Thinking with Theory Diagrams13 min read

A recent book by Kate Raworth entitled Doughnut Economics (2017) has garnered a lot of attention. The goal of the book is revolutionary in spirit: to move economists to think more about basic social and ecological well-being. While this aim will certainly resonate with sociologists, the means of getting there may surprise you: a doughnut. Raworth argues that what is needed are new models, new theoretical diagrams to facilitate this major change in the way economists should think about the economic world. Her major diagrammatic innovation, the doughnut, helps economists think not just about growth, but a world that promotes and produces basic social needs and ecological responsibility:



This is a major diagrammatic shift. One of its most striking ambitions is to move economists away from the conception of growth as indiscriminately good. Below is a diagram of what GDP growth in economics might look like:



What kinds of thinking are embedded within diagrams like this? As Raworth notes, this exponential growth curve fits perfectly with how people metaphorically understand progress – as ‘up’ and ‘forward’. This observation is in line with the influential work of Lakoff and Johnson (2008) who show how ubiquitous the orientational metaphors ‘GOOD IS UP’ and ‘GOOD IS FORWARD’ are in Western culture; for example, ‘things are looking up’, and ‘I’m moving forward with my life’. However, metaphors are not purely linguistic phenomena. For one, as embodied cognition research has shown, these kinds of metaphors are actually grounded in ‘image-schemas’ connected to our bodies and our physical experiences (Barsalou, 2008; Lakoff and Johnson, 2008 – see Wood et al., for a sociological discussion). Secondly, these conceptual metaphors are also embedded in diagrams and are a part of how we think with and through them (Reed, 2013). In some sense then, it is likely that we are drawn to this kind of diagrammatic view of economics because it ‘resonates’ (McDonnell, Bail, and Tavory, 2017) or fits so neatly with the way we think, act, and orient ourselves to the world more generally.

Raworth (2017) argues that a basic set of core diagrams– the curves, parabolas, lines, and circles that proliferate economics articles and books – linger in the back of most economists’ minds when thinking about a given economic issue, providing them with major assumptions about economic theory. They are indelibly etched in their minds, providing consequential ‘intellectual baggage’. More controversially, she argues that many of the most iconic of these diagrams are “out of date, blinkered, or downright wrong” (pg. 21).

Accordingly, she aims to provide a new type of diagram to encourage a new type of thinking: to see the economy as embedded in society and the environment and to strive not simply for growth, but as an ecologically safe and socially just space for human flourishing. In the Doughnut, we must be careful not to ‘overshoot’ beyond the ecological ceiling, meaning that any growth that produces environmental degradation is bad. ‘Up’ and ‘forward’ are no longer indiscriminately ‘good’ as it was with the metaphorical underpinnings of the exponential growth curve diagram; instead, there is a ‘sweet spot’ within the doughnut to which economists should aim.

So why do we need diagrams to spur this kind of intellectual revolution? Why do they matter so much? A lot can be said here, but I’d like to focus on three interrelated points: First, human beings are wired for visuals; because visualization plays such a major role in cognition, we perform mental tasks like image recognition, pattern recognition, and meaning attachment with incredible speed and ease (Thorpe et al., 1996). Moreover, images, unlike non-visual ideas and concepts, go directly into our long-term memory, leaving a lasting impression with a surprising level of detail (Brady et al., 2008). Secondly, we know that a number of disciplines rely heavily on diagrams to produce new knowledge and facilitate new discoveries (Coopmans et al. 2014; Knorr Cetina 2003; Tversky, 2011).

While we tend to think of theory figures as useful tools for teaching (Baldamus, 1992), they are important tools for explanation, elaboration, clarification, analysis, critique, and intellectual creativity (Lynch, 1991; Silver, 2018; Swedberg, 2016; Turner, 2010; see also Mills, 1959, pg. 213). Lastly, diagrams do not simply support our intellectual work, but they actively shape and direct it (Silver, 2018; Turner, 2014). Diagrams are both ‘servants’ and ‘guides’ – useful for both problem-finding and problem-solving (Humphrey, 1996). They are often imbued with theoretical assumptions (e.g. Owens, 2012), can shape the kinds of questions we ask and how we interpret our findings (e.g. Lennewick, 2010) and promote certain kinds of thinking over others (Tversky, 2011). The metaphorical underpinning of the exponential growth curve is a perfect example of that.

