Narrative flow in conceptual maps


Bill Easterly has put the spotlight on systems diagrams for the Pentagon nation building plan for Afghanistan — which have attracted some ridicule. Here are the slides.

There are some comments on Bill’s site pertaining to the content of the analysis, which I’m not concerned with. But from a purely structural perspective, it’s easy to poke fun at systems diagrams such as this because:

(1) we may not like the politics

(2) they’re impenetrable for an outsider

(3) rendering a tragic human dilemma as nodes and arcs seems to invite ridicule

But if we believe that these really are complex systems, then modelling them is surely one way to get a grip, and a map is simply an intentional way to simplify the world in order to discern important connections.

* you are involved in the process of their construction
* or are walked through them slowly with an interactive tool (or set of filtered visualizations as in these slides) that focus attention on specific regions/paths,
I would say these can be useful.

We would all bridle if a colleague marched into the middle of a meeting and poked fun at how messy the whiteboard was, not appreciating that this was a collective working memory with intensely meaningful scribbles for those present. If there was longer term value in those scribbles, we’d re-render them in some way for an outside audience, through some combination of cleaned up graphics/animations, prose narrative, and verbal presentation.

By analogy, if we want conceptual maps to be more than working memory for those present in constructing it, or longer term memory for that group to reconstruct their conversation, then we have to supplement the raw map with scaffolding to help outsiders in.

Four thoughts…

Cartographic narrative

One of the big challenges around mapping of any sort (and my concern is specifically about mapping dialogue and debate), is the loss of narrative flow that prose does so well, but often at the price of obscuring conceptual clarity. How do we make up for that, if we can’t be there in person to jump around in front of them to ground the terse symbols in the richness of the problem at hand?

The emergence of out-of-the-box screencast tools is in my view a significant development: now we can provide engaging introductions to maps that in a few minutes give newcomers a guided tour, and springboard to interrogate and build on the map’s analysis. In other words, bring it alive and connect it to the life stories that viewers bring…

“Inside this green map you’ll find a summary of the last 2 months’ work. We spent a LONG time on THIS issue, which shows the connections between Jim’s analysis of the new Govnt Funding Policy that’s dominated all our lives since Sept., with Ann’s keynote slides on Creative Thinking that went down so well at the away day…”

Interactive maps

If we can design user interfaces onto maps that are sufficiently intuitive, they may invite and guide the newcomer by indicating where to start, and offering controls to highlight significant features/paths/connections/regions. But it may be that the work to create a self-standing artifact requires additional effort — that may be easy to justify if the map supports a high-stakes presentation, but that’s not always the case. Experience with capturing design rationale shows that maintaining such maps will drop off the radar when schedules are tight: the map has to be justifying its existence and value all the time.

The holy grail is a software environment that automatically provides navigational scaffolding for outsiders to read the map in a coherent way.

Shared convention

We don’t need either of the above to read many kinds of everyday spatial map: we know how to read them through convention, embedded in our education and culture. In time, conceptual maps such as systems diagrams, dialogue and argument maps may come to be embedded and transmitted in this way. An increasing number of us are working on inventing that future!

When narrative meets critical thinking

Finally, the above story is about how we supply narrative to fill in the gaps left by terse, structural representations. But as we ponder this dance between narrative and critical thinking, we can also flip this, and ask what it means to attempt to formalize rich narratives, something I’m reminded of from the recently completed work of two students.

Floris Bex recently sent me a copy of his PhD which seeks to model stories (criminal cases) in an analytical fashion, using argumentation theory. Meanwhile, one of my students Joanna Kwiat developed and validated a story annotation scheme grounded in narratology, for professional knowledge sharing. Jack Park is also developing concepts around storytelling, dialogue/argument mapping and knowledge federation in his PhD.

There are connections — and tensions — between the richness of narrative/story for knowledge sharing, and the rigour of critical thinking/argumentation. This may also connect to tensions between the way in which we can use the semantic and the social web for collective sensemaking.

Narrative has a personal quality, and its power rests in a story’s ability to engage many people at different levels. The freeform folksonomic tagging promoted by the social web seeks to add the power of linked data without straitjacketing the freedom of individuals to tell and interpret  stories. But this breaks down when we want to promote learning, critical thinking, sensemaking. We’ve failed as communicators, analysts or educators if our audience leaves with merely a cloud of terms in their minds. Sensemaking resides in the ability to make and critique coherent connections, and from there, to describe the shape of an idea.

