GIS: Tool or science? Demystifying the persistent ambiguity of GIS as "tool" versus "science"

Dawn J. Wright, Michael F. Goodchild, James D. Proctor

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

171 Scopus citations


Is GIS a tool or a science? The question is clearly important in the day-to-day operations of geography departments. Departments need to know if GIS is a tool that should be taught at the undergraduate level, or a science and thus a legitimate research specialty of faculty and graduate students. We summarize the debate on this question that was conducted on GIS-L electronic listserver in late 1993. In evaluating this discussion it became clear that GIS could be understood not by the two distinct positions taken by the GIS-L discussants but as three positions along a continuum ranging from tool to science. These positions attach several meanings to "doing GIS." These are (1) GIS as tool, i.e., the use of a particular class of software, associated hardware tools, and digital geographic data in order to advance some specific purpose; (2) GIS as toolmaking, i.e., the advancement of the tool's capabilities and facilities (ease of use); and (3) the science of GIS, i.e., the analysis of the fundamental issues raised by the use of GIS. Recognizing the importance of understanding what is meant by "doing science" as well as what is meant by "doing GIS," we conclude that only one of these positions - "the science of GIS" - is a sufficient condition for science. The "toolmaker" position is rarely able to meet the test of science; and the "GIS is a tool" position involves "doing science" only if it yields progress on some substantive problem. The debate is certainly problematic in light of the variety of perspectives on science and on GIS. The persistence of the issue suggests, however, that the GIS community should continue to work toward a resolution.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)346-362
Number of pages17
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1997
Externally publishedYes


  • GIS-L
  • Geographic information science
  • Geographic thought
  • Nature and philosophy of science
  • Nature of geographic information systems
  • Systems

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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