Sociologists also work with diagrams, and so it is natural to ask ourselves about what kind of theoretical diagrams linger in the back of the minds of sociologists, and how they shape the kind of work we do. Of course, we have some iconic theory diagrams that have inspired a lot of research: Coleman’s boat/bathtub, Burgess’ ‘concentric-zone model’, or Parsons’ various AGIL schemes. We also use popular, more conventionalized diagrammatic forms: cross-classification, Venn, cartesian coordinates and more. But while a few sociologists have studied theory diagrams in sociology (Lynch, 1991; Silver, 2018; Swedberg, 2016; Turner, 2010) none have produced any data demonstrating which diagrams are most commonly used.

A paper in progress I co-authored with Daniel Silver (presented at this year’s ASA conference in Philadelphia) on some of the practical considerations of theory visualization, addresses this issue. We took a random sample (40 articles per journal) from some of the leading journals of sociological theory in North America and Europe (Sociological Theory, Theory and Society, Theory, Culture, and Society, European Journal of Social Theory) as well as some of the leading generalist journals that often include theoretical work (American Journal of Sociology, American Sociological Review, European Journal of Sociology).

We found that, of the theory diagrams in our sample (figures without data), of all of the conventionalized diagrammatic forms the path diagram was the most commonly used – making up around 20% of the theory diagrams in our sample. This likely does not come as a surprise to most sociologists: I always seem to come across path-like diagrams in my reading, both with and without data, and can think of multiple times a professor had recommended using a path diagram to think and make sense of a research project. If path diagrams are so popular in sociology, and at least some professors generically prescribe them to struggling graduate students, it is worth asking: what does it mean to see the social world through a path diagram, like the one below?



Like with the exponential growth curve model, we can learn a lot here by unpacking the basic cognitive elements embedded within the diagram. While this appears to be somewhat reductive, all concepts, even abstract theoretical concepts in sociology, are grounded in a similar structure (Lizardo, 2013). Path diagrams may be viewed as an integrated or compound image-schema (Kimmel, 2005) with two main imagistic bases:

  1. Variables as ‘containers’

First, the path diagram asks us to visualize variables as static entities that are ‘contained’ within a bounded space. Again, this fits with another one of the most fundamental metaphors identified by Lakoff and Johnson – the ‘container’ metaphor (for example, when we say ‘I’ve lived a full life’). This is an ontological metaphor, that tells us that there is an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ – and in this case anything ‘inside’ the circle is understood as contained within its ‘boundary’.

  1. Source-path-goal

The source-path-goal schema is one of the most important sense-making structures people have; it structures our conception of ‘journey’ (a starting point – trajectory – and a destination), ‘story’ (a beginning – middle – end) , or ‘purposeful life’ (initial problem or ambition – action – solution or achievement) (Forceville, 2006).

Visually, we can see these structures in most conventional path diagrams:



But do all sociologists see social phenomena as bounded entities with relationships moving from a starting point, along a path, towards a given outcome? Interestingly, while many sociologists certainly think this way, ‘relational sociology’ (see Abbott, 2004; Emirbayer, 1997) explicitly rejects this line of thinking. Rather than treating phenomena as static ‘things’, relational sociologists conceive the social world as dynamic relations and processes. For them, boundary specification becomes a far more difficult and contentious question. For example, where do we end webs of social relations in a network, and when do sets of relations count as a ‘thing’? Or how do we fix a particular group if its membership, the frequency, and intensity of its relationships, its definition, aims etc. are continuously changing?

