Geography Qualitative GIS
Jasmine Arpagian, Stuart Aitken
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0192


Qualitative geographic information systems (qual-GIS) incorporates nonquantitative data into GIS, integrates qualitative data collection and analysis with quantitative spatial analysis facilitated by GIS, adopts epistemologies typically associated with qualitative research, or a combination of these. Qual-GIS is simultaneously represented as a spatially oriented organizer of qualitative data, a mixed-methods research approach, and an open-ended style of knowledge making. Qual-GIS emerged as a response to criticisms that GIS is rigidly embedded in positivist epistemologies. In the 1990s, GIS supporters and critics debated the implications of GIS on society (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Geography article “Geographic Information Science”). The National Center for Geographic Information and Analysis (NCGIA) organized a series of meetings to bring GIS practitioners and social geographers together to address this debate. In 1993, these specialists met in Friday Harbor, Washington, and developed a research agenda to better understand the implications of GIS on society. This meeting resulted in a series of publications, including a 1995 special issue of Cartography and Geographic Information Systems (“GIS and Society: Towards a Research Agenda”; see Sheppard 1995, cited under GIS Critiques), with research papers and essays that focused on GIS ethics, technocracy, practices, and politics. A companion book edited by John Pickles titled Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems (see Pickles 1995, cited under GIS Critiques) provided a more theoretical critique of spatial technologies. NCGIA also held a specialist meeting in 1996 about Initiative 19, titled “GIS and Society: The Social Implications of How People, Space, and Environment Are Represented in GIS,” to further develop this research agenda (see Harris and Weiner 1996, cited under GIS Critiques). With these works as a beginning, progressively more researchers acknowledged GIS as socially constructed, and qual-GIS emerged as an alternative. Politics of knowledge production with GIS were especially significant given the technology’s use in community planning. Researchers and practitioners began to more widely promote the general public’s participation in the development and use of GIS (see the separate Oxford Bibliographies in Geography article “Public Participation GIS, Participatory GIS, and Participatory Mapping”). Incorporating local and indigenous knowledges into GIS has become a popular research agenda. Some human geographers, seeking to reconfigure what they consider a positivist and exclusive technology, advance a version of GIS with a critical edge that analyzes subjective rather than objective data, recognizes partiality of knowledge, and promotes alternative geographies (e.g., critical, feminist, queer, affective, and nonrepresentational GIS). Relevant qual-GIS case studies include projects that organize and subsequently visualize qualitative and subjective data. Qual-GIS could contain multimedia (e.g., images, audio, and video), ethnographic (e.g., narrative text about human experiences, perceptions, and emotions; maps sketched by participants), and historical (e.g., past events, temporal changes) data; however, considerable limitations exist regarding their cartographic representation. Qualitative data collection methods (e.g., in-depth interviews, oral life histories, participant observations, surveys, and sketch mapping) are joined parallel with GIS analysis and visualization but are performed as separate steps. Triangulation validates data sets and results by using multiple and mixed methods. Researchers have advanced the capabilities of existing GIS software to also perform qualitative data analysis. Qual-GIS is used in the humanities as well (e.g., historical GIS, narrative GIS). The topics in this article represent the disciplinary trajectories and debates that led to or influenced qual-GIS, and primary ways that qual-GIS is understood by its applicants.

