Posts Tagged ‘Wright’

Are we asking the Wright question?

Friday, January 18th, 2013

In their article entitled, “GIS: Tool or Science?”, Wright et al. attempt to break down—not answer per se—the ambiguities surrounding the fundamental basis of GIS. They use online forum responses to gather data on whether the general GIS community perceives GIS as a science or as a tool. They conclude by insisting that there are three unique schools of thought—those who consider GIS as a tool, as tool-making, or as a science—and that underlying this question is the ambiguity of the word “science.” I have two problems with this particular article: one pertaining to the antiquated outlook on a topic (GIS) that has evolved since the article’s publishing; the other pertaining to its lack of a formal thesis.

First, in regards to the timeliness of the article and the data collected, this piece was written in 1997, and the online conversation that serves as the source of its central data, occurred in 1993. To put this into perspective, ESRI first launched the first version of ArcView in 1995 and ArcMap in 1999.  GIS as a concept existed long before this, but it was hardly user-friendly, and its toolset was nothing compared to the long lists present in the modern Toolbox in ArcMap’s user interface. The majority of GIS in 1993 was most likely command line-based, requiring a level of specialized programming to which relatively few people had access. The authors should have overseen a live chat rather than draw from four-year-old data.

Second, the only conclusion that Wright et al. come to is that there is no conclusion. The process of the exploration should not be “What are the different perspectives of GIS?” because simply by glancing at the title of the article, it is clear that the authors already knew the various perspectives of GIS. Rather, they should have outlined their working definition of science first and proceeded from there. A much more fruitful discussion would have ensued, likely with a conclusion on the major view(s) of GIS.

– JMonterey

GIS: tool or science? Does it really matter?

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

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).


Changes in thought and perceptions of science, tools and GIS

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Wright, Goodchild, and  Proctor in their article “GIS: Tool or Science?” outline the varying cases for GIS being a tool or a science.  The article may point to opening our definition of science and shifting how science is quantified by results to a broader definition of applied and practical use. However, one can ask how does one’s perception and thought on, what is a tool? and what is a science? influence how GIS is viewed, and thus how it is defined. Can GIS not be both a tool and a science? Does not every science include tools and equations to understand the variability in nature and our world, and does not every tool rely on science to have a use? I believe GIS is a tool and a science. One just has to think of mathematics or physics where equations originally developed as a tool to answer a question have themselves become a science. For example, quantum mechanics where once only considered a tool to understand the atom but has since become a field of science and scientific research, although quantum mechanics can still be a tool. Any tool can become a science and any science can become a tool.

Science is derived in latin from the word for knowledge, therefore it can be considered as the pursuit and modification of knowledge and is that   not what GIS allow people to accomplish through the gathering and modification of information. Yet GIS is still a tool because it offers a means to an end (i.e. it allow a person to modify data to get a result). The way a person thinks, influences how they may perceive GIS. For instance if GIS is a means to an end, it is a tool, like a surveyor’s station to a surveyor who is plotting a map. Oppositely, if GIS is used to gather and study, it is a science, like a surveyor’s station to a geologist who is gathering data to understand the relationships of rocks to a point.  At present, technology and science are at a crux where both are intertwined, yet have the same definitions given centuries ago and are perceived in that same old fashion. Maybe it is time for a new definition to be created, as development in our world advances the tools and sciences we do as humans,where to integrate both GIS as a means and an end together.


Toolbox vs. Test Tube

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

Wright’s investigation into the nature of GIS is like the International Baccalaureates course, Theory of Knowledge; it poses more questions than it provides answers. In response to the title of the paper, my initial reaction was that it was a clear cut, hands down, tool. From my own experience, whenever people asked what I wanted to do I would say, without hesitation, “mapping.” I have since been told that GIS is far more than mapping, but until now that is all I have ever used it for. Eventually, most conversations would turn to, “what is GIS?” Until recently, my response was always, “It’s a toolbox. Much like a hammer is to a toolbox, as Clip, and Collapse Dual to Centerline are to ArcGIS. The tools are self evident, it’s just a matter of finding what you need in the shed.” That, however, is not the case.

