What is Graphic Social Science?


In June 2017, I co-organised an event exploring how graphic novels can be used to communicate research. My interest in research communication and love of the medium had long left me fascinated by this possibility, something which I began to explore more seriously when I attended a weekend masterclass by Tony Lee. This comprehensive introduction to the writing and production process left me newly aware of the difficulty of the medium but even more excited about the possibilities which graphic novels offered for communicating social research.

Therefore I was delighted when The Sociological Review agreed to support a one day workshop, organised with Jenny Thatcher, introducing the medium to social scientists. In the morning, Helen Kara introduced graphic social science and placed it in the context of creative methods, before Katy Vigurs talked about the process of putting together her research-informed comic Higher Fees, Higher Debts: Greater Expectations of Graduate Futures. The bulk of the day was then convened by Tony Lee, introducing the medium and walking us in detail through the process of writing comics, before we discussed potential ways forward for graphic social science in a final session. You can see a compilation of tweets from the day here.

This paper by Ernesto Priego, in which he interviews Katy Vigurs about Higher Fees, Higher Debts, provides a useful overview of how non-fiction comics have been taken up across a range of fields, as well as the reasons for this:

Comics have the potential to improve the quality of life of people who engage in comics creation or reading, and to transform attitudes, awareness, and behaviour around social issues; comics can create new opportunities for practitioners and audiences (Cardiff University 2014). Non-fiction comics, defined by Nina Mickwitz as ‘comics which take the real (as an experiential and socio-historical category) as their subject’ (Mickwitz 2014: 14; Mickwitz 2016) have been increasingly embraced within journalism (Priego 2009; Polgreen 2014; Wang 2016) medicine and health care (Williams 2011, 2012; Farthing and Priego 2016a, 2016b) and law (Giddens 2015). Fairly recently, comics have been well received amongst science communication audiences and publishers as a form of science journalism, in particular (Diamond et al 2012; Keller and Neufeld 2014; Cho 2015; Monastersky and Sousanis 2015).

Researchers have turned to comics as valid outputs for displaying research findings in print and online publications that can lead to the wider adoption of such research and can influence public policy. By arguing that comics creation is a ‘way of thinking’, comics have also become academic outputs in their own right (Sousanis 2015a, 2015b; Labarre 2015). According to Erin Polgreen, ‘comic book narratives can work across platforms, engage younger, more visually oriented readers, and transcend cultural borders,’ (2014: 12). Polgreen cites cognitive scientist Neil Cohn: ‘the evidence is fairly clear that sequential images (usually plus text) are an effective teaching tool’ (2014: 13). Indeed, it is today almost common-place to state that comics and cartoons are valuable means of teaching multimodal literacy skills (El Refaie and Hörschelmann 2010). As Cohn notes, ‘growing research suggests that sequential images combined with text are an effective tool of communication and education (e.g., Nakazawa, 2005; Nalu and Bliss, 2011; Short et al., 2013), beyond just being entertainment’ (Cohn 2014).


There are some really exciting possibilities here. While much of the day was a hugely informative introduction to the creative and logistical challenges to putting together a research-informed comic, the final session turned to ideas about how we could support Graphic Social Science as an exercise that sought to produce outputs such as this. Here are some of the ideas we had about features for a web based resource supporting graphical social science:

  • Comprehensive bibliography
  • Database of research-informed comics
  • Listings of conferences and events
  • Links to other resources
  • A skills bank collecting ‘how-to’ guides in various formats
  • Write-ups of experiences of collaborations
  • Reflections on the methodology of graphic social science
  • Listings of funders open to graphic social science
  • Listings of publishers open to graphic social science

Graphic Medicine was discussed as an example of how such an online resource could function. We discussed other ideas for how the development of Graphic Social Science could be supported:

  • Producing a code of ethics
  • Producing a web comic to disseminate short-form Graphic Social Science
  • Developing an anthology (or series thereof) to disseminate Graphic Social Science
  • Hosting further events, hopefully involving a wider non-academic community

In an extensive discussion of the challenges facing Graphic Social Science, I felt six main themes emerged:

  • Establishing the academic legitimacy of Graphic Social Science
  • Finding places to publish the outputs of Graphic Social Science
  • Establishing how peer review can function properly for Graphic Social Science
  • Establishing good practice for collaborations
  • Clarifying where Graphic Social Science sits within the research process e.g. is it ‘just’ dissemination?
  • Exploring the potential audiences for Graphic Social Science: are we seeking to communicate ‘internally’, ‘externally’ or both?

Hopefully we can take this forward from here! Join the Facebook Group or get in touch via Twitter if you’d like to be involved.



The Graphic Social Science Research Network

The Graphic Social Science Research Network was established in June 2017 to help advance the practice of Graphic Social Science.