Ryan  Burns, phd
April 9, 2012

Short position statement on gender and the geoweb

Note: although this post sounds like it’s scolding people, i intend it more as a provocation.

I’ve participated in a few conversations recently about “gender and the geoweb”. Since these conversations took place either on social media (FB & Twitter) or over pitchers of beer, I haven’t quite managed to make a full-on argument about 1) what I think this phrase means, 2) why it’s important to consider, 3) how I think gender can be a useful analytic through which to explore the geoweb, and 4) how an emphasis on gender can move us beyond pure description within geoweb studies. Here I want to briefly flesh out these ideas.

Before that, though, I should note that these conversations were prompted by a series of popular press articles, including this really terrible Economist piece, this piece on the rise of ‘brogrammer’, and these two pieces on the “Girls around Me” app. I am also writing in part to encourage the further the exploration of the “gender and geoweb” kind of stuff.

I want to start by clarifying what I mean when I say “gender and the geoweb”, because I feel many of us are talking past each other on this point. When I talk about gender and the geoweb I am working from the assumption well-documented by now that there is a large discrepancy between men and women in their geoweb data production. However, before going any further, it’s worth troubling this very distinction on which most conversations rely. Borrowing from Judith Butler and much other feminist and post-structuralist work, men and women as a priori categories must be produced - they are ontologically unstable and thus any talk of them is a political act. Rather than take for granted these categories of “man” and “woman”, I am constantly thinking about how these categories are (re)produced in the geoweb. For instance, if we conduct a survey to see who produces data in the geoweb, we force this distinction on our research subjects by offering a “Man”-“Woman”-“Other” choice (this produces gender in our epistemological approach to studying the geoweb, but also in the ways that we use this category to analyze the data itself). Thus, “gender and the geoweb” for me does not only result in questions such as “do men or women produce more data in the geoweb?” Instead, “how do we come to understand gender in relation to the geoweb?”

Even if we take these categories for granted, the interesting questions emerge precisely at the point where most people leave off. OK, so we know that men use the geoweb more than women. What does this mean for the types of knowledges considered legitimate? What type of knowledge is represented, and how does this influence the ways we think of mappable information? Not taking the categories for granted, how are the (re)produced genders commodified in the geoweb (thinking back to the “Girls around Me” app)? Or, how are multiple gender identities promoted or suppressed in particular instances of the geoweb? Nobody, as far as I know, is addressing these questions.

Repeating myself for emphasis, it’s time for geoweb studies to move beyond descriptions of “who does what where”, and engaging with gender-geoweb relations is one way of doing this.

I want to be very clear here that I’m troubled by the ways discrepancies in VGI producers (i.e., “men” vs. “women”) is often conceptualized as a “woman problem”. The question often assumed by our conversations is “why aren’t women producing as much data as men?”. This is a serious error that reproduces masculinist research. Instead of posing the discrepancy as a woman problem, we should ask questions like “why is the geoweb not amenable to multiple forms of knowledge?” and “how can we make the geoweb more amenable to multiple ways of knowing?”. Alternatively, “how did the geoweb become a space in which singular ways of knowing and representing the world are assumed?”

Lastly, I want to acknowledge that in discussions of gender and the geoweb, “gender” is often equated with “women”. The woman here becomes the category of difference against the “normal” man. In other words, the only time “women” are mentioned explicitly is when “gender” is being discussed, implying that all “ordinary”/”normal” knowledge is masculine. In a way this is quite a useful analytic: by acknowledging an absence, we uncover the situatedness of all previously-existing knowledge. On the other hand, we need to emphasize that this is a suppression of multiple knowledges, and that these other knowledges are not “alternative”, or “subjective”, but every bit as legitimate, reasonable, and objective as other ways of knowing the world.

I’ve lost track whether or not I’ve addressed all the questions raised in the first paragraph, but eh, whatever… you get the point :)

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