GIS for Social Transformation: An Interview with Marianna Pavlovskaya, PhD
by Bradley Gardener, PhD
On Wednesday November 15, Marianna Pavlovskaya, PhD, will give the keynote address titled “GIS for Social Transformation” at Temple University’s GIS Day celebration. Dr. Pavlovskaya, a professor of geography at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center, conducts research on urban geography, feminist geography, and critical GIS (Geographic Information Science). We asked Dr. Pavlovskaya to discuss feminist GIS and to share her insights as a teacher, scholar, immigrant, and mentor.
You are both a teacher and a scholar. When novice students ask you what GIS is, what do you tell them?
Geographic Information Systems [GIS] is a great set of technological tools for mapping and analysis of spatial information. But it is more than a set of tools, it is a social practice for production of knowledge. It is a socially constructed technology because it is imbued with social power and produces social power. It involves people who use it and it matters how they represent places and other people and to what end. In other words, its role is not limited to specific analyses of spatial information. GIS is inseparable from [the] social contexts it uncovers and produces at the same time.
Your research has been affected by feminist scholarship from a wide range of disciplines. How has this scholarship influenced the way you use GIS? For audiences who are unfamiliar with GIS, can you explain how a GIS practice can be feminist?
Feminist scholarship is socially transformative because it aims at eliminating patriarchy as a major social relation that structures social experience to the disadvantage of women. It has affected GIS practice in several ways. First, it reoriented the technology from representing generalized spatial patterns to the analysis of space as structured according to dimensions of social difference. Feminist GIS scholars called for analyzing experiences of women as distinct from those of men, because economic, social, urban, and other spaces remain highly gendered. This is an important empirical point that has been ignored by non-feminist scholarship. In the same vein, feminist geographers and GIS scholars call for the analysis of other social forces that produce inequality in order to change their effects. These include race and class, ethnicity, sexuality and gender identity — as well as national and political power that all operate in concert at many scales.
Feminist GIS is about changing how all of us do research, it is about making all research that uses geospatial technology epistemologically open to issues of power, inclusion and exclusion, and social justice.
Second, feminist GIS calls for the analysis of the phenomena that traditional GIS would exclude because those are not reflected in metrics and data that we have. For example, informal and unpaid work in households and elsewhere, emotion and affect as forces that shape place, lives of minority and indigenous groups – all these and many other processes are either not measured at all or hard to quantify and categorize. It is a challenge, then, to represent them by GIS spatial models that involve pixels, points, lines, polygons and their attributes. Yet these unmeasured and not accounted for social experiences are crucial for understanding how our societies work. While it is women’s experiences that have been commonly excluded, this effort pertains to all social practices that matter but are invisible in geospatial and other data.
Third, feminist GIS calls for attention to how access to geospatial technologies, as well as their very production and development, is affected by social relations of gender as well as other dimensions of difference. It matters who does GIS, who shapes the vision of the technology, and who codes its functionality.
Finally, feminist attention to difference and power is not reserved for women researchers. Feminist GIS is about changing how all of us do research, it is about making all research that uses geospatial technology epistemologically open to issues of power, inclusion and exclusion, and social justice.
My own research made a large effort to represent through “mapping for difference” those excluded social domains. As an example, I theorize Russian transition in the 1990s and its consequences today as a transformation of multiple economies at different scales instead of a singular macro-scale move from state socialism to capitalism. Using the scale of households, I showed that the amount of unpaid and informal work that is invisible to macro-economic indicators in Moscow has only increased as a result of this transformation because privatization failed to create new employment opportunities and services lacking under socialism while the dismantling of the large welfare provisioning system (free healthcare, education, childcare, pension system, etc …) has continued. Because work is gendered, women were pushed out of the labor market and had to do even more unpaid work within their households than under socialism My current work with colleagues from other universities on solidarity economy in the United States aims to make visible the widely spread non-capitalist economies and examine their potential for making the economy more equal and inclusive.
You have lived in Russia, Massachusetts, and the New York metropolitan area. Your research has an international focus. Briefly, how has your experience as an international migrant affected your research?
It is an interesting question, because it took a long time for me to realize that I am living and working in the United States more than elsewhere. When I came to do my PhD at Clark University in 1990, I had no idea that it would work this way. That was the first time I traveled abroad and only because perestroika made it possible. Coming to Clark introduced me to feminism; Marxism as a critique of capitalism as opposed to Soviet state ideology; critical race theory; post-structuralism; and, of course – GIS! Together, coming to Clark was transformative epistemologically and placed me within critical human geography and critical GIS. I also came to understand the power of knowledge and its transformative potential for the society at large.
I feel the squeeze of the global and the intimate all the time; transnationalism and related issues of belonging, migration, citizenship make a lot of sense to me.
Yet, I still do not think of myself as fully rooted in one place. My research is both on the US and Russia, my family is stretched across national borders and so is my professional life. I feel the squeeze of the global and the intimate all the time; transnationalism and related issues of belonging, migration, citizenship make a lot of sense to me. It is both exciting and deeply challenging. As a result of these complex connections to knowledge and place, my research projects in Russia and the US address issues of class, gender, race, work and migration. They also focus on identifying the potentially transformative social practices that I call “economies of cooperation” in Russia and the “solidarity economy” in the United States.
What are mixed methods in social sciences? Why are they important to understanding what GIS is and how it can be used?
Mixed methods have evolved considerably in the last ten to 15 years. At the level of methods themselves, they involve a combination of quantitative, qualitative, and spatial techniques of analysis and representation. But more broadly, the concept addresses the epistemological problem of understanding the social experience without excluding those dimensions that cannot be seen through the lens of one particular method. GIS, for example, has been firmly associated with the quantitative geographic tradition, although it can —and even more so now — visualize and map qualitative phenomena. Also, spatial analysis (various forms of overlay, querying, buffering) often has little mathematical content per se, but reveals spatial patterns in powerful ways. It can complement well qualitative and quantitative research techniques. GIS, I believe, is truly a mixed methods tool.
In recent history, GIS use has been growing quickly both inside and outside of the academy. As a final word, is there something you want to tell future practitioners? Given your years of GIS expertise, is there a jewel of wisdom you can pass onto us?
Yes, absolutely learn GIS and practice GIS and other geospatial technologies. But learn about their relation to social power. Then use it with feminist sensibility and towards emancipatory goals. There is no more urgent time than now to harness its analytical and representational power to this end.