The Imagination in Transcription

Author: Kate Cowan

‘The world is complex, dynamic, multidimensional; the paper is static, flat. How are we to represent the rich visual world of experience and measurement on mere flatland?’ (p.9)

This introduction to Edward Tufte’s ‘Envisioning Information’ (1990) encapsulates a challenge central to my research. How can the ‘flatlands’ of page and screen be designed to re-present the visual, spatial and temporal aspects of the world around us? How might we transcribe multimodally?

The term ‘transcription’ usually refers to the academic practice of turning a strip of talk into writing, based on traditions using tape recorders in social research. Although both linguistic modes with some shared features, re-making talk as writing necessarily but inevitably alters both its form and meaning potential. With video cameras now occupying an increasingly central role, both in research and also in people’s everyday lives and public environments, video differs to audio recording through offering a real-time, sequential, fine-grained record where speech is preserved as one mode among many. With these new possibilities come additional challenges. How might we go about re-presenting not just speech, but also visual and spatial information, and its unfolding over time?

This is the question at the heart of my PhD, necessitated by the fact that video methodology is still young, and that researchers are currently grappling with transcription of video in different ways. This lack of convention can feel more than a little daunting, but meeting with Professor Frederick Erickson on his recent visit to MODE offered some reassurance, as he saw this lack of canonical tradition as fertile ground for experimentation, and urged cultivation of “the imagination in transcription” (MODE Video Data Workshop – 12.10.12).

In this spirit, I have been seeking out the endeavours of others attempting to re-present, often simultaneously, aspects such as the visual, linguistic, spatial, gestural, temporal and musical in research (see the in-progress ‘Transcription Bank’ on this website). Whilst academic transcripts are one useful source, I have been interested in also looking beyond research, to other disciplines concerned with re-presentation in ‘flatlands’. For instance, what might specialized systems of dance notation offer in understanding depictions of movement through space and time?

I have used the social photo-sharing website ‘Pinterest’ to create a pin-board of images that have been of interest to me when considering re-presentation, design, information and transcription in a broad sense. Although presented in a modern online space, the images originate as far back as the 17th Century (the image in its original online context can be accessed by clicking) and include a variety of topics – colour, dance, sport, anatomy, weather, birdsong, tea-making, and more besides. Although diverse, what these re-presentations have in common is their foregrounding of the visual as opposed to written modes, making use of image, layout, diagrams, icons, typography, colour and mapping, amongst other elements of design.

Although not directly related to the academic transcription of video, I hope that my on-going collection of such re-presentations will help to keep cultivating my transcription imagination, reminding me of the multimodal ways that information sources might be re-presented. I welcome any comments, thoughts or suggested additions to the Pinterest board ‘Re-Presentations’, which can be viewed here:

Currently Reading:

Tufte, E. R. (1990) ‘Envisioning Information’ (Graphics Press, Connecticut)

One response to “The Imagination in Transcription

  1. Reblogged this on Macademise and commented:
    For those working ethnographically and with video data, I just discovered this blog which has lot of interesting reflections on data analysis and relationships between the sociocultural and technology. Check it out.

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