The Visualisation of Spatial Social Structure: Reflections on Critical Methods

‘(How) do we understand Capitalism? Reflections on critical methods’ was the title of a workshop on critical methods at the University of Manchester (September 13-14th). As the announcement of the workshop states, ‘there is no consensus on what critical social science is, exactly. Largely it is defined as not orthodox economics or positivist social science‘. It continues that:

Using methods as a framework for critical analysis allow us to consider how we understand capitalism an alternative way of differentiating between forms of critical inquiry. Methods can be approached as a tool box: a series of techniques that reveal capitalism. In this case, capitalism is explored and understood using different tools of analysis that demonstrate how it emerged historically, how it changes over time, creates periods of stability and how it impacts people’s lives. Methods are also a way to format the world that make realities appear or disappear. In this case capitalism is performative, it is always engaged in experiment, a perpetually unfinished project; therefore, it is a highly adaptive and constantly mutating formation.
In short, methods are not neutral tools of analysis; they (re)create a particular view of capitalism.

Geography strikes back says Robert D. Kaplan (author of the book The Revenge of Geography) in the Wall Street Journal, making a point about the relevance of space and place in today’s world: ‘But before geography can be overcome, it must be respected‘. Understanding the geographic relevance – as the Kaplan put it in a political sense – is one component in the understanding of conflicts, be they political or economical (and beyond). Spatial data analysis and geovisualisation are part of the method spectrum that can help to (re)create views of capitalism and reveal the realities and the impact of political and economic structures.
The Visualisation of Spatial Social StructureI was invited to present some thoughts and reflections on the relevance of geospatial data visualisation at the workshop, which I put under the headline ‘The Visualisation of Spatial Social Structure’. This is the title of the PhD thesis of Danny Dorling, written over 20 years ago (recently published in a revised and updated edition). The contents of the book have not lost any of their relevance, as especially social sciences appear to have developed an anxiety of using meaningful visualisations to support their arguments (but often use ‘meaningful’ photographs instead – or complex-looking charts and diagrams to underline the relevance of the research). Technology and techniques, however, have moved on a little bit in those 20 year, so I did not present any of the contents of the book, but what has become possible since then (and partly due to Danny’s work). Outside social sciences academia appears to embrace the power of visualisation much more, not only for making data and information more comprehensible, but also for analytical purposes (as shown e.g. in the Atlas of Science by Katy Börner). After looking at the broader use of visualisation, I presented the methods that I have been working on, and how they stand in a context of ‘distorted’ views of reality. Maps are not the ultimate solution for understanding every single aspect of spatial data, but they can be very valuable as one additional tool in the box of methods that stands at the end of an analysis of data. Social sciences, and even more so the social side of geographic sciences should rethink the power of maps and visualisation. Sometimes a map can be worth a thousand words and help us to see and understand the world differently. These are the slides of my talk (unfortunately the animated elements on some of the slides do not work in Slideshare):
In 2009 I gave a presentation on the visualisation of a world in crisis where I looked at the ways how the then still quite early days of the world financial crisis are seen through the lens of visualisation (see more details and slides here). Many of the graphics that I used back then were taken from outside the world of social – or even economic – sciences. Not a lot has changed since then (neither in the crisis itself nor in the way how graphical representations are used within the core disciplines that try to make sense of it). The questions therefore remains: (How) do we understand capitalism? We probably don’t…

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