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Executive Summary

Overview Report

Main Report

Bibliographic History

Review of Visualization in the Social Sciences: Overview Report

The History of Visualization in the Social Sciences

The current use of the term "visualization" in social science was first made in 1987 with the publication of the report on 'scientific visualization' (McCormick et al., 1987). This report had its origins in scientific work that began in the 1960s studying chaotic systems. Scientists then found that a fuller understanding could only be made of certain processes by visualizing the results of experiments (see for instance Mandelbrot, 1983). The visualization of chaotic systems in the social sciences has following this route, perhaps most directly in the work of Batty and Longley (1994).

Social Science has also had an important role to play in understanding why visualization has become popular at various points in time. Recently, the 1987 revival may have had much to do with the declining academic support of American centres of super-computing, which needed a new product to market after the simulation of atomic explosions became less vital with the ending of the cold war (Frenkel, 1988). Frenkel argues that American paranoia over the high quality of Japanese produced micro-processors also led to an increased emphasis in software over hardware by the end of the 1980s and the simple improvements seen in graphic technologies may have made an increased interest in visualization inevitable anyway.

The history of visualization in science in general, and the social sciences in particular, is a long one and we cannot understand the present situation well if we do not couch current developments in their historical context. One of the most useful reviews of the history of visualization was conducted by Beniger and Robyn (1978) who showed that the use of graphics had gone in and out of academic fashion in cycles over a long period of time. For instance they note that Descartes himself was convinced that "imagination of visualization, and in particular the use of diagrams, has a crucial part to play in scientific investigation.". Faraday is also a good example of an early visualizer.

This review considers the history of visualization in the social sciences by providing an illustrated bibliography covering the latest period of rising interest in visualization from 1960 to 1998, with some examples of previous work of interest. The bibliography contains references to over 2500 articles and was constructed as the result of an exhaustive inter-library loan search in 1991, updated to 1998 by the use of digital databases of articles and the addition of web pages from 1994. The general trend of publication is of a slow exponential rise, with peaks in 1976 (following advances in computer graphic devices in the early 1970s) and in 1990 (following the publication of the original visualization report in 1987). Academic paper publication has been stable since then, but if we include the effect of papers now being made available on the web the exponential rise can be seen to continue.


Academic Papers

Web site 'papers'




























1990s (incomplete)



Twentieth century:



At the end of each decade from the 1970s onwards we have produced a publication count of the most prolific authors in that decade. This is obviously an extremely rough indicator of output and influence, but is generally indicative of the kind of work being produce at various points in time and does produce some surprising results.

It also shows the dominance of geographers within visualization in the social sciences, which as we explain later is not particularly surprising given the cartographic origins of that discipline. The dominance of geography can be seen in the historical development of visualization. The first decade being considered here, the 1970s, was dominated by many researchers who would, at that time, have described their work as cartography: Waldo Tobler, Judy Olson, Mark Monmonier and George Jenks head the list and all hailed from America. Jean-Claude Muller and David Rhind are the only non-Americans who feature. By the 1980s Fraser Taylor and Alan MacEachren had entered the top three, so the dominance of cartography in terms of production continued. The 1990s saw a rise in output from Europeans: Peter Fisher, Menno-jan Kraak, Stan Openshaw, David Unwin and Mike Batty entered the list. So the dominance of geography continued but the cartographic emphasis changed to the visualization of computation analysis.

We hope that this visualization bibliography will be a useful tool to future researchers,

allowing them to see what has gone before and how much which is currently thought of as novel is not quite as new as we would like to think.

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