Visualising Innovation, Research and Actor-Networks

In this week’s first year lecture on research methods I am discussing the importance of ‘writing up’ one’s research as part of the process of doing research. Part of what I am discussing is the shift in thinking from scholarship as a linear process (for example, question and then an answer) to a process involving differentiating feedback (for example, multiple questions and answers and answers that help you ask better questions).

The classic error of first year students is to write up essays as they are doing the research and then hand in what is essentially a very early draft of their work. When this is represented in graphical form it looks like this:

You begin on the left and end up on the right. Each increment represents a moment where the student reads or thinks something new and writes it in their (draft) essay. This can be identified when assessing work as what is normally regarded as the ‘thesis statement’ is buried about three-quarters of the way into the essay. I’ve found it to be a common error for students who have not thought about the essay writing process as involving structure and I’ve found it in every university (7) at which I’ve taught or marked.

As I have discussed before on this blog, a better way to think about this process is a spiral with spokes instead of a ‘flat line’ time series. The spiral & spoke is a far better way to represent the way one’s ideas develop:

You begin in the middle of the spiral and gradually work your way to the outer point. Each of the ‘spokes’ represents an action of reading or thinking something. Each time the spoke cuts across the spiral it is at a different time (T1, T2, T3, …Tn). The point is that each spoke is not the ‘same’ thing each time it cuts across the spiral. Ideas develop as you read and think different things in between. So the series becomes something like Idea 1.0, Idea 1.1, Idea 1.2, …Idea 1.n and you get an appreciation of the way what you read or thought in the beginning develops over time. When writing up the research you write up the spokes.

This is great for a process involving small sets of starting information with only ‘interference’ or ‘reinforcing’ effects between the original set of information creating change. This is not how scholarship actually happens, however. Scholarship is essentially a process of innovation involving ‘interference’, ‘reinforcement’ and also ‘cascade’ and ‘originary’ effects. A ‘cascade’ effect being that joyous moment where the ‘red thread’ of one’s work is apparent. An ‘originary’ effect being that moment where the differential repetition of ideas (what Gabriel Tarde called ‘imitation’) leads to development of a new idea (or what Tarde called ‘innovation’).

Another way of representing this differentiating feedback that retains a similar mode of the spiral time series is by using a three dimensional conical spiral as the time series and then locating the various moments of thinking or reading (or experimenting, etc) so that the non-linear relationships between these various moments can also be represented with innovation trees.

The key to the above diagrammatic representation of the processes of research and differentiating feedback.

1. The original way of thinking about the process as a linear timeline. Start at the left and end on the right.

2. A three-dimensional version of the spiral. The researcher still begins in the middle and each reading, thought (or whatever) happens along the spiral, but now the relations of innovation can be appropriately mapped. When ‘new’ elements emerge from previous elements, a new colour is used. More complex versions of these relations would create new spirals emerging from specific element as new directions are taken. I imagine multiple galaxies of spirals.

3. The ‘micro’ time series of each specific point or ‘outcome’ (for a topic sentence in an essay for example), these were the ‘spokes’ in the original two dimensional representation.

Why is this important?

Humanities and social science scholars have traditionally been poorly equipped to think about the relations between the various elements or ‘actors’ in the composition of power relations that makes up a research project, cluster or ‘network’. When I think of ‘actor-networks’ (as in ‘actor-network theory’) I think of a version of this diagram and all the ‘trees’ that actually constitute the relations between the various elements. My childish MS Paint drawings above indicate one way I think it would be possible to graphically represent the non-linear network of relations between various actors as part of a temporal series.

On its own it is kind of cool, but imagine if you could map not only strictly research-based or intellectual endeavours and could include on the same conical spiral time line other factors, such as funding grants, social events, or even maybe (if anyone thinks it is, you know, at all relevant) teaching load and other administrative responsibilities. Rather than mapping the conditions of possible action, this would be a trace of the actual conditions of action in the relations between elements. It would be a very useful way to map the impact of non-output activities in terms of various clusters of ‘elements’ and the number of relations between them. For example, a relative barrier would occur while waiting for ethics protocol approval and so on.

9 thoughts on “Visualising Innovation, Research and Actor-Networks”

  1. not a useful visualisation really, for anyone knows a line can be traversed in both directions…all points (singularities) on the line inform each other….

  2. Hi Steve,
    The visualisation is not a diagram per se, it doesn’t seek to represent the intensive dimensions of research. It is more a ‘map’. In a sense, the visualisation is not a diagram in the same way a map is not the territory (or machinic assemblage that produces the territory, ie refrain, etc.).

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