Perfecting the art of thinking? Try sketching out your ideas

Sociologists make the case for observational drawing to be part of the research process

March 29, 2017
pavement drawings
Source: Getty
Focal point: sketching is an ‘effective antidote to the fast-pased lives we live as academics’, said one scholar

Sketching has always had its place in the pursuit of knowledge: after all, Leonardo da Vinci found it quite handy when studying the proportions of the human body. But do you need to be an artist to conduct academic research through the medium of drawing?

Not according to sociologists at the University of Manchester, who have participated in a year-long project exploring the potential of using sketching to provide a different “headspace” for intellectual endeavours.

The institution’s Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives hosted urban sketcher Lynne Chapman as artist in residence during 2015-16 as part of a Leverhulme Trust-funded initiative, which will be detailed at the annual conference of the British Sociological Association, running from 4 to 6 April.

Scholars – some of whom had not sketched since childhood – were taught by Ms Chapman how to do so, and instilled with the confidence to go and sketch in public. The project required them to engage in the practice of “concentrated seeing” – an immersive form of scrutiny that fixes images on the retina, and in the memory, in a way distinct from photography or written field notes.

Sue Heath, co-director of the Morgan Centre and author of the BSA paper, told Times Higher Education that while observational sketching had a “very rich tradition in qualitative social science”, it was “beginning to enjoy a revival”.

“We’re all used to ‘concentrated seeing’ in rather different ways and as sociologists we’re all very familiar with working with text, trying to see through text,” she said. “Many of my colleagues [use] all sorts of other sensory methods to try and think about and interpret the social world, [to] see the world through those different lenses. This was another lens.”

Professor Heath added that sketching was an “effective antidote to the fast-paced lives we live as academics”, and forces “you to slow down and focus intensely in a way that we rarely do in everyday life”.

By the end of the project, academics had learned the potential of sketching as a research tool, a form of fieldwork diary, or as a technique for thinking differently.

For example, Vanessa May, a senior lecturer in the centre, has been drawing as part of her project exploring life on an Edinburgh housing estate, while sociology lecturer Andy Balmer has been sketching in laboratories and community centres as part of his research into science and dementia, and has asked some of his research participants to do sketches.

Professor Heath said that many of the centre’s researchers were still sketching, using it as a way “to find a different headspace for thinking about their work”, and that some were considering incorporating it into future research bids.

Was she concerned that funders and other scholars might be dismissive of it? No, said Professor Heath, who added that the project had been “surprisingly well received by colleagues outside our research centre”.

“There are some funders who would run away from us if we put a bid in and others [who] would embrace it,” she said. “To those who might scoff, I would still say ‘try it and see’.

“It might not work for you as a way of generating useful data, but I can guarantee that you will view your research field differently if you take the time to try to capture certain aspects of it in a sketch.”

john.elmes@timeshighereducation.com

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