Reinventing GIS and Geography, by Jerry Dobson

 Aging doesn’t suit my lifestyle, but here I am, “emeritus” at two institutions−the University of Kansas and the American Geographical Society−and “former” at UCGIS and elsewhere.  From such a lofty vantage, I should be able to offer several respectable observations, but which single thought is worthy of this opportunity that UCGIS has given me?  I believe it resides in a phrase, “clerks of science,” that captures the greatest unaddressed threat looming for geographic disciplines and fields.

Since 1993 I’ve said advances in geography could position our discipline to play a major role in important issues, such as global change or the restructuring of east European economies and societies. In contrast, advances in GIS alone are likely to cast us as clerks handling data for the geologists, biologists, ecologists, political scientists, economists, and other current leaders in these topics.  Only by joining the fray of science theory and occasionally “drawing blood” will we establish ourselves as a respected force in the upper echelons of science, science policy, and public policy influenced by science. Meanwhile, many conventional theories—developed in isolation by specialized disciplines with little thought for geographic relationships, spatial logic, or scientific integration—have stood unchallenged for decades. 

Map Projections for Plate TectonicsIn GIS, we (and others) built a model of the whole world, and it’s a pretty good one albeit with much still left to do.   Geographers, cartographers, and geographic information scientists routinely create immensely valuable insights, data, methods, techniques, and tools that clearly advance science, but it's mainly other disciplines that apply them to science theory.  We invite and urge other people to use this new scientific instrument, the macroscope, and we should.  So far, so good, but if we don’t use it ourselves, then we become merely the clerks of science.  We do the calculations while others make the discoveries that matter to science and society . . . others advance the theories . . . others make the headlines . . . others get to replicate themselves through new job openings and higher salaries that draw the best and brightest. 

In the final year of my teaching career, I witnessed two fresh Ph. D.s fall into the clerk’s trap while interviewing for assistant professorships at two separate universities.  Both of them were intellectually bright and scientifically rigorous, but they looked like lackeys.  The telltale mark came when the first thematic question was asked and awkwardly left unanswered.  At that point, it became obvious that the studies they touted as experience were not their own but rather tasks assigned to underlings.

We can continue indefinitely in a subservient role, acting as the clerks of science, but surely it will be better to join the fray, aggressively questioning conventional wisdom and formulating new science theory ourselves.  The same applies to business and government with policy and strategy replacing scientific theory, though clearly our community has made more headway in those arenas.

How can we ourselves go beyond our usual bounds and add some geographic/cartographic/GIS heat to the crucible of science?  The quickest and most effective way will be for GIS practitioners, regardless of academic background, to embrace geography, immersing themselves in its traditions and questions.  Many have been reluctant due to disciplinary rivalry.  Ironically, geographic information science has grown more independent of geography and yet more subservient to everyone else.  Meanwhile, too many geographers have slipped into a new subservient role of their own−critiquing rather than doing−and speaking in tongues (jargon) rather than reasoning, rejecting quantification, denying the real world, and theorizing without testing in the real world.

For most of my career I’ve stood firmly in the middle, advocating GIS to geographers and geography to GIScientists.  In 1983, I wrote “Automated Geography,” which is recognized as a turning point in the placement of GIS within geography.  That argument was less successful in convincing GIScientists to support the discipline.  “Automated geography” lost out to “geographic information science” and later to geospatial whatever. Now several geography departments have lost out to “geospatial” technology programs, and there’s an attempt to anoint a new spatial discipline that is not geography.

Going forward, the partnership of geography and GIS is vital to the success of both.  Détente is essential, and both camps must reinvent themselves over the next generation and more.  Fortunately, AP Human Geography is one of the fastest growing advanced placement courses in U. S. high schools, and plans are underway to create a new AP course in GIS.  Surely, a new generation steeped in both can automate geography in ways that shake all science to its core.  Surely we can be appreciated jointly as geography is respected elsewhere around the world.  Together, perhaps we can fulfill the promise of GIS while restoring the prominence that geography held in classical times, the Renaissance, and the first half of the 20th Century.

by Jerome E. Dobson, UCGIS Fellow and also its 3rd President (1997). He is president emeritus of the American Geographical Society and professor emeritus in the Department of Geography, University of Kansas.  [Note: Dr. Dobson retired before the department’s name was changed; he retains the right to refer to it as the Department of Geography rather than its current form, GAS, for Geography and Atmospheric Sciences.]

 Each quarter, UCGIS invites one of its Fellows to share his or her opinions and ideas on the status of scholarship, education, outreach, and impact of GIScience. Please read, enjoy, and comment on this article and return to our website for future issues.

The views in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of or positions by UCGIS. 

Share this post:

Comments on "Reinventing GIS and Geography, by Jerry Dobson"

Comments 0-5 of 0

Please login to comment