Smith & Mark and Central Ontologies

Smith and Mark’s article walks the reader from a general, philosophical perspective of ontologies to how geography and finally information systems interpret and utilize ontology. They distinguish between a basic, naïve conceptualization (primary theory) that is akin to common sense and a secondary conceptualization (secondary theory) that is diverse and reflects different beliefs. They argue that geographic science’s ontology is based on discrete objects (primary theory) and continuous fields (secondary theory).

Aside from minor quibbles about the reading’s denseness at the beginning, I found interesting the assertion that humans tend towards a central, binding ontology to better relate things to one another. It has certainly been the case for GIS where there are a few overarching data models (e.g. vector and raster) and clear hierarchical rules of inheritance. Evidence of this central ontology self-perpetuating is evident in the way users now attempt to sort webscraped information or to store streamed data. The titles may vary from producer to producer, but the fundamental logical structure of row ID, one entry per cell, and attributes remains.

A pressing implication of this resides in development, where GIS practitioners attempt to create maps showing traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) that represent a participatory effort with locals. An obstacle seems to exist of trying to translate (for example) Canadian Aboriginal ontologies with the GIS data models in use. The difficulty of labelling a portage path as discussed in class is one such example. I have the impression that the prevailing approach is to undergo acculturation of Aboriginal peoples until they think like “our” Western views. This likely reflects a power relation of Westerners wielding the GIS, and may limit acceptance of alternative forms of knowing.

- Madskiier_JWong

One Response to “Smith & Mark and Central Ontologies”

  1. climateNYC says:

    Good summary and good point about definitions. How do cultures who define “a mountain” differently fit the the ontology explored in this article?