Geography GIS applications in Human Geography
Richard Hunter
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0169


Human geography is the branch of geography concerned with how and why people organize themselves across space and interact with their environments. Human geographers conduct their research that underpins the subfields of human geography in many social arenas. These subfields range from the geography of religion and regional geographies to political geography and mountain geography, and more. As the largest branch of geography, much research in human geography has been produced that makes use of a geographical information system (GIS). A GIS is a computer program that stores, analyzes, and displays geographic data. Work by human geographers who incorporate GIS into their research tends to fall into one of two categories. First, there is the work that uses GIS as a straightforward tool of spatial analysis, spatial modeling, and geo-visualization. The topics of these research projects span all the subfields of human geography. Second, there is the work that examines the theoretical and philosophical significance of GIS within human geography. Informed from the critical perspectives of feminism, queer studies, Marxism, and others, these studies typically situate GIS within the discipline at fundamental levels of epistemology and ontology. This approach to studying GIS within human geography shifts the focus away from the output of a research project and toward the process of research itself. This article contains sample works from some of the most vibrant subfields of human geography in which GIS is being adopted to increase our knowledge of the human organization of space and human-environment interactions: Urban Geography, Hazards Geography, and Historical Geography. This review also includes sections that summarize key works from Critical GIS, Qualitative GIS, and Public Participation GIS that provide additional vantage points from which to appreciate the multifaceted application of GIS across human geography.

General Overviews

Many scholars have considered the role and development of GIS within human geography. An early and still widely read reflection in this regard is Dobson 1983. A decade later, GIS had been widely adopted within human geography. By this time, some scholars were devoting considerable thought to how GIS was changing knowledge production within the discipline, such as can be found in Pickles 1995 and Brunn, et al. 2004. Although some geographers have been wary of the disciplinary transformations wrought by the digital revolution, Openshaw 1998 welcomes the widespread adoption of GIS as a means by which to intellectually reinvigorate human geography. Svoray 2002 takes stock of the frequency of GIS-based research methods in human geography journals, and Couclelis 2004 extends this research stream by tracing the spread of GIS beyond the discipline of geography and into allied social sciences. Kitchin and Tate 2013 guides students within the subfields human geography on how to use GIS effectively, and similarly Bodenhamer, et al. 2013 encourages the productive diffusion of GIS into the humanities. Theoretical and critical reflections on GIS within the contexts of qualitative research methods are found in Cope and Elwood 2009 and Leszczynski 2009.

  • Bodenhamer, David J., Trevor M. Harris, and John Corrigan. “Deep Mapping and the Spatial Humanities.” International Journal of Humanities and Arts Computing 7.1–2 (2013): 170–175.

    DOI: 10.3366/ijhac.2013.0087

    Explains how humanities scholars, as well as no small number of human geographers, can use GIS and other geospatial technologies to productively leverage the positivist epistemology of GIS to enhance their multilayered spatial narratives without separating them and their works from their intellectual traditions.

  • Brunn, Stanley D., Susan L. Cutter, and J. W. Harrington Jr., eds. Geography and Technology. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer, 2004.

    A general overview of how various emerging technologies have impacted the manner in which geographic knowledge is produced across the discipline. Provides important intellectual history and social contextualization for the introduction and current importance of GIS within human geography.

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

    Edited volume in which the chapters effectively challenge the notion that GIS-based methods of inquiry require a positivist epistemology. To decouple this assumed linkage, the contributing authors address representations, analysis, and theoretical concerns of qualitative GIS-based knowledge production.

  • Couclelis, Helen. “The Third Domain: The Spread and Use of GIS within Social Science.” Cartographica 39.1 (2004): 17–24.

    DOI: 10.3138/G54P-Q267-7148-3Q8P

    Explores how GIS is diffusing from the domains of geographers and other spatial thinkers to other social scientists whose work has relevance for social policy (economists, sociologists, and political scientists, etc.). Studying how the adoption of GIS affects the intellectual practices of other disciplines provides a valuable perspective on how GIS continues to affect those practices within the subfields of human geography.

  • Dobson, Jerome E. “Automated Geography.” The Professional Geographer 35.2 (1983): 135–143.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.0033-0124.1983.00135.x

    Describes the future of computer-based geographic research from the vantage point of the early 1980s. It notes that although this manner of research entails many advantages, a pitfall is that it may not be entirely conducive to geographic problems that are difficult to measure objectively or impinge upon human value systems. In this way, this is a prescient discussion with relevance for contemporary debates on the place of GIS within subfields of human geography.

  • Kitchin, Rob, and Nicholas J. Tate. Conducting Research in Human Geography: Theory, Methodology and Practice. London: Routledge, 2013.

    Designed to guide students through a research project within human geography. Includes solid discussions on the use of a GIS to spatially analyze the typical kinds of data generated in the course of such a project.

  • Leszczynski, Agnieszka. “Quantitative Limits to Qualitative Engagements: GIS, Its Critics, and the Philosophical Divide.” The Professional Geographer 61.3 (2009): 350–363.

    DOI: 10.1080/00330120902932026

    Notes that although epistemological divides within academic geography have been narrowing, critical-theoretic critiques of GIS reveal the existence of a lingering philosophical divide based upon metaphysics and ontology. Reveals fundamental fissures about beliefs concerning how the world operates that go well beyond a simplified quantitative-qualitative dichotomy.

  • Openshaw, S. “Towards a more Computationally Minded Scientific Human Geography.” Environment and Planning A 30 (1998): 317–332.

    DOI: 10.1068/a300317

    A position paper that argues that computational methods, including GIS, can revitalize human geography by inserting a scientific paradigm and goal. These methods, the author notes, would also help to align human geography to advances in information technology and GIS.

  • Pickles, John, ed. Ground Truth: The Social Implications of Geographic Information Systems. New York: Guilford, 1995.

    This edited volume delineates connections between the rise of GIS and the reconstitution of the relations between science and society. Written during the early years of widespread Internet adoption in developed countries, the authors situate GIS as another component in the larger cultural restructuring being wrought by technological innovations. Of continuing relevance in particular are the discussions of GIS as a technology of state surveillance.

  • Svoray, Tal. “The Current Status of GI Approaches in Human Geography: A Review of Mainstream Journals.” Geography Research Forum 22 (2002): 4–21.

    Analyzes the prevalence of GIS methods in nineteen human geography journals between the years 1995 and 2005 to uncover trends in the prevalence of the technology within the subfields of human geography. Although the occurrence of article that employ geographic information approaches is quite low in comparison with physical geography journals, the author hoped this difference will narrow, which has subsequently occurred due to the rise of critical GIS and other unanticipated intellectual developments.

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