The same can be said for the source-path-goal schema: Can we commit to one causal story, one fixed set of relationships between entities? Ontologically, both the ‘container’ and ‘source-path-goal’ schemas appear incompatible with relational sociology; rather than fixed, bounded entities and static, linear relationships, relational sociologists see the social world as process—expanding and contracting, appearing and disappearing, merging and dividing, and so on. While path diagrams have been extremely useful and productive in sociology, if one’s aims are relational in nature, path diagrams may not be useful for thinking through or representing them.

Given this, one can speculate about what this may mean for the discipline. If diagrams are as influential as many suggest, and path diagrams are a go-to way to visualize theoretical ideas, could this be operating as a kind of visual roadblock to some forms of theory development? Could the way sociologists think and represent their ideas visually be stifling the development of relational theory? Can relational sociologists create a small revolution of their own, as Raworth (2017) has, by inventing or promoting alternative diagrammatic forms? For now, I can only speculate – but it seems to me that we have yet to explore how our visual language may be shaping the trajectory of the field as a whole.

Works Cited

Baldamus, W. (1992). Understanding Habermas’s methods of reasoning. History of the human sciences, 5(2), 97-115.

Barsalou, L. W. (2008). Grounded cognition. Annu. Rev. Psychol., 59, 617-645.

Brady, T. F., Konkle, T., Alvarez, G. A., & Oliva, A. (2008). Visual long-term memory has a massive storage capacity for object details. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(38), 14325-14329.

Coopmans, C., Vertesi, J., Lynch, M. E., & Woolgar, S. (2014). Representation in scientific practice revisited. MIT Press.

Forceville, C. (2006). The source–path–goal schema in the autobiographical journey documentary: McElwee, van der Keuken, Cole. New Review of Film and Television Studies, 4(3), 241-261.

Humphrey, T. M., & Line, P. (1996). The early history of the box diagram.

Kimmel, M. (2005). From Metaphor to the” Mental Sketchpad”: Literary Macrostructure and Compound Image Schemas in Heart of Darkness. Metaphor and Symbol, 20(3), 199-238.

Knorr-Cetina, K. (2003). From pipes to scopes: The flow architecture of financial markets. Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory, 4(2), 7-23.

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (2008). Metaphors we live by. University of Chicago press.

Latour, B. (1986). Visualization and cognition. Knowledge and society, 6(1), 1-40.

Lewinnek, E. (2010). Mapping Chicago, imagining metropolises: reconsidering the zonal model of urban growth. Journal of Urban History, 36(2), 197-225.

Lizardo, O. (2013). Re‐conceptualizing Abstract Conceptualization in Social Theory: The Case of the “Structure” Concept. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 43(2), 155-180.

Lynch, M. (1991). Pictures of nothing? Visual construals in social theory. Sociological Theory, 1-21.

McDonnell, T. E., Bail, C. A., & Tavory, I. (2017). A theory of resonance. Sociological Theory, 35(1), 1-14.

Mills, C. Wright. “The social imagination.” New York: Oxford University Pres (1959).

Owens, B. R. (2012). Mapping the city: Innovation and continuity in the Chicago School of Sociology, 1920–1934. The American Sociologist, 43(3), 264-293.

Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut economics: seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. Chelsea Green Publishing.

Reed, S. K. (2013). Thinking visually. Psychology Press.

Silver, D. (2018). Figure It Out!. Sociological Methods & Research, 0049124118769089.

Swedberg, R. (2016). Can You Visualize Theory? On the Use of Visual Thinking in Theory Pictures, Theorizing Diagrams, and Visual Sketches. Sociological Theory, 34(3), 250-275.

Thorpe, S., Fize, D., & Marlot, C. (1996). Speed of processing in the human visual system. nature, 381(6582), 520.

Turner, C. (2010). Investigating sociological theory. Sage Publications.

Turner, C. (2014). Travels without a donkey: The adventures of Bruno Latour. History of the Human Sciences, 28(1), 118-138.

Tversky, B. (2011). Visualizing thought. Topics in Cognitive Science, 3(3), 499-535.

Wood, M. L., Stoltz, D. S., Van Ness, J., & Taylor, M. A. (2018). Schemas and Frames.

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