The visuals that should have been there

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While reading all these interesting books I keep encountering the same problems over and over. Many of these academic writers just concentrate on producing text and don’t pay enough attention to the visuality of their articles. They either do not employ visual means at all, or they use them poorly.

From now on, whenever I have the energy, I’ll try to to show you their mistakes and show you how it should have been done. So here you have the first part of my new “series” The Visuals That Should Have Been There.

Rosch 1978: Principles of Categorization

Before saying anything negative I must say that I really like Eleanor Rosch’s theory on prototypes. The notion of categorisation is central to my thesis. After all, genres can be seen as one level of the categorisation process.

But I seriously dislike the way Rosch explains the two different dimensions of category systems in her 1978 article Principles of Categorization.1 There are two problems there, which both are really typical to academic writing.

First of all, she employs the visual metaphor of the vertical and horizontal dimensions, just with words! Come on, if you are making a visual point, why not show it? It’s one of the classic rules of teaching and presenting: show, don’t just tell. But at least the metaphor is not that complicated:

For purposes of explication, we may conceive of category systems as having both a verbal and horizontal dimension. The vertical dimension concerns the level of inclusiveness of the category – the dimension along which the terms collie, dog, mammal, animal, and living thing vary. The horizontal dimension concerns the segmentation of categories at the same level of inclusiveness – the dimension on which dog, cat, car, bus, chair, and sofa vary. (p. 30)

So it’s sounds quite simple, doesn’t it. First you imagine a vertical stack of words:

living thing

And then you visualise similar stacks of words alongside that one, based on the words cat, car, bus etc. Right?

And after you have spent your time visualising the metaphor instead of just seeing it with a quick glance you move on and turn the page. And there is a table which seems to illustrate the point. But it is actually not directly connected to her text, but refers to related research on basic objects.

And now we get to our second problem: The table tells us the opposite of what she just explained in the text.

Whaaat? Why is the vertical dimension in her metaphor shown horizontally? And vice versa. Yes, it is connected to another study but why does it have to reverse the dimensions? Even if it is taken directly from another study, why not change it to suit the article? The table wouldn’t suffer from that. Another option would be to change the dimensions mentioned earlier to fit this table. Now the combination just doesn’t make sense.

I can think of a couple of explanations. Perhaps the table is just wrong. Maybe it wasn’t done by Rosch herself. Or perhaps in the text she is merely using abstract dimensions. It doesn’t really matter which is the vertical and which is the horizontal. Therefore, perhaps she means “dimension 1” and “dimension 2” without referring to the physical or visual world. And it’s just unfortunate that she employs the terms vertical and horizontal.

In any case, the end result is that you start doubting your own memory and/or comprehension. You have to go back to the previous spread, read the passage again, and compare that information with the table. At some point, you’ll realise that for the metaphor to work it doesn’t matter which dimension is which. But you have to be sure you understand the dimensions in the same way as Rosch, as she refers to the “vertical dimension” and  the “horizontal dimension” later in the text.

Now, it could be that I got this thing all wrong. Perhaps I’m not smart enough to understand a simple metaphor of two dimensions. But I seriously think something like this should be alongside the verbal metaphor:

This should be in the article by Rosch 1978

Then you could omit the unfortunate table and refer to that basic object research by other means. The whole issue would be so much easier and clearer. And the reader wouldn’t have to waste his or her time on trying to visualise the metaphor. And even worse, trying to solve the contradiction between the text and the table.

It just makes me think how much time and brain power is wasted on obscure academic writing in general. Imagine the confusion of one reader like me, and then multiply that with thousands, tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands students and academics over the years. That’s a lot of wasted working hours.

Any lessons for writers (and editors)? When the issues themselves are complex, why not try to maximise the clarity and presentation of them. Pay attention to this kind of small details, even if they might feel trivial to you. Your beautiful scientific ideas will suffer if the readers get stuck on pesky elements like this.

  1. Rosch, E. (1978) Principles of Categorization. In Cognition and Categorization (Eds. Rosch, E. & Lloyd, B.B.), Lawrence Erlbaum, Hillsdale, New Jersey, pp. 27–48. []