Annals of GIS (2012) 18(4).

How GIS Can Help Address the Uncertain Geographic Context Problem in Social Science Research?

Mei-Po Kwan

Abstract: The uncertain geographic context problem (UGCoP), first articulated by Kwan (2012), refers to the problem that findings about the effects of area-based contextual variables on individual behaviors or outcomes may be affected by how contextual units (e.g., neighborhoods) are geographically delineated and the extent to which these areal units deviate from the true geographic context. It is a significant methodological problem because it means that analytical results can differ for different delineations of contextual units even if everything else is the same. Drawing upon Kwan (2012) and recent social science studies (especially environmental health and neighborhood effects research), this article further elaborates on the nature of the UGCoP and explores how recent advances in GIS and geospatial technologies can help address the problem. It discusses possible means for mitigating the UGCoP, especially with regard to the collection of detailed individual space-time data with GPS, construction of individual activity spaces, and the use of qualitative and web-based GIS to capture people's activity locations and everyday experiences. It also discusses the challenges for future research that seeks to address the UGCoP.

Key Words: geographic context, UGCoP, environmental health, neighborhood effects, the uncertain geographic context problem.

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