Geography Critical GIS
Francis Harvey
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0247


Critical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) is an academic term in use for at least twenty-five years. In that quarter of a century, academics have used it in multiple ways, which are not always consistent with a particular meaning of ‘critical.’ The uses can even contradict each other. “Critical GIS” has designated positions at that time in opposition to perceived mainstream GIS developments. Early in this period, critical GIS referred to a constructivist epistemological approach. Maps do not depict reality, not even partially. Instead, maps help produce (construct) reality. This constructivist concept still lies at the core of critical GIS, but associations are less clear as the term has become disciplinarily aligned with academic geography. Critical GIS, especially the ‘critical part’ of the term, also has become ambiguous and loaded with many associated meanings and disciplinary tensions that come from a multitude of ways people evoke it and relate it to their concepts, research, politics, and work. In a very general sense, ‘critical’ often means scientific work that is mindful to avoid assumptions, avoids ideological positions, and reflects on conclusions and procedures. This breadth of meaning leads to the myriad pragmatically motivated uses of the term that have led it to become hackneyed and prone to rhetorical overuse that intensifies critical GIS ambivalence and even leads to mistrust. However, ‘Critical GIS’ also remains an evocation of scientific strength arising from an evocation of reflexivity and diversity in scientific activities. For any intellect shaped or guided by tenets of modernism, these crucial aspects of ‘critical’ require stepping outside the constraints of academic disciplines to evoke alternate perspectives and reconsider assumptions and assertions. In this sense of the word ‘critical,’ the multiple and even conflicting interpretations of the term point to a continued intellectual vibrancy regarding geographic information. In this light, the organization of this bibliography follows disciplinary and scientific characteristics and organizes them around temporal periods, epistemological issues, and pragmatic impulses from outside the academic discipline. This article aims to provide a first overview of critical GIS in geography and related fields. Critical GIS shares important developments with critical cartography, which continues. The article traces critical GIS from its origins, its relationship to GIS and society work, its disciplinary integration, and its role in framing aspects of neogeography, which refers data-oriented approaches to geographical research.


Despite the proliferation of GIS textbooks in the last twenty-five years, the only GIS textbook that many would associate with critical GIS is the introductory text Schuurman 2004. Schuurman’s book covers processes and ways to integrate geographic information for modeling in a critical framework and accessible entry to its historical roots in cartography and computer science. It provides a good overview of different perspectives on GIS and positions them for valuable reflection. Harvey 2015 also uses a more critical framework and has several chapters covering topics from critical GIS. Its framework relies on a broader framework that builds on prior critiques of cartography to develop an informational approach to geographic information and representation from cartography, remote science, information systems, and other cognate fields. Most other textbooks include some critical GIS themes. Dorling and Fairbairn 1997 exemplifies the importance of critical GIS in the pragmatic reflections that drive improvements and can lead to fundamental reassessments of approaches and concepts. Crampton 2010 contributes important arguments that mark the transition from analog map-based critiques of cartography to digital data-based critical work with an emphasis on geopolitical concerns.

  • Crampton, Jeremy W. Mapping: A Critical Introduction to Cartography and GIS. Chichester, UK and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

    A very important contribution to “critical cartography” that provides relevant reconsiderations to guide the reader pursuing more detailed engagements with critical GIS.

  • Dorling, Daniel, and David Fairbairn. Mapping: Ways of Representing the World. Edinburgh Gate, Harlow, UK: Addison Wesley Longman, 1997.

    A very insightful book critically assessing many developments on the cusp of transformations from traditional cartography to GIS in the 1990s.

  • Harvey, Francis. A Primer of GIS. New York: Guilford, 2015.

    Beginning with a review of concepts to critically understand how geographic information is very distinct from maps and to support a range of analysis that requires critical engagement with GIS concepts.

  • Schuurman, Nadine. GIS: A Short Introduction. New York: Blackwell, 2004.

    The best known and for some time widely used critical GIS textbook. Its conceptual overview is very accessible and useful for its pragmatic, yet critical, framing of how to approach using GIS.

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