Annals of the Association of American Geographers (2012) 102(5).
The Uncertain Geographic Context Problem
Any study that examines the effects of area-based attributes on individual behaviors or outcomes faces another
fundamental methodological problem besides the modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP). It is the problem
that results about these effects can be affected by how contextual units or neighborhoods are geographically
delineated and the extent to which these areal units deviate from the true geographic context. The problem
arises because of the spatial uncertainty in the actual areas that exert the contextual influences under study
and the temporal uncertainty in the timing and duration in which individuals experienced these contextual
influences. Using neighborhood effects and environmental health research as a point of departure, this article
clarifies the nature and sources of this problem, which is referred to as the uncertain geographic context problem
(UGCoP). It highlights some of the inferential errors that the UGCoP might cause and discusses some means
for mitigating the problem. It reviews recent studies to show that both contextual variables and research findings
are sensitive to different delineations of contextual units. The article argues that the UGCoP is a problem as
fundamental as the MAUP but is a different kind of problem. Future research needs to pay explicit attention
to its potential confounding effects on research results and to methods for mitigating the problem.
contextual uncertainty, environmental health, neighborhood effects, uncertain geographic context problem, UGCoP.
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