An Ends or a Means? Notes on the Future of Humanities Visualization

Will visualization become a mainstream part of humanities scholarship? If so how will it become part of the mainstream? At this point there are a lot of tools, a lot of techniques & plenty of guidance for how to generate and create a range of different visualizations; everything from word clouds, to sophisticated graphs and networks can be created with a minimal amount of training and expertise. With that said, it often feels like visualization is a solution in search of a problem. If it’s ever to become a substantive part of the humanities I think it needs to begin to justify itself in service to one of two core objectives.

Visualization can serve, as an end in itself, which is visualization, can be a genre of scholarly product like a journal article or an academic book. Similarly, visualization can be a means, a suite of analytic techniques that function as part of the hermeneutic process of

Visualization as Scholarly Product

In many ways, I think the humanities is still trying to catch up to some of the vision that historian David Staley put forward in Computers, Visualization and History more than a decade ago. In one of the most provocative sections of his book, he argues for the value that could come from historians beginning to develop “visual secondary sources”, what I think I might instead call visualization as scholarship.

In this case, I think the key questions that the field needs to answer are now less about examples of what can be done and more about how that work should be evaluated and counted.

  • How to evaluate visualizations as scholarship?
  • How to count visualizations as scholarship?

Visualization as a Hermeneutic

The second genre of visualization I think is actually far more likely to take off. In this case, visualization is a set of tactics, techniques and processes for making sense of primary sources. It is a means not an ends. Fred Gibbs got into some of this in the hermeneutics of data and we suggested a lot of the weaknesses in existing tools for this kind of use in building better digital humanities tools.

This vision is largely in line with Jessop’s ideas about Visualization as Scholarly Activity, and Drucker’s notion of Graphesis , wherein visualization is understood as “generative and iterative, capable of producing new knowledge through aesthetic provocation.” I think this is also very much what Moretti is talking about in Graphs, Maps, and Trees. In this case, a visualization itself becomes a kind of block quote, something that a scholar can then pick apart and make sense of for their reader.

I see the biggest needs here are about developing a body of methodological literature on how to use very simple tools to do this sort of work. We need a lot of examples of how to use simple tools against the kinds of primary sources that humanists work from and with.

  • In what situations does it make sense to use what particular visualization tool/technique toward what particular analytic end?
  • What kinds of inferences do different tools help us make?
  • What kinds of issues arise when you are using a particular visualization technique against a particular kind of sources?

A good bit of these questions are actually about translating work in a more scientific mindset into a hermeneutic one and about taking a set of tools generally developed to work with contemporary data and transiting them into working with historical primary sources. 

In short, I think the is still considerable promise for the future of visualization for humanities scholarship. I've offered questions along these two lines of thought for the future of visualization to try and continue the conversation. I think we have a lot of neat tools and techniques, however, at this point I think the hard work to be done is largely in figuring out exactly how visualization directly fits into either the ends or the means of scholarship. 

This post extends some thoughts I shared about visualization for communication or discovery a few years back. 

Image on front page by Shawn Allen and available on Flickr.


I agree that in many ways we should be having a better conversation about the best practices for this kind of research. A criticism of the digital humanities in general could be the focus on production of new tools and methods over the critical analysis of what those products can do. This stance begs me to ask a question that Kenneth Fitzgerald mentioned on Friday. We create all of these visualizations, but what rhetorical structuring goes into that? If visualization is in many ways a solution looking for a problem, how can we assess some of the assumptions with that solution?

What I would really love to see is lots of folks writing more about their process and their methods. That is, lay out some issue they are interested in and then try out various tools and write out what they get from their use of them. That is, have them do some show and tell about what they are getting out of them and share their work for the broader community to respond to and discuss. 

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