A couple of weeks ago, I gave a keynote address at the Economic and Social Research Council’s Research Methods Festival, organised by the National Centre for Research Methods. My keynote was filmed and will be online in a few weeks, I gather.
I heard some great sessions, though it wasn’t a proper festival (apart from the rain and the mud, as one of the organisers pointed out). Not a lot of carnivalesque activity, sadly. But a lot of interest, in several of the sessions, in making social science fun, and in the creation of social-scientific knowledge as play. And intriguingly for me, a lot of that ‘play’ seemed to involve data visualisation.
Now, data visualisation is one of those research techniques that on the face of it should be included in the field of ‘visual research methods’ as it’s emerging through its handbooks and reviews and special issues. Oddly, though, it rarely puts in an appearance. But at the Methods Festival there were several papers about it, of different kinds, and several were, well, fun. The most fun was probably generated by Andy Hudson-Smith from UCL’s Digital Urban lab, whose party trick was a landscape – a rocky island surrounded by sea – created from the distribution of geotagged tweets made in London. Apart from showing you where people tweeted – or at least where people who had allowed their tweets to be geotagged tweeted from – its analytical use wasn’t particularly obvious. But its attractiveness was very evident.
And a paper from Roger Burrows (forthcoming in Theory, Culture and Society in the autumn, apparently), suggested that such visual lusciousness was an important means by which sociology might become re-enchanted, and re-effective. As more and more data becomes available, and more and more individuals and organisations start to play (around) with it, Burrows (with Mike Savage) has previously argued that sociology as an academic discipline is being increasingly outmanoeuvred by the data analysis of large corporations: hence the need to make it more effective. At the Festival, he argued that making beautiful and fun images is an important means of achieving that end, and will therefore be an increasingly central part of social science knowledge-making.
So that’s definitely a new chapter for the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies, then.