Ontology and Geographic Objects:
An Empirical Study of Cognitive Categorization

David M. Mark
Department of Geography, NCGIA and Center for Cognitive Science, University at Buffalo. Email: dmark@geog.buffalo.edu

Barry Smith
Department of Philosophy, NCGIA and Center for Cognitive Science, University at Buffalo. Email: hismith@acsu.buffalo.edu

Barbara Tversky
Department of Psychology, Stanford University. Email: bt@psych.stanford.edu

from: C. Freksa and David M. Mark, eds.,
Spatial Information Theory. Cognitive and Computational Foundations of Geographic Information Science
(Springer Lecture Notes in Computer Science 1661), 1999, 283–298

Abstract: Cognitive categories in the geographic realm appear to manifest certain special features as contrasted with categories for objects at surveyable scales. We have argued that these features reflect specific ontological characteristics of geographic objects. This paper presents hypotheses as to the nature of the features mentioned, reviews previous empirical work on geographic categories, and presents the results of pilot experiments that used English-speaking subjects to test our hypotheses. Our experiments show geographic categories to be similar to their non-geographic counterparts in the ways in which they generate instances of different relative frequencies at different levels. Other tests, however, provide preliminary evidence for the existence of important differences in subjects’ categorizations of geographic and non-geographic objects, and suggest further experimental work especially with regard to the role in cognitive categorization of different types of object-boundaries at different scales.

KEYWORDS: Geographic ontologies, geographic categories, prototypes, spatial cognition, mereotopology, human-subjects testing, geographic information systems, GIS.

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