Thursday 3 June 2010

The love/hate relationship with GIS (Part 1)

Geographical Information Systems (GIS) did not ease into the geography departments without friction, and it is has been said that "academic geographers often have a love/hate relationship with GIS" (Schuurman, 2004:2). In this blog series, I try to reveal this dichotomy by looking at the historical background and the arguments put forward. As the love/hate relationship weakened in the second half of the 90s, we see how co-operation between GIS scholars and their critics fostered a new GIS discourse. The series ends by looking at further possibilities of combining quantitative and qualitative methods with GIS.

Geographical information systems (GIS) influence many aspects of the modern society. We leave locational, electronical tracks whenever we use a credit card, turn on our mobile phone or send an email. Car navigation systems are becoming state-of-the-art in new automobiles. Web mapping tools like Google Earth are bringing the ideas of GIS to a wide audience. Many countries and organisations are working on their spatial data infrastructures. GIS was not something that developed within the geography departments, and the advancement of tools and techniques are to a large extent done by actors outside academia.

Science wars in geography
"It's funny how old (and tiresome?) debates in geography never die, they just find new battlefields" (Walton 1995:6)
The love/hate relationship with GIS can be traced back to the criticism of the quantitative revolution. The quantitative revolution was a major turning point in geography in the 1950s and 60s (Marshall, 2006). It marked a change in the methods of geographical research, from descriptive (ideographic) geography to an emperical law making (nomothetic) geography. The quantitative revolution was based on basic ideals of logical positivism; that only one scientific method exists, that knowledge is neutral and value free, and that all science should be based on standards of accuracy and precision in the physical sciences.

There was a growing criticism against use of quantitative methodologies in the 1960s and 70s (Marshall, 2006). This was due to the positivist underpinnings of the approach. It was claimed that value free research was not possible in social research, and that quantification gave a false sense of objectivity. Quantitative researchers were also criticised for treating people as objects without consideration of the values and meaning that makes individuals human. It was argued that a purely quantitative approach looked at how things seemed to be, and not considering the human capacity to change the configuration of societies. As a result of this criticism, quantitative methodologies experienced a downturn in popularity in the 80s.

The GIS criticism in the 90s
The criticism of GIS in the early 1990s echoes the criticism of the quantitative revolution. A debate that had bubbled under the surface since the mid-1980s (Smith, 1992) was triggered by an editorial comment of Peter J. Taylor (1990) in Poltical Geography Quaterly. Here, Taylor writes about the "positivist geography's great revenge". He states that "quantifiers" have embraced GIS by retreating from knowledge to information, and "left geography intellectually sterile" as a "high-tech trivial pursuit".

The climate was not getting better by the strong academic advocacy of GIS (Smith, 1992). Openshaw (1991:628) was maybe the biggest provocateur by describing GIS as "an emerging all-embracing implicit framework capable of integrating and linking all levels of past, present, and possible future geographies". He was further fuelling the debate by calling GIS critics "poor fools" and "technical cripples". Another GIS critic, Neil Smith, was responding by saying: "the problem lies in outlandish diciplinary ambitions, the radical exclusion of other perspectives, and the dangerous and self-defeating renunciation of an intellectual (as opposed to technical) agenda that too often accompany the programmatic advocacy for GIS" (Smith, 1992).

The different arguments were assembled in a book called Ground Truth, edited by Pickles (1995). The book challenged geographers to examine the role of GIS in mediating power relations and political practises, producing spatial knowledge, and altering physical and social environments (Elwood, 2006). GIS was criticised in the ways it further privileged those in power, who had access to the technology, and marginalised others (Goodchild, 2006).

Many geographers thought that the advent of GIS created a biased perception of the academic discipline, as it only represented one lens to the physical and social world (Schuurman, 2004). Research projects not involving GIS, suffered from research grants and lack of attention. In the early 1990s, doctoral students looking for academic positions found that most of them required expertise in GIS. The new technology was seen as a direct threat to the positions of professional cartographers (Pickles, 2006). It is obvious that the large investments in GIS were streching the civility of sub-fields within geography departments.

Technical advances in GIS preceded the ability to understand its potential effects (Schuurman, 2004). As mentioned above, GIS did no derive its power solely from the field of geography, most came from outside (Openshaw, 1991). When GIS was introduced in geography it did not have a fixed and secure identity. There was, and still is, a myriad of ways GIS could be defied and perceived. For an academic researcher, GIS is not only a piece of software, but a scientific approach to a problem.

  • Goodchild, M., 2006, "GIScience Ten YEars After Ground Truth", Transactions in GIS, 10(5), pp. 687-692.
  • Marshall, A. 2006, "A critique of the development of quantitative methodologies in human geography", Radical Statistics, 92.
  • Openshaw, S., 1991 "A view on the GIS Crisis in Geography, or, using GIS to put Humpty Dumpty back together again", Environment and Planning A, 23, pp. 621-628.
  • Pickles, J. (ed), 1995, Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographical Information System, New York, guilford.
  • Schuurman, N., 2004, "Introducing the Identities of GIS" in GIS - a short introduction, pp. 1-3, Blackwell Publishing.
  • Smith, N., 1992, "History and philosophy of geography: real wars, theory wars", Progress in Human Geography, 16(2), pp- 257-2718.
  • Taylor. P.J., 1990, "GKS", Political Geography Quarterly, 3, pp. 211-212
  • Walton, J., 1995, "How real(ist) can you get?", Professional Geographer, 47, pp 61-65


Unknown said...

This is a great discussion of an endless debate. Thanks for the quotes- those are some all time classics.

Jarlath O'Neil-Dunne said...

Thanks for taking the time to compile this information and presenting it in a meaningful way.