GIS: Tool or Science?

I’ve always perceived GIS as a means to an end. As a tool that automated analysis and organization of spatial data, so as to gain meaningful insights into our quantified Earth. I’m an undergraduate geography student seeking primarily to develop marketable skills, as are most these days, and tend to brush off most notions on the “philosophy of science” as a discussion meant only for grey-haired academics.

However, Wright et al.’s 1997 “GIS: Tool or Science” piece published in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers fundamentally challenged my view of GIS, and the importance of having the conversation in the first place.

Wright et al. analyzed and categorized the responses from the GIS-L electronic listerver, an online platform that allowed for many discussants to participate in the conversation. The responses to the question “GIS: Tool or Science?” were fit into three main topics: GIS as Tool, GIS as Science, and General Comments about Science (1997: 350). Many discussants argued that the answer to the question depends on the user and the nature of the task at hand (scientific research, technological development of end-user GIS products and suites, or use of GIS products for academic, commercial, or research purposes), and that perhaps engineering or applied science would be a more appropriate field for GIS to be a part of (1997:351). Wright et al. then went a step further to argue both sides of the debate in a clear and concise manner.

How do I now perceive GIS? Tool or Science? Having read the article, definitely both, but I also do not think that the discussion is over. Just as computer science evolved from mathematics, perhaps geographic information science will become its own field apart from the geography department, and no longer be delegitimized and perceived as nothing more than a means to an end.


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