Mapping practice: on the contingent politics of geographical information systems in UN peace operations
Loughlan, Victoria Elisabeth Elvira
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This thesis investigates the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) mapping in UN Peace Operations. On the one hand, GIS use has been assumed to increase the efficiency and coordination of multi-dimensional peace missions. On the other, the Western universalist epistemology underlying GIS is thought to render its application, particularly in non-Western contexts neo-colonialist. These two framings of GIS as either inherently scientifically progressive or politically oppressive are over-deterministic. I argue that the politics of GIS use is contingent upon the ways in which understandings of the map are negotiated in practice. As an ethnographic study of three UN GIS mapping sites (a field mission in Timor-Leste, the Cartographic Section at the UN headquarters, and the GIS Center at the UN Logistics Base), drawing on interviews with practitioners, the thesis gives an account of a) the role of GIS in the field mission, b) GIS practitioners’ management of the technology and their everyday interaction with their clients, and c) its organization within the United Nations. In the thesis I conceptualize an epistemological fault between the professional communities of mappers and their clients which organizes GIS use. This fault separates those who understand the map as political abstract model from those who see it as a mere image of the world. As a consequence, it also separates those who understand mapping as a political practice from those who see it as mere matter of logistics. The meaning and organization of GIS use is thus contingent upon how these different understandings are contested or affirmed in the interaction between mappers and clients. Overall, this thesis emphasizes the role of understanding technology, space and logistics in the context of the politics of Peace Operations.