Tracing the spaghetti

“Tracing the field” flickr photo by IaninSheffield shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Right from the start I called this visualisation ‘Tracing the field,’ unaware of the entanglements this might draw me into. I intended to provide the reader, reviewer, examiner, with a sense of my ethnographic meanderings; a trail to show where I’d been, what and who I’d encountered, what they had been doing and the ways in which they were all interconnected. An addition or enhancement to the more traditional textual field notes; one which provides an immediate sense of the whole, but which also provides quick access to the detail – a virtual zoom button. Given the functionalities within graphical drawing packages, it would also be possible to go a step further and provide hyperlinks back to the stopping points, the forks in the road. So in a similar way to how field notes recall and reflect on one’s experiences, my ‘Tracing’ would do the same and invite a reader to explore those steps . The problem was my choice of words.

By XIIIfromTOKYO (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons
Post-structuralist scholars, Deleuze and Guattari (1987) proposed the Rhizome as an alternative way to conceptualise exchanges, practices, understandings, knowings, which challenges hierarchies and rigid structures. The rhizome is a complex, messy, interwoven, interconnected, heterogenous multiplicity, which can serve as metaphor for the aforementioned happenings (although Deleuze and Guattari do not claim it as such). I wrestled with the rhizome a few years ago during a Rhizolearning MOOC … and lost! Although I’m now a little further forward, a detailed account of the rhizome as proposed by Deleuze and Guattari is beyond the scope of this post, and beyond my current level of understanding. Instead, let me stick to the aspects which are significant in the context of my task. There are six principles which explain the rhizome, two of which, decalcomania (tracing) and cartography (mapping), are the two terms I’ve been using to describe my ethnographic travels. Let me try to pick them apart:

A ‘map’ is an adaptive and responsive artefact which allows multiple points of entry and is open to continual modification. Mapping is active, performative and experimental, rather than intentionally summative. “It is not an image from which reality is to be traced” (Koh, 1997), but allows a researcher to “create possible realities” (Martin and Kamberelis, 2013). Maps “lack a central point of departure or locus of organization” (Strom, 2014); they lack structure.

A tracing on the other hand translates the map into an image; it fixes it, rendering it no longer open to possibilities. A tracing is constrained within a particular structure, is hierarchical and can be reproduced. Movement is only permitted within the confines of the tracing, which consequently excludes further possibilities. Tracings are not specifically rhizomic, though may form part of one.

I’ve tried to think of examples which illustrate each of these, but immediately run into problems. My understanding is likely to be incomplete, so what follows is me trying to find my way through this. I see a map like the one we might buy at a bookshop,  actually constituting a tracing in D&G terms. A Google map (unprinted) is still a tracing, but I’d argue, shifts along a continuum towards becoming a map – it is more adaptive, allows different points of entry, exploration beyond the edges of what was initially viewed, offers access to additional layers of information and can switch between map, satellite and street views. It invites exploration. I’m obliged to ask myself a couple of questions though; are those different aspects a result of underlying structure? And does navigating through them constitute creating different realities (virtual or otherwise)? I do feel that a Google map is less ‘flat’ than its printed counterpart, even if it might not be a Deleuze & Guattarian map. Here’s where I begin to struggle a bit (more!). What actually would be a legitimate example of a D&G map? Maybe I’m thinking too literally or perhaps I’m trying to take a helicopter or god-like view? Keith Hamon provides what was for me, an incredibly helpful metaphor in the form of a plate of spaghetti; any food-related metaphor will do the job for me and this certainly moved my understanding on a little further.

Let me now try to take the characteristics of maps and tracings and apply them to the rendering which opens this post. On first glance it clearly has an organised hierarchical structure and appears to emerge from a single point. The arrows on the connectives suggest a specific direction of flow within this highly arborescent structure, which only allows travel to and passage through certain fixed points. A tracing then? Well in the flat form above, that’s probably fair, but in the interactive version that can be found here, perhaps less so. The appearance of structure and fixity remains, but hovering over the nodes yields additional information, not visible until a ‘reader’ interacts with the graphic and tries to make sense for themselves. Additionally, that extra layer of information provides access to hyperlinks which extend beyond the plane of the graphic and out to other places where yet more information can be found and the possibility of open exploration. This mapping becomes a performance on the part of the reader, they’re no longer restricted to what is initially offered and have the option to pursue rhizomic pathways back, forth and sideways. A map? Perhaps. Perhaps the original flat graphic is a tracing which forms one strand within this more responsive map … and this is part of a much wider map still?

So have I managed to shed light on whether I should be calling my rendering a map or tracing? The bigger question perhaps is whether what I’m doing during ethnographic perambulations is rhizomic and whether that is a concept I ought to use to frame my study. I think my brief explorations into Deleuze and Guattari’s thinking indicates that it could conceptually be a fruitful endeavour. However, I’m not persuaded that this is somehow better or more appropriate than the sociomaterial/actor-network theory I’ve currently adopted. Furthermore, simple pragmatics suggests that trying to achieve a sufficiently robust understanding and familiarity with Deleuze and Guattari in the available time is probably not possible.

In conclusion then, perhaps it’s important for me to keep at the forefront of my mind what the purposes behind producing a visualisation of my ethnographic travels. Firstly, it’s to provide a different insight other than through text, for anyone interested in my research to have access to the experience(s) I enjoyed, even if they are displaced in time from the original observations. [Wonder if that matters, given that I was often experiencing events displaced in time from when they originally occurred? Hmm, may need to think more about temporality.] Secondly, it’s to provide a direct link back to those places I travelled so that should it be necessary, during my analysis or writing, I can quickly get back to the data in context and see how they were generated and wherelse they led. For Deleuze and Guattari, stepping back to get a bigger picture would be meaningless, but thirdly, I have the opportunity to zoom in and out. Finally, although visualising my meanderings using ‘MindView’ produces a much more hierarchical view than I (Or D&G) would prefer, what the package does allow is to view and to export in a variety of formats – document (Word or PDF), presentation, Gantt chart, timeline and web site. Having tried this, each seems to shift the focus slightly and perhaps encourages different interpretations. ‘Interpretations’ That’s another of those words isn’t it …?

Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1988). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Koh, C. (1997). Internet: Towards a holistic ontology. (Unpublished Bachelor of Arts (Honours)). Murdoch University, Perth. Retrieved from

Martin, A. D., & Kamberelis, G. (2013). Mapping not tracing: qualitative educational research with political teeth. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 26(6), 668-679.

Strom, K. J. (2014). Becoming-teacher: The negotiation of teaching practice of first-year secondary science teachers prepared in a hybrid urban teacher education program. (Unpublished Doctor of Eduation). Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ. Retrieved from


3 thoughts on “Tracing the spaghetti

  1. In a discussion the other day, someone was suggesting that books might also be considered maps, rather than tracings. The text within them, the paper, the bindings … the glasses you (well, I!) use to read them, the thinking you do, the meaning you make and the inscriptions you subsequently produce are all part of the assemblage, or rhizome … and therefore a map.
    I was convinced, but suspect I’m currently somewhat deterritorialized.


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