Using Geographic Information Systems to Reconceptualize Spatial Relationships and Ecological Context

AJS. 2006 Sep;112(2):567-612. doi: 10.1086/506418?origin=JSTOR-pdf.


In this article, the author demonstrates how geographic information system (GIS) software can be used to reconceptualize spatial relationships and ecological context and address the modifiable areal unit problem. In order to do this, the author uses GIS to (1) test an important category of spatial hypotheses (spatial proximity hypotheses), (2) overcome methodological problems that arise when data sets are not spatially comparable, and (3) measure ecological context. The author introduces a set of GIS variable construction techniques that are designed to accomplish these tasks, illustrates these techniques empirically by using them to test spatial proximity hypotheses drawn from the literature on environmental inequality, and demonstrates that results obtained using these techniques are methodologically superior to and substantively different from results obtained using traditional techniques. Finally, the author demonstrates that these techniques are the product of an alternative conceptualization of physical space that allows sociologists to develop new ways to think about and measure spatial relationships, ecological context, and place-based social inequality and that gives them the ability to reconceptualize spatially based methodological problems that have confronted them for years.