GIS: tool or science? Does it really matter?

Wright et als’ article “GIS: tool or science?” takes as a basis of theory a 1993 listserv discussion grappling with the question: is GIS a tool, or a science? While the paper is generally a summary piece, it moves some interesting theory with regards to the subject. After reading, however, one is left wondering, beyond practical funding concerns, whether the discussion is ultimately fruitful, and if in defining a strictly demarcated tool or science, we are losing something along the way.

The authors identify three major strands of classification for GIS within the cited discussion: tool, toolmaking and science. I guess the problem for me with this debate is that I don’t think that anybody is really wrong. I think GIS can be a tool, toolmaking and/or science. The categories don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. While the drive to classify is strong and understandable, it often means a loss of nuance, or an effacing of important aspects of a discipline. In rejecting GIS as a tool (or toolmaking, or science), we lose some of the unique capabilities produced by that classification.

Unrelatedly, I find the integration of these more casual (and frankly pretty snarky) conversations in scholarship to be interesting (it feels like a bending of disciplines and spheres!)  The brief opening note on new systems of citation caught my eye, because I think that the wealth of information on the internet (doubtless important to GIS however we conceive of it) is posing new challenges by producing important theory and content that we’re having to learn very swiftly how to integrate into formal academia. The introduction to academic work of informal discussions is also an important step in bridging the gap between different modes of scholarship and technology. Importantly, it may be more accessible to those people who may not be pursuing a formal education or may lack a background in theory. Personally, I respond well to forms of learning that occur outside of traditional lecturing and incorporate multiple voices, so I found the transcript section of the article useful (and also pretty funny).


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