Graphic Social Science Now Requires Institutional Embrace

John-Paul Smiley

This inaugural issue of the Graphic Social Science Network blog debate emerges in response to recent trends towards greater use of graphical outputs in social science. In this short piece, I will highlight why I support the trend, and what functions and outputs I envision as likely to maximise its impact. I hope to show that Graphic Social Science offers tremendous potential to enhance the teaching of complex data and ideas to people throughout the life-course, but that this would be maximised through more proactive institutional support from national subject associations.

An extension of traditions of story-telling, the use of graphic forms as a teaching tool has already been found to have positive effects in disciplines such as Economics, Engineering, Nursing, Science Communication, and Sociology (as long ago as the 1940s). More recent research indicates that graphical formats increase both engagement and desire to read in participants more than solely text based methods, and help to facilitate greater memory formation — the information sticks with people more. This is likely due to a combination of biological and cultural factors and supports previous research which states that, ‘A striking characteristic of human memory is that pictures are remembered better than words’, and that, ‘…visual memory is more persistent than verbal or auditory memory’. All of which is perhaps unsurprising when we consider that the, ‘…brain is mainly an image processor…’. Given such previous findings, it is notable how limited the wider uptake of graphical methods to communicate social research has been to date.

Going forward, perhaps the simplest way to utilise such methods is to produce graphic shorts for specific research findings deemed to be of public interest. This is something that we are starting to see occur more frequently in the UK. For example, as Priego (2016) points out, ‘During the last REF exercise in the UK, at least 15 Impact Studies of comics or cartoons used within and for research were submitted to different Units of Assessment’. Notable amongst these include Vigur et al’s (2016) ‘Higher Fees, Higher Debts: Greater Expectations of Graduate Futures?’, which presented findings into the impact of university tuition fees. The advantage of using graphical methods for conveying information in such a manner lies in the ability to present complex data and ideas in more easily consumable formats. But though this is a commendable and recommended means for communicating research findings, it is one which arguably underutilizes the potential of graphical mediums for social research.

Another, perhaps more ambitious way, to maximise the impact of graphical social science would be the production of graphical pamphlets by national subject associations to be disseminated in educational establishments at various age ranges and key stages. These could comprise of two primary forms: introductory subject guides and ‘life guides’ tackling essential issues of social life. For example, brief introductory pamphlets discussing and outlining varying forms of political organization whilst explaining the current, dominant form. Others could portray typical family life and/or life-stages common to the territory in question. These could be pitched at differing levels of sophistication depending on the age level aimed at, and form key, approved texts in a mandatory Social Studies class or equivalent. In terms of form, the texts could be akin to the modern popular ‘Graphic Guide’ series or perhaps similar to cartoonist Larry Gonick’s work on subject guides, and could be produced both in print and digital formats to allow convenient access. These would help learners to greater understand and develop their knowledge on important subjects, as the visual element helps with memory retention. To further assist with this, where possible (and appropriate) such outputs should also be made humorous, as there is evidence that humour acts to further enhance memory retention.

The production of such materials could greatly assist in strengthening educational standards and creating more informed citizens, as the simplified presentation inherent to graphical mediums will likely raise average levels of knowledge and understanding in the population. Such works should always remain open to periodical review (perhaps yearly), with revision and updating as deemed necessary. The process of which should be carried out transparently and feedback on any potential changes sought from the wider membership before being actioned. In making any such amendments, it should be acknowledged that these will never be neutral or random, but that any, ‘…portrayals of social issues and representations of particular groups have significant ideological implications’. As a result, responsible graphic social science must recognise that communicating and presenting information affects and shapes people, particularly the young, and so care must be taken by researchers to consider the likely impacts of their creations.

With social science likely to continue the trend towards ever greater use of quantitative data, particularly large data sets, there will be increasing need for novel methods of communication through which to enhance public understanding. Rooted in human biological and cultural foundations, graphical mediums present unique opportunities through which to strengthen popular understanding of social science, and of social and political life more generally. To maximise their impact, however, requires that we now move beyond the actions of a few brave innovators and that national subject associations and institutional bodies take a much more proactive role in supporting and systematically facilitating graphical methods of communication. It is perhaps fitting to end this piece by recalling that Alan Moore once said: ‘All comics are political. Academic ones are no exception to this, and so, if the potential of graphic social science is to be realised, this point should be embraced, not denied or ignored.

John-Paul Smiley is a writer and social researcher. He has a PhD in Civil and Building Engineering (Loughborough, UK), an MSc Social Research (Leicester, UK), and a BA Politics and Sociology (York, UK). His interests include futurism and science fiction, as well as politics and sociology. He tweets at @JohnPaulSmiley