Thursday, 2 January 2014

Thinking with a brush and a pen

I made an agreement with myself that I wouldn't work on my PhD (or mark assignments, for that matter) over the Christmas holidays, and I haven't...really. What I did do was to use two of my recent acquisitions (a book by Tim Ingold and some art material) and 'played'. Before my break, I'd been re-working my 'findings and discussion' chapter of my PhD thesis, which had involved me in thinking about how I had represented and explored the findings of my research, which included non cartographic 'maps'. See an example below:

A section of one of the 'maps' I produced in exploring
connections and patterns amongst narrative data in my study.
Representing narrative data ('stories') as maps got me thinking about how any given part of a story connects with other parts, and actions, in interesting ways. I won't go into that here, as that's the stuff of the thesis, but suffice to say that seeing patterns on maps of narrative data is productive. Thinking in this way is not new in itself: literary material and visual arts uses things like metaphor to talk about life stories. Apart from the post-modernists, we tend to look for meaning among the parts, and identify, or look for patterns in more or less insightful ways.

I'm one of those who thinks that we can benefit from representing stories in other (visual) ways; to unsettle cosy romantic stories, to challenge established ways of looking, to open up understanding to those who don't see themselves as literary or academic. This is uncomfortable territory for academics who like a very strict divide between data 'analysis' and 'interpretation'. That's a debate which I don't want to oversimplify here, but my own shorthand is that I think we can approach data in hermeneutic ways, so that - as Paul Ricoeur said - description can become understanding. This does not mean that interpretive work can do the same things as so called 'objective' analysis of quantative data, but we need to do much more to understand stories - of biography, or of practice.

So: I've worked with my own maps to begin to find ways to see stories differently, to 'open up' ways of understanding the practices that construct narratives. I'm only just beginning, of course. This hunch was confirmed over the last couple of weeks when I read Tim Ingold's book "Lines: A Brief History" (Ingold, 2007). Ingold is a social anthropologist, and writes wonderfully about the history of the line. I'll summarise his work elsewhere, but let's just say that he drew on some sources I have always noticed to talk about our strange contemporary relationship with the line, which serves as the quickest route between two points, instead of a trace or thread created in what he calls "wayfaring". Ingold's discussion of how lines move, and what their function is helped me think about how my own maps could possibly evolve.

I worked through these thoughts as I read, and subsequently drew. I uploaded my early thoughts to issuu, which is a handy online publishing format. There is a link to my issuu here. It's not meant to be an explanation in any formal sense, but it's here to give you an idea of 'thinking aloud'.

A screenshot of one of the pairs of pages from my issuu.
See the full thing after the link given above.