My experience with GIS is marginal, at best. I am an end user, who contributes little in return to the further development of the software. Therefore, for my purposes it is a tool. For others, as is seen in the informal survey conducted on GIS-L, it has a much broader range of uses. These uses, however, are laden with subjectivity. Wright points out that fields considered a science are seen as more legitimate. The sequence of the paper gives “GIS as a science” the last say. The conclusion does not overtly state it, but from the point of view of Wright et al. they aim to promote GIS as a means of acquiring legitimacy. In time, much like Computer Science, it is likely that GIS will be given the same weight. It would serve GIS, however, if it spread to more than just “phenomena on the Earth’s surface.” Until it digs deeper, it will only be scratching the surface.


3 in 1: GIS as a tool, toolmaking and a science

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

It is difficult to reach consensus in an interdisciplinary field. Wright et al. clearly display this by bringing forth conflicting definitions of GIS, along with general comments that add more depth to the debate. As discussed in class, the definition of GIS as a science is necessary for political and financial agendas due to funding, credibility and legitimacy. However, this should not rule out the GIS field as toolmaking or a tool, in addition to science. Wright et al. state one defining characteristic, “the answer [on the definition of GIS] depends on who is involved”, where, for example, GIS developers could see it as a science, and students could see it as a tool (350). Thus, I take all three positions — tool, toolmaking and science — on GIS to be valid.

In the article, science is defined as discovery, exploration, and problem understanding not invention (351). However, science was founded by theories. Theories and frameworks have been invented. Thus, indirectly, could science also be an invention? What makes up GIS is highly convoluted, therefore it would be safe to assume that a combination of invention through toolmaking, discovery of new facts through the use of the tool can be combined. There is intrinsic meaning behind a tool simultaneously derived from invention and discovery. The debate over the definition of GIS is overwhelming, however the authors steer us in the right direction. Wright et al. conclude that “older notions of science as the equivalent of ‘hard science’ are being replaced by a more open view [of science]” (358). Progress is seen through difference, which is promoted rather than stifled. In addition to progressive inclusion, the authors’ contend GIS is perceived as a “phenomenon” that encourages discussion and critical thought. I believe this to be a significant shift of perceptions on discovery, practicality and utilization rather than on a specific definition.

Wright et al. (1997). Forum GIS: Tool or Science?


On the Ontology of Science

Sunday, January 22nd, 2012

When we think about whether GIS represents a science or a tool, we must consider how exactly do we define science. Wright et al throw around a huge number of terms without defining them when considering just this question. Some of their suggested approaches to understanding how science explains the world include humanism, positivism, structuralism, empiricism,  realism, Marxism, and postmodernism (353). The article concludes with an analysis that suggests positivism holds the most explanatory power for understanding the world. However, they decline to take a strong position, admitting that they don’t want to “downplay the explanatory power of these alternative, non-positivistic approaches” (353). For those of us unacquainted with the philosophy of science, what exactly does this debate over the definition of science actually mean?

Positivism represents the view most of us heard in grade school where science consists of a view that in both the social and natural sciences, sensory experiences and their logical or mathematical treatment (through testing) represent the exclusive source of all worthwhile information. However, if we consider science through a humanistic lens that places human values at the center of all inquiry or a postmodern perspective that repudiates objective, sensory observation in favor of viewing reality as a social construct, our definition of science changes dramatically.

As this definition changes, so to does our consideration of whether or not GIS can be viewed as a tool or a science. From the approach of a positivist, GIS can be thought of both as a means for observing and testing data (as a tool) or a method for treating types of geographic data and examining research questions (as a science). Yet if we take a postmodern perspective, does GIS hold any weight (beyond being a tool) as a discipline reliant on particular methodologies which reveal self-evident truths about the world? Although Wright et al do a great job with their primary task of covering the GIS tool vs. science debate in their article, their lack of specificity on how to define science opens the door to a variety of theoretical questions.

– climateNYC