Thursday, 28 January 2016

Making mapping (of professional lives) work

Alongside the activity I am undertaking to develop a conceptual base for using visual methods, I am getting on with the job of creating tools that I and others can use to explore professional life. As a researcher, I am particularly interested in helping children, young people and adults to understand services and organisations they work in or use better. As a visual person with a background in community work, I have had the opportunity to do things like develop visual methods with young people in the care system (reviewing their experiences of mental health services, for example). More recently, my PhD research used visual artifacts (cartoons, data maps and table top assemblages) to help leaders of early childhood services understand their professional narratives. Since then, I have begun to introduce visual and interactive teaching methods in my lecturing role at university - and have taken visual tools into my research practice in schools.

Developing visual and interactive tools is a real test, because I want them to be meaningful (to both people using them and academically) and effective (which includes them being fun, easy and intuitive to use). Combining all these things is harder than you might think, and many hours of practice and refining have gone into this so far. I am now at the stage when I want to formally test and develop visual tools within my research context -  services and educational settings that work with children, young people and families. I have a particular interest in emotional well-being, inclusion and how children experience settings and services. Specifically, as a coach I want to develop tools that I (and professionals) can use to better reflect on their practice, so they can be more effective, self-aware and inclusive.

I have lots of potential directions and sources of inspiration (on the conceptual front, see previous posts), and am currently working with the idea of mapping professional life. The picture I have included here is one example, which thinks about the idea of mapping as an activity which relates and brings elements into the same 'space' so work can be done with them. In that sense, this example is inspired by my use of the visual in my coaching practice, the ideas in my previous post and generally by Adele Clarke's work on situational mapping.

...I have lots of scribbly pages and messy models ahead of me.

Friday, 22 January 2016

Foundations for a visual methodology

As I have previously blogged about, I am working on a philosophical and practical base for my developing research practice. As the title of the blog suggests, I am a researcher of professional practice and service user experience having come from roles in UK Children's Services. Specifically, I am interested in developing user-friendly, interactive visual tools to explore both children / young people's experiences of institutions or services and that of the professionals that work with them. I do this with a fairly long track record in developing interactive and visual tools in community work / planning and teaching practice in higher education. I took my next steps in developing this work through my PhD research, which utilised various visual artefacts and was influenced by the philosophy of Paul Ricoeur

My post-doctoral challenge is to take what worked so well and develop it practically and conceptually so it speaks to children / practitioners and the academic community. Most people try to specialise in one direction (children or academia, not the band), but I am convinced that there are benefits to having a practical method rooted in a philosophy of practices and experiences and vice versa. In other words, good methods can speak in profound ways and philosophy and concepts should be things that can be shown. That's the aim. 

My journey into this practical philosophy, or towards philosophical tools has involved (amongst other things) reading some of the sources that have inspired me so far. Superficially, these sources are diverse. More than that, they are written utilising very different positions on the nature of being and knowledge (i.e. ontological and epistemological positions). This is dangerous territory that I have explored knowing that I am dealing with a minefield of possible contradictions, languages, metaphors (or none) and communities of thought and practice. Ultimately, it has been a heuristic, exploratory and pragmatic journey, where I have sought to 'look across' sources of inspiration for common space, connections or points of overlap. It is certainly not complete, but as I move between this work and the practical work of developing visual tools, each activity provokes and refines the other.

Amongst these sources I have found authors who deal with a huge range of visual motifs. Some use visual or metaphorical devices explicitly, some implicitly. For example, Ricoeur deals with the significance of the metaphor, mimesis and transformation from one state to another, texts as traces and sedimentations of activity. Heidegger addresses the nature of being in experiential life-worlds as spaces with (intentional) horizons, objects, modes of being with their own patterns and possibilities. Ted Schatzki takes Heidegger and practice theory and develops his take on human practices as spatial and temporal things with patterns of involvement. The outlier is the work of Giles Deleuze, whose philosophy rejects much of the existential or hermeneutic foundations of the previous thinkers. Despite this, Deleuze is profoundly and explicitly visual and conceives of an immanent space characterised by virtual planes, lines and maps which stack and fold into diagrams. 

I have yet to decide if and on what basis I can find points of connection between all of these elements, or pivotal concepts, but I play with the idea of a life-world, one with actual and virtual elements connected in a system: places, objects, habits, structures and so on. I'll start with the life-world, because that is currently my 'canvas' for a visualisation of experience and activity.

