Geographic Information “Science”

“Geographical Information Science Fifteen Years Later” – Michael. F. Goodchild (2007)


Michael F. Goodchild is a staunch believer in GIS as a science. He notes how GIS researchers have been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences and the UK Royal Society, and GIS has proliferated within academic institutions. Additionally, as with other sciences, GIS is characterized by research subdivisions. Goodchild’s analysis of the state of GIS seems sound, however, I am left with the question of what his ontological quest is aiming to achieve. What is to be gained by being labelled a science and what could be lost?

Goodchild’s campaign to validate GIS as a science may have undesirable consequences. Entrenching GIS’s place in the rigid, evidence-based confines of science may cement the multifaceted “S”, which may have an exclusionary effect on the diverse GIS community. GIS researchers that exist beyond the realm of academic science are most at risk of exclusion. The way I see it, GIS could lose its creativity, flexibility, and uniqueness if the focus on scientific endeavour becomes all encompassing.

An anecdote from the 19th century can shed light on the issue of ontology within a discipline. In late 19th century France the Académie des Beaux-Arts was the ultimate authority in fine art. One was called an artist only through the validation of the cultural institution. Early impressionists, such as Monet, Manet, and Cezanne sought affirmation from the Académie, but under the scrutiny of the institution their work was rejected. Understanding that the Académie placed them outside the realm of fine art, the Impressionists began to exhibit their work independently, seeking credibility outside formal settings. By forgoing the Académie and committing themselves to abstraction, unusual subject matter, and a disregard for orthodoxy the Impressionists revolutionized the art world. The movement transgressed the boundary of fine art and initiated a paradigm shift paved way for the conception of fine art as we know it today. Instead of trying to pigeonhole GIS within present-day science, perhaps GIS is better of on its own path.


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