A conceptual investigation of the ontological commensurability of spatial data infrastructures among different cultures

Earth Science Informatics 2 (4):283-297 (2009)
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Humans think and communicate in very flexible and schematic ways, and a Spatial Data Infrastructure (SDI) for the Amazon and associated information system ontologies should reflect this flexibility and the adaptive nature of human cognition in order to achieve semantic interoperability. In this paper I offer a conceptual investigation of SDI and explore the nature of cultural schemas as expressions of indigenous ontologies and the challenges of semantic interoperability across cultures. Cultural schemas are, in essence, our ontologies, but they are markedly different than classical formal ontologies. They shape our ontological commitments to what exists in the world as well as the ways in which we approach and engage the world. And while they help structure our understanding of the world in which we are embedded, they are associative and flexible. They help to focus our attention to particular details of our experiences and give them salience, yet they cannot be simply reduced to a series of extracted features. They allow us to make meaning of the contextualized, cultural experience in which we are always immersed. An SDI is a shared social-technological-informational structure that, if it is to be useful and successful for sustainability in the Amazon, must incorporate and use indigenous cultural schemas. Indigenous communities must have the ability to contribute to the collection of geospatial data and their contributions recognized as legitimate forms of knowledge. In order for the SDI to work, it must recognize the larger cultural landscape to which cultural schemas can connect to the ready-to-hand elements of salient cultural experiences.

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David J. Saab
Pennsylvania State University


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