Thoughts on ” GIS: Tool or Science?” (1997) (Wright et al.)

Right off the bat, the antiquity of this article stood out. When the authors discuss how it has become necessary to “refer to information that may exist only in electronic form”, and how new methods of citation will need to be developed for websites,  one realizes that the context in which this review was written is very different from that of present day where citing electronic sources in research is second nature. This point is relevant because we can treat the text almost as a historical document, an insight into how the question of GI-tool/GI-Science was being discussed at the conception of the “field” of GIS.

The initial description of the GIS-L presents an interesting case of how issues in GIS were first being discussed on an online platform by geographically distant scholars and interested individuals. It is difficult to imagine an academic paper devoting so much space to a conversation that took place on a discussion board. There is clearly some ambiguity about how to treat the discussion, with the authors positing that that the bulletin board “falls into the realm of personal communication”. Surely no one would make the mistake of assuming that anything they post to the internet today is “personal” or protected by some common understanding of privacy and discretion.

I enjoyed their discussion of GIS belonging on a fuzzy continuum. Their justification for caring about  about GIS’s scientific identity seemed a little circular to me: “labeling a field as a science…may…secure it greater funding and prestige.” Seeing as the authors have a vested interest in securing funding for their area of research, it seemed like it would be in their interest to argue for GIS as a science, to expand their prospects in the academy.

The “GIS as a tool” section raised a few questions for me. The authors state that “The tool itself is inherently neutral…it’s development and availability driven by application.” I am not sure I agree with this statement, seeing as the prohibitive cost of many packages make them decidedly un-available to the majority of people, and the development of the programs are always with the products in mind, which have political and social implications (gerrymandering using GIS, for one example.)

In their section on GIScience, the authors laid down four conditions for a discipline to be considered a “Science” which begged the question; who decides whether these conditions have been met or not? The language was (deliberately?) vague, citing “ sufficient significance” , “sufficiently challenging”, “sufficient commonalities”. This language makes it nearly impossible to arrive at a definitive or quantifiable answer as to whether something is a science or not, and perhaps this is the point.

I thought it was interesting how the authors discussed the problems that arise from the subjugation of GIS at both a theoretical level (what is science?) and a fine-grain, administrative one, recognizing how hard it would be for academics in the field to secure jobs and train students while devoting time to research.

In their conclusion they discussed how GIS may be a “new kind of science”, and I think this was a prescient observation as the diversity of fields within GIS today validate this point.


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