How spatial analysis can help us to achieve a better understanding of social and political phenomena? More concretely, what is the use of maps when it comes to social research? What does it adds to those methods and techniques currently applied in different social sciences disciplines? In order to illustrate their usefulness as clearly as possible, the figure below represents the percentage of vote in the two main Spanish political parties for the 2011 general elections at the scale of census tract in Salamanca.
Fig.1. % of vote of PP and PSOE to the congress by census tract in Salamanca (2011).
A brief look at the maps can reveal a large amount of information. In the first place, the vote in the Partido Popular (PP) is clustered in the city center, while the best results obtained by the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE) are concentrated in the periphery. Comparatively, these two maps highlight the existence of a center-periphery voting organization in Salamanca. Such structure of voting behavior, when associated to other social and demographic characteristics, discloses a conservative vote associated to zones where older, richer and professionals or white-collar workers reside. The left vote, on the other hand, is associated to areas characterized by younger, blue-collar, and lower middle/working class residents.
This type of analysis is straightforward. Nonetheless, and this is central here: could we achieve the same perspective using other charts or techniques? Hardly. Just an exhaustive analytical work using traditional methods could offer something similar and after much work. Besides, this technique adds a new kind of reflection and conceptual framework to social or political analysis, since it puts space into perspective.
Since the beginning of 2015, a group of young researchers from the University of Salamanca has started a socio-spatial analysis lab. CompassLab (http://www.compasslab.org/) represents an initiative aiming at the development of innovative research projects, the provision of specialized training, as well as the delivery of tailored solutions to different social actors. In order to achieve this purpose we combine expert knowledge in social sciences to spatial analysis theories and techniques.
Geography and other scientific disciplines, such as ecology and epidemiology, have developed concepts and analytical methods extremely useful and easily applicable to research objects of social sciences. This is accompanied by the emergence of a variety of software, design and web-based tools facilitating the visualization of social information in maps. One clear expression of this phenomenon is the more and more common use of interactive charts and maps in news in the most important newspapers all over the world. Nonetheless, there is still plenty to be done in terms of a deeper, more careful, and scientifically guided interpretation of social phenomena. Media coverage usually lacks depth. Social events with plentiful analytical and social interests are frequently transformed into trivial or anecdotic narratives, losing their informative potential.
CompassLab is born with a clear mission: to promote the reflexive thinking between space and society. It achieves this goal through different starting points and using different instruments, from traditional academic scholarship to the development of informative campaigns to the general public. Concerning research, it intends to apply spatial theories and methods to social sciences research, developing tools and models that allow researchers to go beyond traditional perspectives on the spatiality of social phenomena. Concerning training, we promote courses and training in the spatial analysis of politics, the economy and society, as well in those methods required to perform this kind of analysis. Besides, one of our key aspirations is to go beyond the university and to establish a more direct dialog with various sectors in society and policy makers. In particular, we develop visual and interactive tools that provide access to complex content to a broader public. We never simplify ideas. Our challenge is to generate visual narratives that make them comprehensible to all.
CompassBlog lies in the core of this goal. From our perspective, the blog constitutes an interactive communication tool designed to propose debate, receive suggestions, critiques and, therefore, learning in the process. This interlocution channel will serve to present our works and projects to a broader audience, receive feedback, and to explore innovative resources and experiences available. We want to share our view with our readers and, above all, to establish a place for the dialog. Our goal is to convert this blog into a space of reference and utility for a plural community of people interested in the relevance of space to understand society. In order to do so, the posts will also include successful applications of spatial methods and concepts in the social sciences. According to our possibilities, we also plan to include tutorials or little guides on how to use these tools.
Finally, we just want to give you our welcome to this newborn blog, expecting that the content that will be published periodically here is of your interest. We would also like to ask for your active participation, with comments and suggestions here and in our Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/compasslab/). Our webpage (http://www.compasslab.org/) also provides more information about ourselves and our project.