Enhancing Qualitative Social Science with GIS

By Esri Social Science Collaborative (Jennifer Mendez, Diana Lavery, Kyle Jones, Lakeisha Coleman, Lain Graham)

Many people understand the power of GIS for quantitative research, but fewer know of its practical applications for qualitative social science work. In a broad effort led by Esri’s Chief Scientist, Dawn Wright, Ph.D., a number of researchers at Esri  are looking at the many ways qualitative social science can benefit from GIS. While ArcGIS can help with an array of quantitative approaches, it also brings many capabilities to enhance qualitative methodologies to address longstanding issues of social and environmental concern.  This article explores where and how common GIS approaches and common qualitative approaches intersect and provides resources for learning more.

Starting with Data

To begin understanding what GIS can do for qualitative social science, we first define what we mean by qualitative, quantitative and spatial data. Table 1 below provides a brief summary. It’s important to note is that although spatial data is distinct, it can be combined to transform other types of data to become spatialized. That is, both quantitative and qualitative data can be combined with spatial data to associate shape, size, location, and other spatial information. For example, when a researcher collects attitudinal data in several neighborhood planning units, she can associate location information with each survey response. This spatialization of resident feedback would enable her to find additional patterns for analysis and comparison between neighborhoods.

Comparison of the characteristics of qualitative data, quantitative data, and spatial data
Figure 1. Comparison of different data types


Qualitative Data & GIS

Qualitative data can mean different things to GIS professionals and qualitative researchers, and the different perspectives they bring frame how they encounter and work with such data. For many GIS practitioners, qualitative data often come in the form of things like open-text survey responses, ad hoc or unstructured feedback, or user-defined attributes. Additionally, AI tools have been developed that can automatically extract certain kinds of information from documents, images, or video, or that can score sentiment, which can all then be spatialized, if not already. In such contexts, qualitative data are utilized as yet another kind of data source, which must be collected, classified, and extracted so that they can be easily integrated into GIS tools/workflows. Generally, the goal behind this is to create a single “authoritative” view from the data that is used to inform various kinds of action or decisions. As such, the primary concern typically driving how GIS practitioners interact with qualitative data is: “How can I organize, quantify, or make sense of non-numerical data?”

An illustration of the relationships between qualitative data, GIS approaches to research, and qualitative approaches to research
Figure 2. Multiple meanings of qualitative data


However, to people like human geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, or many other researchers, qualitative data means something quite different. From their point of view, such data consists of things like notes and reflections generated through field-based observation, interview recordings and their corresponding transcripts, photos or videos taken by the researcher or participants, or any number of digital or material things relevant to the project at hand.

In other words, unlike the single, authoritative view from the data that a lot of GIS work aims to create, qualitative researchers are often focused on understanding things from multiple perspectives. This means that many qualitative researchers often use participatory data collection methods that empower participants to become research collaborators who can generate data about their lives and better steer research priorities towards local concerns. The underlying question driving how many social researchers encounter qualitative data is generally: “How can I comprehend and convey the lived realities of our participants on their own terms?”

However, seeing the power of both GIS and qualitative data, in recent years researchers and practitioners across GIS, geography, and social science fields continue to seek new ways to understand the importance of space and place and to use new technologies to uncover insights. Additionally, they are also looking for novel ways to visualize and analyze their data, and other ways to tell stories about the relationships between people and places, oftentimes with the aim of communicating to fresh audiences.

Learn More

A variety of resources for learning more are available, including software, data, and training.

The Esri Social Science website provides articles showcasing research and information about events where social scientists can learn from and collaborate with their peers.

Featured Articles is a special section of the AAG Newsletter where AAG sponsors highlight recent programs and activities of significance to geographers and members of the AAG. To sponsor the AAG and submit an article, please contact Julie Ische jische [at] aag [dot] org.

By Esri Social Science Collaborative (Jennifer Mendez, Diana Lavery, Kyle Jones, Lakeisha Coleman, Lain Graham)


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Analyzing Multimedia, Social Media, Other Data and Literature: Using ATLAS.ti for Free or on a Budget

Place-Based Digital Storytelling: A Participatory Visual and Narrative Method

Mapping Mindfully: Community-Based Data Collection and Visualization Through a Trauma-Aware Lens

What is Systematic Literature Review? How Can We Use Them More Beyond Just a Dissertation Chapter?

