One of the features that characterizes complex situations is the interconnectedness of the components within them. Understanding such situations can defeat our descriptive abilities.
Words alone either confuse still further or misrepresent the situation altogether. For this reason, diagrams are a characteristic feature of systems approaches to understanding complex situations. Diagrams allow the relationships between parts of the situation to be seen at the same time as the parts themselves.
The diagram (Figure 3) on the following page is an example. Imagine trying to write Figure 3 down in words. You might conceivably start your first sentence with any one of the components. You would then use the words of the arrow labels to connect each component with the one that follows.
Finally, you would have to say that in fact the last link of the chain is connected to the first. It would take several sentences and would be tricky to ensure that the reader understood that the links were at least as important as the components. The reader might also get the impression (even though you didn't mean it) that the first component you mentioned was somehow the one that ‘starts it off’.
Whether you agree with the arguments expressed in Figure 3 or not, I hope that you can now appreciate that diagramming is a way of representing complex situations that allows us to represent the complexity while seeing the individual components and their connections to other components at the same time.
One of the problems with written accounts is that they are ‘linear’. In other words, the sentences follow one after another, in a given order. This is fine for accounts of events that do happen in sequence, but not where things are intimately connected and do not come in a particular order, or form various circles of activity that reinforce particular behaviour.
The type of diagram shown in Figure 3 can be seen as a series of interconnected sentences. But the sentences have escaped from the normal linguistic convention in which one sentence follows another in order. In making that escape, a whole new way of thinking opens up.
But like ordinary language, there is more to understanding diagrams than the words they contain. To convey their full meaning, they must follow conventions, much as a list of words must follow grammatical conventions to become a meaningful sentence. Understanding and being familiar with the conventions allows you to convey a wealth of meaning in your diagrams.
Another reason for using diagrams is the way that they highlight things that are effectively disguised by using text; for example the interconnectedness between apparently unrelated events or activities. They do this by providing another viewpoint. So diagrams are not simply for the diagrammer to convey meaning to a reader.
Diagrams make the diagrammer aware of previously unrealized features of the situation. I have been using diagrams for a long time now and I'm still astonished by the powerful insights they give me. One useful technique is to draw diagrams while reading. You can supplement the author's choice of diagrams with ones that suit you personally, or you can convert text to diagrams that suit you. Another useful technique is to carefully scrutinize the diagrams people use to see what they reveal and what they conceal about a situation.
In this unit I want to show how you can use diagrams to help you understand what someone else has written, and it does not matter how well you can draw as long as they make sense to you. As you become more confident at drawing diagrams for yourself, you will then be able to move on to drawing diagrams to show someone else.
At this stage you might still be doubtful as to the usefulness of diagrams for understanding situations. So, why not try using one?
Jane is married to Tom and they live at No. 8. Tom's sister Dawn lives at No. 20 and has three children, Peter, Paul and Mary. Her partner Derek left her 4 years ago and moved to Scotland, but now she is living with John. John has two children of his own, Tim and Nicholas, from his marriage to Julie. Julie's father, Alf, works in the same factory as Tom's father, while Dawn and Jane's mother went to school together. Alf and Millie live at No. 34. They used to live at No. 6, but moved after the children left home. Dawn has two older brothers, one of whom has moved away. Keith and Pamela are Tom's parents, but Pamela died last year. Keith now lives alone at No. 18.
Quickly sketch one or two diagrams to more clearly convey the relationships described in Box 1. It is a good idea to start with a large blank piece of paper so that your diagram won't be cramped.
The situation described in the box is messy and complicated to follow as text. When I gave this activity to several students some produced diagrams like that shown in Figure 4. This does begin to make the situation more understandable, but is still a bit messy. However, other students eventually realized that they needed two diagrams.
The first one (Figure 5) shows who is related to whom as just two family trees while the second (Figure 6) shows who lives in which house. I certainly found that looking at these two diagrams made things a lot clearer for me, in particular the relationships between two different sets of connected things. Of course, these are the ways some chose to represent the situation and the diagrams do not include all the information given in the box - they selected what they thought was essential.
Someone who read an early draft of this section suggested that I could mark on Figure 6 the arrivals and departures as well (see Figure 7) as some tried to do in Figure 4, while a few students actually drew Figure 6 as a line of boxes rather than blobs to show that the street is likely to be a ‘line’ of houses.
You could have used different ways of analyzing this text, such as spray diagrams, but whatever the type of diagram I am sure that the process of producing the diagram improved your understanding of the situation. Whether you think your diagram would clearly convey the situation to other people can only be tested by trying it out and indeed the comments of others can be very helpful, as seen above.
I hope this example has shown you some of the value of using diagrams rather than text to represent some relationships. Diagrams allow the relationships between parts of a situation to be seen at the same time as the parts themselves. And, whether or not your diagram makes sense to other people, it can help you to understand.
When you can see the whole situation sketched out in front of you, then you are in a position to check (or ask someone else to check) whether all the links you have shown are logical, and whether you have included all the essential components. If the diagram does not make sense to you, then it may be that you have failed to understand the text. But if your diagram does make sense then there is an additional bonus - it is often much easier to remember information in diagram form than as strings of information. Which would you find easier to remember - the text in Box 1 or the diagrams the students produced?
Diagrams can be helpful in clarifying your thinking because:
• they can summarize complex situations, allowing you to appreciate the complexity while seeing the individual components and the connections between the components;
• they can give you new insights into a situation by making you think carefully about the components and connections and by helping you to learn more effectively.