NOTE: Use categories to navigate the different pages. Links to the Cmaps are on the right and at the start of each summary page.
For scholars working with quantitative data, visualizations are a necessary part of research, analysis, and the presentation of findings. Continuing advances in information technology have greatly expanded the scope and form that these visualizations can take, and debate continues as to which are the most effective and accurate, but the basic utility of data visualization is well-established.
Scholars whose work is conceptual or narrative rather than numerical turn less often to visualizations. Most historical texts are accompanied by a few illustrative photographs and perhaps the occasional map. This is not to disparage these forms of historic visualization. Photographs can provide valuable historical insight and blend easily with the written word, whether physically printed or electronically distributed. Maps can also be used for both historical research and as a tool for explaining historical findings, and advances in both consumer mapping technologies (Google Earth) and technical GIS have greatly expanded the utility of mapping for both ends.
The most common historical visualization is rarely found in academic work yet is extremely common in the ‘popular’ realm: documentary film, a visualization which includes the element of time, is in this respect the ideal visual medium for the conveyance of historical narratives. Yet historical films have many drawbacks. They are difficult to produce and distribute (though modern computing technology has reduced this difficulty greatly), and they have a tendency towards simplicity, emotion, and passive consumption. Films, which must, for the most part, be watched as a continuous whole, in the same order every time, do not lend themselves to unstructured collaboration, nor do they allow for selective citation. Furthermore, they impose their own timeframe: the viewer can only with difficulty speed up or slow down the presentation to gain a quick grasp of the whole or focus in and examine a particular detail.
This project seeks to explore the utility of a less-often used type of visualization: concept mapping. As the name implies, this type of visualization centers on the display of concepts, rather than narratives, and thus has a different focus than most academic history. Yet all historical narratives rest on a backbone of analysis that inevitably draws from and helps create a conceptual framework. Especially as narratives increase in complexity — such as when dealing with broadly comparative history, where the number of actors and events becomes very large — concepts, typologies, and models become key tools for enabling coherent analysis and presentation. Concept mapping is a way of exploring the hierarchies, groupings, and interconnections that arise in the formation of such concepts. It allows the quick visual analysis of a complex idea, while also allowing for close analysis to uncover new relationships and meanings in the data. Concept maps can be quickly created and easily shared, and software exists to allow for streamlined collaboration.
Concept mapping has its drawbacks, however. While its execution is easy, figuring out how to convert ideas into mappable concepts can be very difficult and time-consuming. While it can recognize significant amounts of complexity, overly complex concept maps become illegible, and overly simple ones risk being reductionary. Concept maps have difficulty portraying change-over-time and dealing with historical narratives. Most importantly, concept maps necessarily generalize, abstract, and depersonalize — eliminating the humanity and emotion that most historians find makes their craft distinctive.
I sought to explore these advantages and drawbacks in this project through an analysis of the material we covered this quarter on the history of welfare states. The material in some ways lent itself ideally to conceptual mapping, as it involved wide-ranging comparisons and a number of theoretical models. In other aspects, however, concept mapping proved deficient, especially in the discussion of a variegated historiography. My conclusion is that concept mapping is a valuable tool that can be especially useful in teaching and presentation, but has limited use as a mode of research or historical discovery.
NOTE ON SOFTWARE
All concept maps were created using Cmaptools, available for free from the Institute of Human-Machine Cognition — http://cmap.ihmc.us/conceptmap.html. This software has many advantages over the many other concept mapping tools that led to its selection: it is freely available, it is designed for academic and pedagogic (rather than business) use, it is easy to use, it is flexible, and it provides easy methods for sharing and distribution of concept maps. Its major limitation is that the concept maps created with it are static; while links can be included, there is no support for expanding and collapsing nodes, including pop-up info boxes, or for dynamically rearranging the layout of a map around a given concept. A proprietary program called ThinkBrain can perform many of these functions but does not allow for easy sharing and costs money. No software yet exists that provides for easy 3d concept mapping, which would have the potential to greatly expand the use and utility of the exercise.