GIS, Indigenous Peoples, and Epistemological Diversity

Rundstrom’s article “GIS, Indigenous Peoples, and Epistemological Diversity” (1995) discusses how indigenous cultures perceive “geographical knowledge” differently compared to North American and European Westerners (45). Even though there are different cultural perspectives on spatial knowledge, there has been a tendency for GIS to be ethnocentric, focusing on Westernized epistemology and ignoring the cross-cultural variations in understanding landscapes. As someone who studies anthropology and geography, I agree with Rundstrom’s proposition that the “GIS research agenda [should] include cross-cultural studies of knowledge transformations and culture change;” however, since Rundstrom’s article, there has been technological advancements and offspring disciplines, such as Qualitative GIS and GIScience, that consider different perspectives (45). Before I discuss how GIScience has contributed, I do want to make a point that even though GIS is known for being “eurocentric,” GIS researchers wanted to develop a systematic procedure for data collection and modeling (55). Now with improvements in technology, we can veer away from authoritative systematic analyses and allow everyday citizens, including indigenous people, to contribute their own geographic information. This is what volunteered geographic information (VGI) is, and what I am researching for my final project.

Within GIScience, VGI accepts amateur volunteers’ geographic information; this means indigenous peoples can use the internet to geotag a specific location that pertains to their culture and describe that location’s significance to them. This can be done in Google Maps or Yelp, where the geotagged area and small description can provide a more enriched epistemology that can be collected and analyzed by an outside party. Nevertheless, it is not that simple, collecting data from amateur internet users introduces topics on accuracy and how to properly validate the information as correct – there are still debates on how to define which volunteered knowledge is valid or not. In some cases, websites have volunteer monitors that check accuracy in what people write; thus, some reviewers may not objectively agree with an indigenous person’s subjective description on a certain place.

Similarly to what we discussed last class, geospatial agent based-models may also be able to show variations in geographical knowledge as technology and technical methodologies improve; maybe an agent can receive multiple attributes that can enhance how they perceive their landscape. This can allow for a more diverse epistemology. Therefore, since Rundstrom’s article, there have been improvements in GIS to account for “epistemological diversity,” but there is still room to grow (45).



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