Producing Knowledge with Film

Best Practices for Qualitative Research on Sensitive Topics

AAG Early Career and Department Leadership Webinar Series Continues in Fall 2021

By Julaiti Nilupaer, Mark Revell, Ken Foote and Shannon O’Lear 

This May marked the culmination of a year-long series of webinars developed by the AAG in partnership with past president Ken Foote (University of Connecticut) and current council member Shannon O’Lear (University of Kansas). The Early Career and Department Leadership webinar series launched in fall 2020 as part of the AAG’s COVID-19 Rapid Response initiatives also represents a broader effort at the AAG to expand year-round programming for members and the wider geography community. Read on for results from this year’s series and news about the series that will kick off this fall.  To access the series, click here for Early Career webinars and here for Department Leadership webinars.

The series has featured two distinct but interconnected themes: (1) building and sustaining strong academic programs and (2) helping students and young geographers navigate their early careers. The department leadership thread has covered a wide range of topics, from the impacts of COVID-19 on the future directions of graduate programs, to questions about rebranding, renaming, merging or blending geography with other programs, to creating inclusive courses and curricula, facilitating respectful workplaces and being a good colleague. Early career-themed webinars have focused on articulating career pathways and helping young geographers build strong professional networks, as well as the value they bring to a diverse range of business, government, and nonprofit sector careers.

Locations of 536 attendees from Spring 2021 webinars. Approximately 84% of them were in the United States.

Over the whole year, the series has so far attracted 2,454 registrations. This spring, 536 live attendees across 23 countries (see Map 1) participated in at least one webinar. AAG survey data found that most audience members were either employed in higher education or were graduate students pursuing master’s degree or PhD; 77 percent of them identified themselves as human geographers. Regarding their overall experience (on a scale of 1-5), 72 percent of audience members rated a 4 or 5 (see Graph 1) and were looking forward to more opportunities to engage with panelists and other audience members. Graph 2 below highlights some of the attendees’ experiences. 

Graph 1. Feedback on attendees’ overall experience for Spring webinars

The AAG thanks those from across the discipline who volunteered to help lead the webinars. Altogether 42 panelists and presenters were involved during the year, including faculty, students, and professionals from a wide range of universities, organizations, and businesses. The organizers benefited greatly from suggestions made by panelists and the audience about topics to address in future webinars. We are sincerely grateful for every attendee who participated regardless of time zones, offered insightful comments, asked thoughtful questions, and provided honest feedback that will make the upcoming events even better. 

Graph 2: Feedback from attendees for Spring webinars.

This Fall, More of a Good Thing 

AAG is pleased to announce the continuation (and expansion) of the Early Career and Department Leadership webinar series through 2022 and beyond. We are excited to find new ways to serve our members. Based largely on audience feedback, here are some ideas we are using to create webinar events that we hope will address the needs and interests of AAG members, from students to department chairs and everyone in between:  

  • More sessions on early career topics: The AAG will continue to provide webinars on careers in geography, including on academic career paths for geography PhDs; strategies for funding, grant writing and publishing; and active pedagogy. 
  • More sessions on department leadership: The AAG will continue next year on topics related to diversity, equity and inclusion; leadership styles and strengths; and supporting non-tenure track faculty. 
  • More career mentoring opportunities: The AAG recognizes the strong need for attendees to receive timely and high-quality mentoring from panelists. Our early career webinars this fall will feature extended time for open discussion and career-oriented mentoring. 
  • More networking space for each session: The AAG will update the webinar format to make it easier for attendees to network with one another virtually. 

An exciting collaboration opportunity this fall will be the AAG Regions Connect meeting in October, a first-ever convening of several AAG Regional Divisions’ fall meetings over a span of a few days, with a climate-forward model for sharing virtual content along with in-person gatherings. The AAG is working with the regional meeting organizers to provide career and professional development sessions during AAG Regions Connect. Registration and details for AAG Regions Connect will follow soon.

To attend a free session, visit the AAG Early Career Webinar series here, and the AAG Department Leadership webinar series here.

DOI: 10.14433/2017.0097

Have a great idea for an Early Career or Department Leadership webinar? We’d like to hear from you. Send your suggestions to Mark Revell, Manager of Career Programs and Disciplinary Research.