Sample Curriculum

Political Science 3372-1:  Research Methods

Geographic Information Systems, Oct 1-3. 


Geographic Information Systems (GIS) comprise software, spatial data, relational databases, and spatial and statistical techniques to facilitate the visualization and analysis of spatial phenomena.  To be used effectively, they require users to develop an understanding of “spatial” research questions, that is, questions which deal with the location/proximity/distribution/coincidence of quantifiable phenomena. GIS  are of particular use in political science research because of their ability to reveal spatial patterns in voting data and demographic data when combined with physical features and political boundaries. 


The in-class activities and homework assignments this week will address each of the following GIS-related skills and competencies:
  • The ability to read and interpret data-based maps and to critique examples of such using appropriate criteria. 
  • The ability to formulate and articulate a “spatial” research question. 
  • The ability to apply basic and intermediate GIS-based analyses such as: selection by attributes; selection by location; the classification (“chunking”) of data based on statistical principles; the symbolization of classified data using colors/symbols.
  • The discovery, evaluation and appropriate use of spatial data. 
  • The ability to create map layouts that are effectively designed, labeled, and cited. 
  • The ability to interpret spatial analysis results and revise spatial research questions without making unsupported inferences.*
  • The ability to use GIS to generate and output spatial data in the form of calculated values, features, and query results which can then be applied in other statistical analyses. 
  • *Unsupported inferences are often made by committing the ecological fallacy, whereby inferences about the nature of individual cases are based solely upon aggregate statistics collected for the group to which those individual cases belong. (more at

Homework for Monday: 

Watch the tutorial at and complete the tasks below.

Task One: Visit the links below and explore the maps you find there. How does one make meaning from these maps? Begin by asking the basic "who, what, when, where, why" questions rehearsed in the tutorial for each map. Then, choose two of the six maps below, and imagine that you are the map's author. Write down a 2-3 sentence "abstract" for each of the two maps. Your abstract should consider the type of data the maps presents (what are the units involved, what do they measure, and how were those measurements made or obtained?), as well as the way that data is symbolized (how do the values in the dataset get represented in a spatial/geographical context?). Finally, what do the particular data shown seem to indicate? That is, can you write a sentence that states a fact about the data, based on the information provided by the map? Then add a sentence or two addressing what questions the maps raise and leave unanswered. 

Sample Maps: 

Task Two: Choose two maps from the list above: one that represents the 'best' map, in your opinion, and one that represents the 'worst.' Think of the questions you used to evaluate the maps you just wrote abstracts for as you decide how to define 'best' and 'worst.' Do some maps do a better job of answering those questions than others?   For each of the two, write a list of pros and cons for each map that reflect your opinion of these two maps as sources of information, again keeping those evaluative questions in mind. 

Be prepared to share, discuss, and turn in your work: 

1) One document with two maps (copy the map images into the document) with you original abstract for each, as described in Task One above.
2) A second document, also with two map images, with a list of pros and cons provided under each map image, as described in Task Two.

Monday In-Class Activity: 

Working in class within groups (or a single large group), share your chosen map examples and the pros and cons you assigned to it. Keep a single list of all pros and all cons, and then work together to write a list of guidelines from map-makers based on them. This will involve identifying the underlying criteria that inform your list of pros and cons, and then expressing them as design guidelines (dos and don'ts). 

Examine the maps provided by the instructor, and see if they follow your guidelines. When they depart from your list of dos and don'ts, decide whether your design guidelines were appropriate in that case or not, and revise your guidelines accordingly. Save your guidelines as a Google Doc to be used on Wednesday. 

Homework for Wednesday: 

For Wednesday you will be viewing a series of tutorials that will take you through the process of choosing a classification scheme appropriate to your data, to you research question, and to your methodology (actually, in the GIS examples we'll cover, the classification and symbolization of the data *is* the method of analysis--remember that one goal when making maps is to help your audience see the trends in your dataset in the form of colors or symbols on the map itself). In class, we'll use ArcGIS to create maps of voting returns data from the Bexar County Elections Department, focusing primarily on the task of choosing a classification scheme for a color-coded (a.k.a a 'choropleth' map). 

Optional (but highly recommended): View the four brief tutorials on histograms (graphs of frequency distribution, such as the normally-distributed 'bell curve' we discussed in class), measures of central tendency, and data types. . This will be covered to some extent in the tutorials below, but with an expectation of familiarity. Use the tutorials above to re-familiarize yourself with these statistical concepts. 

View each of the videos ( in order, taking notes and marking important moments as you go. Can you articulate the research question this case study deals with? 

Reflect on the case study by writing an outline of the content. Go beyond the title of each part and write 1-2 sentences that state the lesson of each part in your own words. 

Theorize a set of critical thinking steps one should take when designing a map intended to answer a spatial questions by representing trends in a dataset. These steps should be based somewhat on the outline you created above. Write them up in a document and prepare to share in class and turn in. 

Wednesday In-Class Activity: 

Using the instructions (attached--data is included), use ArcGIS Desktop to create two maps of election results for Bexar County, Texas. One map will show turnout as a rate by county; you are to classify the data according to the critical thinking steps you articulated as homework. Write a 1-2 paragraph abstract addressing both the ‘big picture’ and ‘small picture’ questions discussed in Monday's class, taking care to explain the classification scheme and how it assists in the visualization of the trends within the data. You will share your map and abstract with the class briefly at the end of the session. 

Final Homework: 

To complete our segment on GIS, please complete the following assignment:

Watch the tutorials on using ArcMap to symbolize and classify data. Video 1 Video 2

Watch the tutorial on how to generate a map layout (including title, legend, scale, North arrow, etc.) and export as an image file. Video

Use the .shp file you created in class on Wednesday  to create symbolized maps of Bexar Co. 2008 election returns by precinct. Address the following topic: What can be said about the possible spatial correlation between turnout rates and the share of the vote for one (your choice) of the two major-party candidates received?

Your final product will be a map (or two maps, if you choose not to symbolize both variables on the same map) and a single abstract. Follow the instructions in the tutorials to export your map layouts as image files, which you can then insert into a Word document. Your maps/abstract, when taken as a whole, must:

  • conform to the Do's and Don'ts identified by you and your classmates; 
  • conform to your own criteria for map making excellence;
  • present a symbolization/classification of the underlying data that allows your map's audience to determine for themselves what can be learned from the data (that is, is there a frequency trend within the data for one or both variables? Is there a spatial trend or pattern for either variable? Lastly, if trends are present, do they seem to coincide geographically?);
  • State what questions you feel the map answers well (and why/how your map design answers them), and what ambiguities the map(s) presents (i.e., what conclusions you feel would be *unsupported* by the maps);
Finally, open the original list of Do's and Don'ts you collectively created, and copy and paste them as an appendix to your maps/abstract. Then MODIFY them to reflect the choices you made as you finalized your maps and abstract with this prompt in mind. 

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