That’s the thing with handmade items. They still have the person’s mark on them, and when you hold them, you feel less alone. – Aimee Bender, The Color Master: Stories
I was watching a lesson on the Bikablo technique of drawing by Dr Jill Greenbaum – and she mentioned a few words that got me thinking about the theoretical basis of thinking – a sort of recursive journey. She talked about Alan Paivo’s dual coding theory – the idea that visual and verbal information can help you remember more than either on its own.
The important bit of that statement for me, however, has to do with coding. You hear that term a lot in research, “coding”, and I think it has a quite a lot more depth than might appear at first glance.
The reason we use words is that they are extremely efficient containers of meaning. It would be next to impossible to recreate the ideas I have written down so far using just drawings or interpretive dance techniques. Words are perfect vehicles to help you say what you’re thinking or what you mean most of the time. And that creates an issue for us. Because they’re perfect so much of the time we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking they are perfect all the time. This is a similar problem faced by people who are fans of the scientific method. Reductionism, the cornerstone of the scientific method, has helped shape the world around us – and its success makes some people think that the answer to everything can be found in science.
When we elect to work predominantly with words what we’re doing is choosing a coding mechanism. This idea of coding is quite fundamental to communication. Whatever you and others are thinking can only be shared by first taking the thoughts in your head and coding them using a system that works for you. The coded message is passed to someone else who then decodes it and interprets what they find to try and understand what you meant. In the case of this paragraph the thoughts I’m trying to express are coded using the English language. And perhaps you get what I mean – some of it anyway.
Now, if words are good but they aren’t everything then the reason this blog exists is because of a belief that you can enrich your coding system by using images as well as words, preferably hand-drawn ones. What I’m not saying is that images are better than words. That argument was settled when we stopped using hieroglyphics and phonemes and opted for graphemes – as I’ve learned while redoing primary school with my children.
The reason you might want to consider an enriched coding system is the same reason why you might want to learn how to use your native language well. The better you are the more you can say – and the more complex ideas you can hold in your head. It’s possible that your ability to think is directly related to your ability to use language. And if you can use words and images to explore ideas and concepts it follows that you can think about them more clearly and come up with better approaches and results.
I was going to focus on something called Grounded Theory in this post but I got a little distracted with the whole coding thing – but here’s a little of what I was thinking about.
Grounded Theory is a way of finding patterns in data – and was developed by Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss in the 1960s. And from this point things get a little complicated. Grounded Theory is a form of inductive reasoning – you collect data and then you create theory – a generalization – from what you see in the data. The opposite is deductive reasoning, where you start with a hypothesis and then see if the data you collect confirms or disproves your hypothesis. With grounded theory your theory emerges as you interact with your data and is coded using Theoretical codes. See – coding has some relevance to this discussion. Theoretical codes try and hold the theory that emerges from the research you carry out.
So, what does this mean in practice? Say I want to study something – a TED talk, carry out an interview, review some qualitative data – all of that is simply data at the start. If I write and draw what I’m studying, trying to identify concepts and relationships between concepts I’ll start to find patterns emerging from that data. Those patterns are ones that I’ve seen – someone else might find different ones but as long as I stay with the data and create patterns based on them I’m staying grounded in that data. If I bring other ideas that were expressed elsewhere – then I’m straying from what I see to what I expect or hope to see.
And this is an important distinction. Imagine you’re a salesperson. If you go into a session with a presentation – all ready to pitch your product – then you’re going in with a preconceived idea – a hypothesis of how things will work and the reaction of the people during the meeting will give you data on whether you’re right or not. And if you do enough of these meetings the law of averages will mean you win some and lose some and get your commission or not. If, on the other hand, you go in without preconceptions, ready to listen and collect data, which you then try and structure into some kind of pattern – and then showing how you can help now that you understand what they need – well that’s going to give you an entirely different kind of reaction. And that’s because instead of looking for what you’re expecting to see, you see what is actually in front of you.
And I think the more coding tools you have, including visual and verbal ones, that help you see with that unbiased view the better you will be able to wrestle with the increasingly complex lives and work that we all have to do.