Reconciling Social Constructivism and Realism in GIS

  • Nadine Schuurman Department of Geography, Simon Fraser University


An epistemological and discursive divide separates critics of GIS and its researchers. An assumption exists among many users and developers of GIS that the technology models reality and can thus be used to predict and explain spatial processes. This realist position is not sanctioned by social science critics of GIS who have focused efforts on illustrating the social effects of technology as well as social influences on its development. In this paper, I attempt to mediate these positions by arguing that GIS is shaped by social parameters, but that this does not necessarily negate its value in modelling spatial processes. Emphasis exclusively on either realist results or social influences in GIS deny evidence of their reciprocal effect. GIS and other technologies are shaped by social factors, but these are not the sole influences and don’t necessarily compromise the predictive value of GIS. A more constructive exercise is to “map” points of social influence in order to demonstrate points where future negotiation can take place. Three examples of social influence are analyzed: (i) model building; (ii) algorithmic solutions for line intersection; and (iii) generalization research. These examples provide a preliminary blueprint for detecting social effects on the technology, a map that can be used by both developers and critics for reconstructing GIS. Moreover, the blueprint provides an epistemological basis for collaboration between geographers concerned with social influences in GIS as well as those engaged in its technical development.

How to Cite
Schuurman, Nadine. 1. “Reconciling Social Constructivism and Realism in GIS”. ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies 1 (1), 73-90.