts in different places, inter alia, and case studies of different organizational contexts in similar places.


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