Tuesday, May 22, 2012

What Sociology can Learn from Infographics

One thing that stood out when I returned to graduate school after working in market research was the horrible data visualizations used in sociological publications.  The top journals are published only in black and white, and the only "visual" data representations are simple line or bar charts, sometimes executed poorly, and all too often with missing axis labels and having awkward titles.

For example, take this chart from a 2009 paper by Cedric Herring, published in one of the top three sociological journals, American Sociological Review.  I chose this article because it is available publicly and it illustrates my point.

Before I pick on the visuals in it, I do have to say that it is an impressive, peer-reviewed academic paper that makes a substantial contribution to organizational sociology.  Looking at about 1,000 randomly sampled businesses around the US, Herring shows that gender and racial diversity each are associated with better business outcomes.  Diversity in the workplace is better for the bottom line, in terms of sales, relative profits, number of customers, and market share, regardless of industry.  Pretty important stuff, and something any entrepreneur should be aware of in building their team.

But back to the visuals.  Herring has one chart in this paper.

It's called: Figure 1. Percentage Distribution of Racial and Gender Diversity Levels in Establishments.

He is trying to show the percentage of organizations that fell into each category, with high, medium, or low levels of gender or racial diversity.  Despite missing a vertical axis label, this 3D grayscale bar chart takes us back to 1994.  Furthermore, when you're showing data that adds up to 100% and you really want to use a chart, you should use a stacked bar chart or a pie chart, depending on the complexity of the data (more than 2 pie charts side-to-side is too many). The rest of the data in the article was presented in standard boring tables that every Sociology journal uses.

What can sociologists learn here?
Take a look at the infographic from Social Media Chimps below.  It explains why visual representations of data are important.  Now imagine if Dr. Herring had used these tips in his article.  Would you be more likely to read it?  Would you share some clever graphic that showed that diversity in the workplace benefits the bottom line?  I would.  Especially if it had cupcakes.

(Citation: Herring, Cedric. 2009. Does diversity pay? Race, gender, and the business case for diversity. American Sociological Review 74:208–24.)

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