Geographic visualization in social sciences: Draw more maps!

Wordle Data Visualisation
Geographic visualization in social sciences – or draw more maps!
‘It is important to change perspectives so that different methods are seen to be complementary, emphasizing the additive rather than divisive attributes of quantitative methods, qualitative methods and visualization (mainly GIS and cartography)’ (ESRC 2013: 16). This quote, taken from a recent report on the state of human geography in the UK by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), highlights the importance of visualization not only in (human) geography, but social sciences in general.
Geography and cartography are closely intertwined. Popular notions of geography often consist of images of a map, perhaps a mental map of a place or of the world, of cities, rivers, mountains and continents. This popular view of geography may be irritating to the academic who feels that the discipline consists of much more depth, breadth and maturity than the pictures that maps are sometimes disregarded as. But this somewhat childish view of geography must not be dismissed. Images of maps stick with us because they are such powerful and effective methods of communication and of conceiving of space. Map-reading skills are developed by most of us in our childhood and become our understanding of space. Using maps is therefore a chance to change people’s understandings of our world.
It is interesting to consider how far the discipline of human geography appears to have distanced itself from maps over recent times, resulting almost in a form of cartophobia. Several papers over the last years showed a decline in map use and mapping practices in high-profile geographic journals. Cartographic skills as a natural expertise of a geographer seems to have vanished in many places, as have the theoretical and practical elements of geographic data visualization. Do many geographers ‘prefer to write theory rather than employ critical visualizations’, as Perkins (2004: 385) notes?
The views of our world have changed considerably since the 1970s, and perhaps also the availability of new perspectives over the internet has helped to challenge the perspectives that we have been exposed to in our childhood days or that we simply just became accustomed to. But, nevertheless, if geographers deploy cartographic visualization at all, many still rely very often on conventional cartography (and sometimes do so in rather bad practice that does not take theoretical notions of visualization into account). Especially in human geography, this is not always useful for understanding the complexity of the world and requires new and unconventional approaches to turn the diversity of research outcomes into meaningful representations. Here geovisualization turns from being a simple tool into a field of research in itself.
Social scientists must rediscover maps and other forms of geographic data visualization if they want to change perspectives. This is not only a challenge of finding suitable methods of visualizing results, but starts with the research question and with the way in which and what kind of data are gathered to answer the research questions. Part of visualization are new methods of data analysis and geospatial data visualization can as such become part of the process of investigating patterns and trends in complex data. Making maps is not as profane as it often sounds. Geographic data visualization is a way to communicate complex academic thinking, but also enables us to find new ways to understand the complex and diverse nature of geography and critically question the practices that we have become accustomed to.
Turner (2006: 2) states that ‘Cartography enabled and recorded exploration and discovery for ages.’ Modern cartographic methods go beyond drawing traditional maps, helping us to find patterns in ever growing amounts of data and developing new concepts of displaying findings: these are the characteristics of the new exploration of the world (Hennig 2013). The conclusion, therefore, can only be this: Draw more maps!


This text is from a contribution I made for the following book (pp 274-275) by colleagues from Sheffield and Oxford that has recently been published:
Hammett, D., Twyman, C. and Graham, M. (2015): Research and Fieldwork in Development. Abingdon / New York (Routledge).

Some more context on the issue can be found in slides from a talk I held a while ago speaking about visualisation in social sciences for which I put online at Slideshare (unfortunately without the animated bits in it which don’t work in this slideshow, but which are all at some place somewhere on my blog :):

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