The Uncertain Geographic Context Problem

Mei Po Kwan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Any study that examines the effects of area-based attributes on individual behaviors or outcomes faces another fundamental methodological problem besides the modifiable areal unit problem (MAUP). It is the problem that results about these effects can be affected by how contextual units or neighborhoods are geographically delineated and the extent to which these areal units deviate from the true geographic context. The problem arises because of the spatial uncertainty in the actual areas that exert the contextual influences under study and the temporal uncertainty in the timing and duration in which individuals experienced these contextual influences. Using neighborhood effects and environmental health research as a point of departure, this article clarifies the nature and sources of this problem, which is referred to as the uncertain geographic context problem (UGCoP). It highlights some of the inferential errors that the UGCoP might cause and discusses some means for mitigating the problem. It reviews recent studies to show that both contextual variables and research findings are sensitive to different delineations of contextual units. The article argues that the UGCoP is a problem as fundamental as the MAUP but is a different kind of problem. Future research needs to pay explicit attention to its potential confounding effects on research results and to methods for mitigating the problem.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)958-968
Number of pages11
JournalAnnals of the Association of American Geographers
Issue number5
StatePublished - Sep 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • UGCoP
  • contextual uncertainty
  • environmental health
  • neighborhood effects
  • uncertain geographic context problem

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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