Chance and Serendipity

Chance and Serendipity

In sociological research there are moments of chance and serendipity in which something happens that moves a project or one’s thinking into an unexpectedly fruitful direction. An event is witnessed, a phrase heard, a paper read, a person met. Suddenly an idea sparks into being or things are cast in a new light. Such moments of chance are in part a product of the messiness of research and of the way in which the world, so well-studied for so long, can still surprise us.

Andy - Lying survey
Fleeting encounters in the field

In the Morgan Centre we are quite fond of mess and disorderliness and we have been experimenting with different ways of knowing about the world that take more notice of its chaotic and surprising features. For the most part, however, sociological methods tend to emphasise orderliness. They pull things together, search out patterns, organize themes, categorise, classify and compare. You can see this in the design of qualitative and quantitative data analysis tools, for example, which often embed certain frameworks for coding, interrogating and representing data that presume a certain sense of structure and hierarchy. Our published findings also adhere to certain conventions, sometimes borrowed from the natural sciences, so that most journal articles are much the same, at least in terms of presentation of the argument and the data.


When Lynne Chapman, resident artist in the Morgan Centre, first began workshops with us she immediately set about trying to change our relationship to order, patterns and structure. She encouraged us to ‘let go’, take a chance and see what happened when we played with the paints, pens and pencils we had newly acquired. This was difficult for me, since I am not a natural artist and being bad at things is an uncomfortable feeling for most people. When I put pen to paper what I draw does not look like the thing I can see in front of me. Hence, my first forays with the freedom of the blank page produced rather uninspiring results.

But Lynne’s enthusiasm has been unfaltering and we have engaged in a range of different activities designed to make us comfortable with the fact that our representations do not look like the real thing. One example was the use of ‘wrong-hand portraits’ which forced us to abandon any hope of making a realistic representation of our subjects.

Wrong hand 1 min portrait

Eventually this started to have an effect on how I approached painting and sketching and I believe that I am starting to understand a bit more about how an artist like Lynne might observe the world and how they combine skill and serendipity in their engagements with it and representations of it. Sploshing paint about, drawing without looking, combining paint and pen and pencil has ‘freed up my hand’ as Lynne might put it.

Trying to embrace chance in a picture of tulips

The results are much improved. Of course, this is partly due to practise. But it is also due to letting go of certain constraints I had placed on myself as a novice. By learning how to make use of the limited skills that I am developing in combination with the chance afforded by the materials I am using, I have begun to feel unburdened by realism. I’m also trying to steal some of Lynne’s techniques of annotating sketches, using certain pens and pencils, and sketching quickly to try to capture some of the movement in everyday life.


Intellectually, this embrace of chance and serendipity is familiar and reminds me that an important feature of creative methods in sociology is that they are more adept at picking up some of the multi-layered nature of social reality than are standard survey techniques or semi-structured interviews. They too can capture some of the movement of everyday life, the way it doesn’t fit within boundaries, colours outside the lines, and yet holds shape, has some order and consistency.


Images and Visualisation: Imaging Technology, Truth and Trust

Image courtesy of Mette Høst

I recently co-chaired (with Brigitte Nerlich and Annamaria Carusi) an ESF conference on visualisation, hosted by the University of Linköping but actually held in Norrköping, Sweden. It went swimmingly, with a variety of interesting and instructive presentations and posters, from philosophers, sociologists, anthropologists, nanoscientists, astronomers, clinicians, modellers and academics from a variety of other disciplinary backgrounds. We also had contributions from artists and designers, who provided an enlightening and importantly different take on the way in which representations of/in science are produced, circulated and used.

You can see the final programme here:

There were too many participants to name them all, and I don’t think I could really choose the ‘best’ as it were. But here are some of the themes that we addressed over the course of the week.

  1. Images and bodies: visual representations of various aspects of human and animal bodies, from the brain to arteries and from unicorns to monsters, the epistemological challenges posed by such images, the problems they pose for public participation in science and the issues around their use in medical practice.
  2. Images between bodies: issues around the use and interpretation of images between practitioners, such as radiographers and radiologists, doctors and patients, novice scientists and mature experts, scientific communities and lay communities.
  3. Maps and mapping: from brain images to landscapes, GIS and google maps, from the quantum level to quasars, again the issue of how these maps function within and across expert and lay communities was important, but so was the concept of ‘mapping’ as process.
  4. Scales of images and issues of beauty: the issue of the aesthetic quality of images of various scales and what makes a ‘good’ image, who decides when it is ‘good’ and for whom, and in what context.
  5. Images and ethics: issues around truth and trust were discussed with relation to representations, for example in how astronomical images are used for public outreach and how engaging publics depends on images that attract attention. We discussed whether there was an ‘ethical’ balance between beauty and truth and how that was negotiated in practice.
  6. Images and epistemology: here the issue of ‘representation’ was crucial. Much of the discussion was concerned with escaping an extreme relativism or a naïve realism when thinking through the relation between an image and reality, between an image and our knowledge of reality, especially with relation to phenomena that are by definition invisible, i.e. below the wavelength of light for example.
  7. Images and the constitution of social facts we explore how representations were used in the constitution of the self through brain imaging or pain mapping, and the significance of documentary photography for famine in India during British colonialism.

Overall, it was fascinating and there was a lot of will to continue our interactions in the future. We’re hoping to set-up a visualisation and science wiki, and I’ll post on that in the future. In the meantime, we have an email list and if anyone would like to be added to it, then do let me know.