The formalization schemes that Floris and Joanna developed, and the representational schemes of issue, dialogue and argument mapping tools, seek to provoke more reflection on the part of the analyst. This moves them from the realm of social media for leisure, where you don’t want to be made to think very hard, but no apologies for that.

But now let’s flip it again, and note that it is often through narrative that we are able to inhabit a dilemma, and from there, step back to gain critical distance and articulate abstractions. Enquiry-based learning, personalisation, creative curriculum, new forms of assessment, learning to learn and scenario planning, place narrative at the centre of sensemaking. I liked the way Joanna opened her thesis:

[We] dream in narrative, daydream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticize, construct, gossip, learn, hate, and love by narrative.

Barbara Hardy, 1977. Towards a poetics of fiction: an approach through narrative.  The Cool Web: The Pattern of Children’s Reading.  M. Meek, A. Warlow, G. Barton (Eds.), The Bodley Head, pp. 12-23.

6 Responses to “Narrative flow in conceptual maps”

  1. What he said. Yup. And more.

    This week I’m thinking that our critical need is to improve our access to efficient and powerful ways to learn. To learn what we want, when we want, how we want, and get it right. It’ll work better when it’s fun and when it’s motivated by current needs and when it fits with our pre-existing knowledge and beliefs.

    Conflicts arise in every aspect. If we succeed beyond measure, we learn to delight in deciding we were wrong and adopting new, more sophisticated understandings. We can even eat the forbidden fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and thus grow up. When we see ridicule, we can dismiss it and study that which is ridiculed to find the truths that cannot be argued against.

    I recall the oriental response to an argument so intense that one participant physically assaults the other. Observers then congratulate the struck participant for winning the argument. In my view they are exactly right.

    References to relevant lectures and essays can be made available if desired.

  2. Congratulations, you have managed to thoughtfully provide a more positive interpretation than had originally occurred to me.

  3. I posted a link to this post among the comments on Bill Easterly’s original post.

  4. Simon,

    Thank you for such a thoughtful and well-written essay on the tension between narratives and maps. I think this is one of the most pressing issues of our field of hypermedia sense making and cognitive mapping … and think you’ve summed it up beautifully, almost poetically!

    And it raises the question for me about the role of taking a position (or having a point of view) in bringing a complex issue to life. Judging from the popular media, the only way to hold an audience’s attention is to express a strong opinion (i.e. about what is right or true or valid, etc.).

    You said, “We’ve failed as communicators, analysts or educators if our audience leaves with merely a cloud of terms in their minds. Sensemaking resides in the ability to make and critique coherent connections, and from there, to describe the shape of an idea.” So, in those terms, with what does an audience leave a successful sensemaking session? Perhaps we’re biologically designed to learn the most or fastest from a heated debate between polarized points of view, because it get’s the old reptile brain engaged with the material.

    But let’s flip it around: does that mean that rigorous examinations of all sides of an issue are doomed to be, for most of us, boring?

    I love your proposal that we bring maps to life through the narrative about the maps’ growth and evolution … “Cartographic narrative”. Now if we can just make our cartographic narratives as appealing as the dramas of opinionated righteousness, we’ll really have something!


  5. Jeff, your questions nail a critical issue for public discourse in general: does rigorous balanced dialogue around an issue have to be more boring than a blazing war between polarized encampments? Can we make it exciting to go deeper into an issue, placing yourself in the shoes of different stakeholders?

    Seems to me that good journalism and documentaries already do this, but we know they don’t compete with the tabloids in nos. sold and probably never will. I think we’ve all watched documentaries or read historical fiction that helped us understand a party we had little sympathy for previously.   

    Knowledge cartography, perhaps injected with cinematic/animation craft (we’re back to narrative again) to help viewers maintain orientation as they explore or are taken on tours, should have something to offer such journalism. They could make for more compelling viewing for those already interested, and like cgfx in science, make the material more inviting to those who might not normally have engaged. Conceptual maps should help maintain orientation around a complex landscape at different scales and filters.   

  6. Even during the original meeting or session itself, the many narratives that can intertwine for the people present do not necessarily manifest themselves on the maps in any meaningful way.

    The degree to which it occurs depends on the level of engagement the people in the real or virtual room have with the visual representation, as well as how faithfully and evocatively the representation itself reflects what was being discussed.

    There can be wonderfully evocative and expressive representations that participants in the meeting have little or no relationship to (this is often seen, for example, with graphic facilitators, who tend to do their work in some degree of isolation from the participants), or messy and (to an outsider) apparently meaningless scrawls that anyone who was in the room will deeply resonate with even months later. And of course, anywhere on the spectrum between.


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