Thinking geographically

Where ideas come from

I just remembered some important sources of inspiration for the book and wanted to acknowledge them

January 13, 2024


January 23, 2024

Date Changes
2024-04-25 Added GLaD podcast logo and link to episode.
2024-01-14 Corrected some typos, and minor edits for flow.
2024-01-13 Initial post.

I’m due to be on the Geography, Life, and Data (GLaD) podcast and an obvious question I’ve been asked to think about is how I landed on the list of ‘big ideas’ that form the themes for the seven core chapters in the book. Doing so, I recalled an important source of inspiration that has somehow evaded mention in the book itself. One thought leads to another and I also recalled a couple of related notions—phrases as much as anything, although there is more to them than that—which also nudged me in the direction the book eventually took me.

Update: here’s the podcast episode: Computing geographically with David O’Sullivan.

Anyway, I thought since the book is almost upon us (I’m told by Guilford that 12 copies are on their way as I write) that I’d provide some insights on where it came from.

Seeing like a …

James Scott’s Seeing Like a State1 is … well, it’s one of those books the existence of which is an argument for the importance of books. Once read, it can’t be unread. The opening section on modern forestry instantly makes sense and gives the gist of the argument very quickly. It’s certainly possible to disagree with the idea that all attempts at centralisation are doomed to fail2 as they erase local knowledge, flatten out difference missing key details, oversimplify, and land us in all kinds of trouble via unintended consequences. Saying that, it’s hard to think of any scientific or technical advance that hasn’t led us at least some of the way down this well trodden path. It’s hard here not to pick up an echo of Whithead’s “Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” (yup… he capitalised it) which is discussed in the context of process philosophies in my Chapter 8.

But never mind all that: what about that title?! For a long time, I wanted to somehow make the title Seeing Like a Geographer work for my book, and Seeing Geographically was also in the running. Sadly, neither was a good fit for what the book actually became. I did once manage to crowbar the ‘Seeing…’ trope into the title of a graduate seminar, ‘Seeing Geographically’, which as is noted in the preface was an important jumping off point for the book. The subtitle of Scott’s book is also pretty great: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. I wouldn’t go so far as to declare GIS ‘failed’, but I do think that as a platform it works hard to make us see the world in particular ways, and that we would do better to take a step back and allow ourselves to think (and see) geographically using computers in a wider variety of ways.

Which brings me to…

Tools to think with

This one is only a title, and a misremembered one at that. The title of Waddington’s book was Tools for Thought3, which I’ve never actually read, but reading this blog post, I probably should: it sounds great! I also note from its table of contents an early section entitled ‘Things and Processes’ (again, see my Chapter 8).

For present purposes, more important than the content of Waddington’s book is my misremembrance of its title, which lodged in my brain as ‘tools to think with’. That’s a sufficiently generic phrase that I might also have encountered it somewhere else. Anyway… for me it’s how I’ve come to think about computers: as tools to think with. The whole tool/theory/thought thing doesn’t need rehearsing here. It is central to one of the more depressing exchanges about GIS in all of the geography literature,4 which seems in retrospect to have closed down the early 90s rapprochment between ‘GISers’ and geography more widely, as Dawn Wright, Mike Goodchild, and Jim Proctor’s well-intentioned attempt to open up a conversation about GIS as ‘tool or science?’ was treated rather dismissively by John Pickles.5

Anyway, ‘tools to think with’ is central to my argument that the geographical representations we adopt when the computer we turn to is a GIS are limiting and potentially unhelpful. When we ‘do GIS’ we take up those representations unthinkingly, and the computer has already done a a lot of the important thinking for us. So, for example, When we emphasise to students the importance of transforming all the data layers in a project into the same coordinate reference system, we’ve already assumed away many of the most interesting geographical questions we might ask!

What then would it mean to instead think geographically with computers?

From thinking geographically to Computing Geographically

This is where Peter Jackson’s short paper ‘Thinking geographically’6 came in. My bibliographic database tells me I downloaded it in August 2013, which checks out. I was thinking then about what an ‘intro GIS/geospatial’ class ought to look like on a campus (Berkeley) where excellent courses already occupied that space as part of a GIS minor.

I came to two conclusions. First, such a class in 2013 (and a decade on the point is even clearer) should not be about GIS at all, but about web-based ‘geospatial stuff’.7 Second, it seemed to me then—and still does now—that such a course should start from how geographers think about the world, and how those ideas manifest (or perhaps don’t) in geospatial tools. This could provide a basis for more thoughtful approaches to ‘doing GIS’ (see Chapter 9).

From the idea of an intro geospatial course centred around geographical thinking it’s a very short internet search to Jackson’s ‘Thinking geographically’. Crucially (for the course and for the book) he asks

But what concepts and theories would you choose as constituting the heart of our subject, contributing uniquely to our understanding of the world? (page 199)

Jackson’s answer is a lot shorter than mine, but then his paper is 6 pages and the book is 300! The course that I developed ‘Digital Worlds’,8 also covers less ground than the book, although if I were still teaching it, I’d most certainly use the book for readings. For the record, Jackson’s key concepts (three of them pairs) are space and place, scale and connection, proximity and distance, and relational thinking. On reflection, it’s a little odd that ‘distance’ per se didn’t make it into Computing Geographically, but all the others are represented, and of course distance and proximity are implied.

Needless to say, arriving at the final list of concepts covered in the book was an iterative process. Space, place and scale were clearly never not going to make the cut. Some other concepts came and went, depending on how accessible, generalisable, and widely deployed they seem to me to be. The extent to which they have been, or could potentially be engaged in giscience, was also important as a book attempting to ‘bridge’ giscience and geography needs both sides to come to the party for the coverage to be useful and meaningful.

Memory and forgetting

I’m disturbed to realise that I failed to mention ‘Thinking geographically’ anywhere in Computing Geographically. I hope it’s clear there is a whole lot more to my book than a response to Peter Jackson’s well-posed question quoted above. While books emerge in their writing, the writing itself isn’t where they begin. There is a pre-history of thought and ideas before any words are committed to the computer screen. ‘Thinking geographically’, along with Seeing Like a State, and the non-existent Tools to Think With (I’d read that book!), are part of the pre-history of _Computing Geographically, which I am pleased to be able to acknowledge here.

This rather meandering post gives some sense (I hope) of how books happen—at least for me. After all, if the path from the general idea to the finished article was more linear, it wouldn’t be as hard, nor take as long, to write them (see also Rosa, support cat).

© 2023 David O’Sullivan


  1. Scott JC. 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven CT, Yale University Press.↩︎

  2. An entertaining read on the related socialist calculation debate is Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty. See also this.↩︎

  3. Waddington CH. 1977. Tools for Thought: How to Understand and Apply the Latest Scientific Techniques of Problem Solving. New York: Basic Books.↩︎

  4. See (and read in chronological order):

  5. For good or ill the exchange has also bequeathed us the ‘doing GIS’ phrasing, which I found useful in framing aspects of the book, although I dislike the division between ‘doing’ and ‘thinking’ that the phrase often seems to imply.↩︎

  6. Jackson P. 2006. Thinking geographically. Geography 91(3) 199–204.↩︎

  7. For an official endorsement of that technical term, see Goodchild MF. 2015. Four thoughts on the future of GIS. ArcWatch (Feb).↩︎

  8. See↩︎