General Overviews

Written by a social theorist, Mugerauer 2000 critiques the presumably inherent positivist nature of GIS and suggests two ways that GIS could be qualitative. A basic qual-GIS simply incorporates images and other multimedia in cartographic visualizations, while a more sophisticated version integrates qualitative analysis with GIS. An early engagement with qual-GIS is an issue of Environment and Planning A, which is introduced in Kwan and Knigge 2006, with case studies of community-planning projects that incorporate qual-GIS. ESRI’s textbook for use in urban geography courses (Maantay, et al. 2006) includes a chapter devoted to the ethical concerns raised by critics in the 1990s, with discussion about democratization of GIS, access to data and technology, traditionally marginalized indigenous and local knowledges, and GIS use in advocacy and community planning. Harris 2008 is a short and concise entry for “Qualitative Analysis” in an encyclopedia of geographic information science. Cope and Elwood 2009 most extensively reviews qual-GIS and provides the most nuanced definition yet of this research approach. The editors draw on Marianna Pavlovskaya’s contribution to their volume, in which she identifies three openings for a more qualitative GIS. Meghan Cope and Sarah Elwood organize their contributing qual-GIS case studies as “representations, analytical interventions and innovations, and conceptual engagements.” Aitken and Kwan 2010 brings together GIS and qualitative methods and summarizes feminist contributions to GIS, with the beginning assertion that GIS, in and of itself, is a qualitative method. Several case studies briefly review qual-GIS literature. Among the most comprehensive literature reviews are in Martin and Schuurman 2017 (see Geovisualization of Qualitative Data); Mennis, et al. 2013 (see Integrated Mixed Methods); Knowles, et al. 2015 (see Geovisualization of Qualitative Data); and Elwood 2010 (see Multiple Methods).

  • Aitken, Stuart C., and Mei-Po Kwan. “GIS as Qualitative Research: Knowledge, Participatory Politics and Cartographies of Affect.” In The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. Edited by Dydia DeLyser, Steve Herbert, Stuart Aitken, Mike Crang, and Linda McDowell, 287–304. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4135/9780857021090.n18E-mail Citation »

    As one of the first focused attempts to define GIS as qualitative research on the basis of its methodologies and practices, the authors of this paper take to task the representational politics of GIS and argue that its output and visualizations have particular affects.

  • Cope, Meghan, and Sarah Elwood, eds. Qualitative GIS: A Mixed Methods Approach. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009.

    E-mail Citation »

    This influential anthology is organized into three sections, each of which covers a different way of understanding qual-GIS—as GIS-based representations, analyses, and theoretical framework. This comprehensive book not only includes several case studies that act as a guide for mixed-methods research, but also offers a conceptual framework to approach qual-GIS.

  • Harris, Rich. “Qualitative Analysis.” In Encyclopedia of Geographic Information Science. Edited by Karen K. Kemp, 355–357. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2008.

    E-mail Citation »

    This encyclopedia entry identifies two approaches to qualitative analysis with GIS: (1) as the practice of incorporating categorical and noncontinuous data into a GIS, and (2) the use of qualitative methods to understand data represented in a GIS. The entry focuses more on the second of these two definitions.

  • Kwan, Mei-Po, and LaDona Knigge. “Doing Qualitative Research Using GIS: An Oxymoronic Endeavor?” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 38.11 (2006): 1999–2002.

    DOI: 10.1068/a38462E-mail Citation »

    This is an introduction to the seminal issue that begins to define qual-GIS as a methodological and epistemological approach. Subsequent articles in the issue are case studies of different community and planning research projects that engage qual-GIS.

  • Maantay, Juliana, John Ziegler, and John Pickles. GIS for the Urban Environment. Redlands, CA: ESRI Press, 2006.

    E-mail Citation »

    ESRI’s textbook about using GIS in urban environments is primarily composed of technical chapters. It also includes a brief explanation of qualitative information in GIS and one complete chapter on ethics, subjectivity, and politics of cartography, as well as GIS in advocacy, “counter-mapping,” and community planning.

  • Mugerauer, Robert. “Qualitative GIS: To Mediate, Not Dominate.” In Information, Place, and Cyberspace: Issues in Accessibility. Edited by Donald G. Jannelle and David C. Hodge, 317–338. Advances in Social Science. Berlin: Springer, 2000.

    E-mail Citation »

    A social theorist and critic of positivist GIS, Mugerauer draws distinction between two types of qual-GIS. The first conceptualization incorporates qualitative multimedia into GIS and is described as a reincarnation of “medieval mapping” decorated with imaginative and narrative drawings. The second understanding of qual-GIS is an integration of quantitative and qualitative analysis and visualization.

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