David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Visualization & Scholarship

Of this week’s readings, I found Martyn Jessop’s “Digital Visualization as a Scholarly Activity” [PDF] particularly interesting, as it got me thinking about other class discussions we’ve had about the nature of scholarship, and particularly what counts as scholarship.

This article discusses visualization as scholarship. Similar to Jo Guldi‘s argument that spatialization has a long history in the humanities, Jessop argues that digital visualization is an extension of older forms of scholarly activity, not a radical, new thing. Importantly, he differentiates visualization from illustration:

an illustration is intended merely to support a rhetorical device (usually textual) whereas a visualization is intended either to be the primary rhetorical device or serve as an alternative but parallel (rather than subordinate) rhetorical device (283).

In other words, a visualization is the end in itself, the product, not just a means to an end, a part of a final product.

As I read through this article, I wondered about a visualization as a scholarly product containing an argument. Let’s use an example that Jessop cites (285), one that has continually come up (perhaps because it’s so dang neat and it tells us so much) through the semester: Charles Minard’s graphical representation of Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, detailing the losses the Grande Armée suffered as it advanced and retreated. It certainly tells us a lot of information, in a powerful way–much more powerfully than pages of text could.

Minard's illustration of Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia

However, what is its argument? That the Grande Armée lost most of its force? That it must have really sucked to be a French soldier during that invasion?

Similarly, looking at Shaping the West from Stanford’s Spatial History Project, I have the same question. The visualizations the project offers all illustrate key points, in a more impactful way than a text could. These, like other visualizations, are products of both analysis and synthesis of primary sources. But do they contain arguments in themselves, or are arguments derived from analyzing the visualizations? The arguments derived from these visualizations are still conveyed textually. White himself discusses spatialization as a tool to reach new conclusions.

Going back to Jessop’s distinction of illustration versus visualization, I wonder if I’m missing the point. Are the examples I’m citing here more illustrations used as evidence for broader points? In the case of Shaping the West, for example, can we say that Richard White’s arguments about the impact of the railroad are conveyed through his book, and the visualizations are parallel–but still not making an argument in themselves?

Spatial history will be a major part of my dissertation, as I’m looking at visitors between particular countries (the United States and Mexico), to particular places (in the “cores” versus “peripheries”) in those countries. For example, in the website I’m planning to accompany my dissertation, I will include maps showing places that visitors traveled. Minard’s graphic even inspired me to include, perhaps, a graphic showing how many visitors passed through certain areas during certain periods. Yet all of these examples would still complement my written argument, perhaps even parallel it, but not supplant it.

Thus, thinking of our discussions about promotion and tenure two weeks ago, should or would a visualization–whether recreating a city, creating maps, or whatever format–count toward tenure and promotion? Or would visualizations like those in Shaping the West count as complements to the argument contained in a traditional text–a text that would then be the basis for tenure and promotion?

Can we discern an argument from a visualization–or am I just not “visually literate,” to use Jessop’s term, enough to be able to do so? Can a visualization inherently be the vehicle for an argument? If so, has the technology not advanced enough yet to have digital visualizations contain discernable arguments in themselves? Or does a visualization merely “tell” something versus “argue” something?

On these questions, I’m not sure where I fall, although I–perhaps surprisingly for a public historian who has created exhibitions and walking tours–am leaning toward a privileging of words (whether written or spoken) as the vehicle for an argument, albeit with use of various forms of visualization to present supporting evidence. But perhaps I’m privileging the traditional scholarly notion of what an argument is, versus the telling or chronicling of something? For example, in creating exhibitions and even walking tours, we speak of “take-away messages.” Are those messages arguments, or simply messages/chroniclings? Perhaps deciding a distinction on that question would help us distinguish what we’re looking for in visualizations.

Perhaps the jury is still out on all of these questions–and perhaps it will always be…

1 Comment

  1. Well, I do hope the jury isn’t always out on whether visualizations and the like contain arguments – that would be unfortunate for me!

    I appreciate your concern over where the argument is situated in visualizations and the like. In many ways, I think difficulty in finding the argument might be because we are still working to figure out both the tools and how to use those tools. The railroad project at Stanford does not itself claim to be equivalent to a monograph. Instead it describes its results as “a proof of concept and a tool.” I don’t know of a current visualization project that is meant to stand on its own.

    But I do think that there can be work that fills a support role to text based projects, and I think there can be visualization work that stands on its own, that sets a question, a process of evidence and investigation, and a conclusion before the user or audience. I just am not sure we know, yet, what that looks like. My guess, though, is that it will be a dynamic visualization, one that unfolds over time or with use, so as to reveal the process by which the researcher came to and argues for their answer to the question.

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