The life-world: So far, the concept of the life-world has been helpful to me as a rather abstract ‘holding space’ for everything to do with the subjective experience individuals share with others. It is a phenomenological term used initially by Edmund Husserl (1936) to describe the way in which the world is self-evident, ‘given’ or already existing in the form of socially, culturally, historically constituted meanings: a “we-subjectivity” (Ibid). The life-world therefore acts as a passive background to defines things as meaningful to people. I have noted how the concept has been adapted by Martin Heidegger to focus on the  nature of being-in-the-world, and by authors such as Alfred Schutz and Jurgen Habermas who focused on sociologically meaningful action and communicative action respectively. For me, the life-world is a interesting candidate for a ‘canvas’ for the visual description of everyday life precisely because it is not an abstract transcendental concept, but (certainly for individuals like Schutz and Habermas) it describes how life (and schools or systems) are meaningful to groups of people based on socially, culturally, historically constituted basis. Consequently, I am thinking that the basis and operation of life-worlds can be described, sketched and mapped as a sort of landscape of experience or space for action. 

Beyond this early thinking about lifeworld as canvas, I become interested in how this space can be explored as I make the connections between ideas and practical activities (or you could say, in moving from ontology > epistemology > methodology > methods). For me, the ideas are useful in a very pragmatic sense insofar as they justify certain sorts of visual and material enquiry. Towards this, I am thinking and playing with the following ideas which have caught my attention in the texts in mentioned. As I have said, this is not a logical enquiry, but a heuristic  and pragmatic one, considering things in the same space and drawing up questions about how and if they might relate. The aim is that as I think this through it results in a very practical method of enquiry that is simple but very grounded in the ideas I am working with.  

The sketch: Made up of visual and material marks in space, the sketch is a virtual state of composition that prefigures actual things. Zdebik (2012, p.139) suggests the sketch is created to create a general concept - something one might draw out before making a sort of trip, something preparatory. It is a "contracted image of a thing" (Ibid, p.108) which allows the one drawing it to explore something materially and to direct thought along certain paths. Elsewhere, Heidegger (1927/2010) provides a sense of the sketch as something analogous to a theoretical schema.

The map: In the work of Deleuze (1983/2013;1988/2013), the map provides a way of navigating a space and is a form of potentiality in that it enables discovery and is creative or generative. It organises spaces and thinking but as Zdebik (2012, pp.10-11) notes, this creativity and production does not rely on the activity of tracing, which "...although necessary, cannot offer anything new to thought because its function is to copy and represent what is already there" (Ibid, p.34). In other words, mapping explores another aspects of the thing and as the map is also virtual, it connects and communicates between things not necessarily proximal in time or space (Ibid, p.100), visualising functions, intentions and ways in which elements intersect or diverge. Practically, the idea of mapping (which is not always the material map itself and certainly not the traditional cartographic map) is making everything that is relevant visible, enabling a way to explore the workings and possible directions of a thing like a school, a policy or a family.

Stacking: It is through the function of stacking that maps form diagrams, described below and in a previous post. I have previously mentioned the idea of stacking, which is concerned with reducing the distance between images and the things themselves (Zdebik, 2012; Simondon, 1958). It is a form of analogy, where connections are made between disparate elements. Zdebik (2012) states that the purpose of stacking is to "...visualise an unrepresentable process that is no less actual because it is virtual" (p.43) - in the activity of stacking, a visual form begins to connect and mediate concepts that may be from different orders or depths. For me, I can visualise different orders of things - the physical space of the school, the discipline system, the movement of teachers and pupils for example - and in placing them (actually or conceptually) on one another, questions may be prompted as one connects functions and structures. 

Folding: In Fold: Leibniz and the baroque, Deleuze (1992) articulates the fold as the connection made between autonomous and concepts, things or systems. Whilst it helps to appreciate the materialist metaphysics of Deleuze's work (and I am not sure I am there yet), it is an intriguing idea. As I understand it, the function of the fold is to move an object from one dimension to another (Zdebik, 2012, p.73). For my purposes, it helps me to imagine a piece of paper folded so parts of an image which are separate are connected. When a fold is created, objects are contracted, and conversely can be unfolded and expanded. For Deleuze, existence is things folded together. Deleuze (1992) relates the fold, or inflection, to the work of the artist Paul Klee (p.15) and the way in which points or fold on a line can reveal the change of direction of an active line. I imagine this through the idea that in a painting, a line has the potential to move different ways.

The diagram: It seems that partly through the activity of stacking and folding things like maps, the diagram is assembled. It multiplies the characteristics and functions of the sketch and the map, enabling an exploration of possibilities as processes are connected to structures. Zdebik (2012) describes it as a "productive dimension" (p.139). As I have previously described, the diagram is not representational, but is a way of connecting functions and traits in two things. An example might be the school and the exam system, or the residential home and systems of managing risk: two 'things', not the same, but which can be connected as functions of one thing (a policy, discourse or system) connect to a different but related other, perhaps something spacial and material like an institution.  

I continue to think about these possible activities or motifs within the canvas that I would like to create to explore children's and professionals' experiences of institutions, systems or processes. As you will have gathered, they are not offered in any particular relation to one another at this stage, but I continue to play with them and see how I can use them to ask about very practical things. If you have any views or insights, please leave a comment, I'd like to hear.