The epistemological framework, more commonly known as “the theory of knowledge” surrounding the definition and application of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) has become far more complex over the past few years. As the technology has rapidly advanced, its structure and utilization in research has expanded dramatically. This expansion however, has pigeonholed GIS in a manner which is very simplistic and scientifically ambiguous.  Let’s discuss in further detail: Is GIS a tool or science?

In this guest post by Luke Miles, a final year graduate student from Western Kentucky University, he invites you in a discussion to deconstruct GIS as a tool, as well as the concepts of the tool-making activity and its application as a science. He will also discuss how the overall flexibility and scope of GIS does not compel its users into any particular epistemological stance.

GIS is a Tool

The popular view of GIS as a tool is seen as independent of substantial research. It is relegated to a position that involves mere button-pressing that generates values which must then be analyzed through the use of various geographical methods. With the recent technological advancements, GIS (as a tool) is becoming increasingly easier to use and although it extends the reach of GIS to non-users and the public (which is a great thing), it can undermine the inherent depth of GIS because more and more users are not learning the fundamental concepts and methodologies of the tool’s usage. Its appropriateness in research is demonstrated by the use of specific techniques that drive the research instead of merely displaying results (Wright et al. 1997). This allows GIS to be viewed as more than just a tool, but as an instrument for cultivating new ideas and solutions to geographic problems.

GIS is Science

GIS is a ScienceThe advancement of technology has given us a greater freedom in the understanding and use of GIS as a branch of science in several respects. The technology involved with GIS bridges a gap within the confines of geography and provides a branch to link and integrate geographic concepts in many different fields. These advancements ensure that the capabilities of GIS will continue to grow in terms of its implementation of methods, procedures and theories (Wright et al. 1997). Subsequently, this continuation will allow for the development of new research questions and new methodologies in which we can analyze, solve and add to the scholastic literature. This illuminates the multidisciplinary nature of GIS as a science and demonstrates its inherent flexibility.

GIS Innovation

The concept of GIS as a tool is paramount to the understanding of how GIS can adapt. GIS innovators are crucial to its advancement and implementation. Also, technology has given us the ability to evaluate the tool and make specific adjustments to improve its overall use. This flexibility gives GIS innovators the ability to work on a wide range of tasks depending on their areas of expertise. This allows for innovation on a twofold, complemental scale as some will work to improve the conceptual framework, while others will work on the technological capabilities. By synthesizing these two methods, GIS can be designed to observe and analyze the full range of human-environment activity with reference to the right data (Wright et al. 1997).

What Do You Guys Think?

In GIS, technological expansion should not impose an ambiguous set of assumptions regarding its methods, theories and applications. This actively undermines the very framework designed to foster the knowledge, understanding and ultimate growth of a discipline. It also can inhibit the formulation of adequate research questions and subsequent methodologies. The depth and flexibility of GIS as a tool, those who evaluate and refine the tool and as a science demonstrates the adaptability and methodological freedom it provides to its users.  Let’s open up some dialogue.  Let me know your stance on GIS as a tool and/or science.


Chang, K. (2008). Introduction to geographic information systems (4th ed.). New York:      McGraw-Hill.

Wright, D. J., M. F. Goodchild, and J. D. Proctor. 1997. Demystifying the persistent ambiguity of          GIS as ‘‘tool’’ versus ‘‘science’’. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 87    (2): 346–62.

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