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Social Power and GIS Technology: A Review and Assessment of Approaches for Natural Resource Management

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Geographic information system (GIS) technology fundamentally changes how information is viewed, literally, for its maps and databases contain uncertainty, assumptions, privileged knowledge, and story-making power, along with unintended social consequences. This article hypothesizes that the introduction of GIS into the public participation process in natural resource management blurs the boundaries between science and nonscience, requiring a revision of the way we think about, learn from, and use maps for environmental decision-making. This may lend a degree of “social power” to nonscientists in the form of providing improved access to data and maps, and along with it the resulting expression of community needs, priorities, and goals, with perhaps the “power” to influence policy and management decisions. A case study from western Oregon forest management provides context and practical examples. We consider, through a broad conceptual discussion, how GIS technology might contribute to, or detract from, confrontational environmental policy discussions, in particular the process of designing and structuring decision problems. In natural resource management this has tended to be a largely science-driven exercise at the expense of input from nonscientific stakeholders. Our case study findings suggest that using GIS can, with time, open the door to making environmental assessments more collaborative, story-making processes, with implications for natural resource management of many kinds. Although epistemological and power differences between scientists and lay audiences remain, they can be offset through various kinds of collaboration. Such efforts could contribute to a new phase in technology diffusion that we call development of faith.

Keywords: GIS and society; environmental thought; natural resource management; privileged knowledge; public participation; social power

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University, 2: Institute for Natural Resources, Oregon State University, 3: Department of Sociology, Oregon State University,

Publication date: April 1, 2009


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