Geographical categories: an ontological investigation

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This paper reports the results of a series of experiments designed to establish how non-expert subjects conceptualize geospatial phenomena. Subjects were asked to give examples of geographical categories in response to a series of differently phrased elicitations. The results yield an ontology of geographical categories-a catalogue of the prime geospatial concepts and categories shared in common by human subjects independently of their exposure to scientific geography. When combined with nouns such as feature and object, the adjective geographic elicited almost exclusively elements of the physical environment of geographical scale or size, such as mountain, lake, and river. The phrase things that could be portrayed on a map, on the other hand, produced many geographical scale artefacts (roads, cities, etc.) and fiat objects (states, countries, etc.), as well as some physical feature types. These data reveal considerable mismatch as between the meanings assigned to the terms 'geography' and 'geographic' by scientific geographers and by ordinary subjects, so that scientific geographers are not in fact studying geographical phenomena as such phenomena are conceptualized by na ve subjects. The data suggest, rather, a special role in determining the subject-matter of scientific geography for the concept of what can be portrayed on a map. This work has implications for work on usability and interoperability in geographical information science, and it throws light also on subtle and hitherto unexplored ways in which ontological terms such as 'object', 'entity', and 'feature' interact with geographical concepts.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: October 1, 2001

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