GIS: Tool or Science?

Although written 15 years ago in 1997, (which seems like an eternity when considering the expansion of the World Wide Web) this paper by Wright et al. raises some excellent considerations when thinking about how we perceive GIS. GIS is a unique field in the fact that it is so closely knit to a “conventional” discipline (Geography), yet seems to now have its own place in academia. Prior to the writing of this paper (and others by Goodchild), GIS was widely considered as a useful tool to display or visualize findings across many spatially relevant disciplines, and nothing really more. While the view of GIS as a science existed among some of those heavily involved in the field, I think that it was less popular view as it is now. Today, more than ever, GIS has become more accepted as a discipline on its own rather than a vehicle for displaying data.
However, I believe Wright et al. drives the point home in the conclusion when they call for a need to shift away from ‘”black and white’ boxes of description” and move towards a more continuous definition of how GIS should be perceived. While I understand that defining GIS as a science eventually leads to more focus (and funding!) on the field, I cannot see the benefits in trying to encompass a set of rules in order to understand GIS as a science. The reason GIS is unique as a field is because of its versatility and it’s increasing power to contribute to societies in the world today. As of 2013, one cannot deny the amount of discourse concerning the scientific theories, models and analyses involved with the creation of various GIS. The paper by Harvey Miller clearly points this out, as we can no longer look at GIS as a purely objective tool but something that must be developed in line with a specific research question. However, being able to take the entire discipline and invoke rules to try and mimic conventional sciences will not work for GIS. Each individual project will have its own set of scientific methods involving a range of academic disciplines.



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