Diagrammatic Thinking Across Cultures

Cultures all over the world are defined in part by their artistic traditions, which differ widely and wonderfully. In contrast, science is regarded as universal. Science relies heavily on depictions and diagrams. Are depictions and diagrams in science texts affected by cultural traditions? With the support of NSF Visualization-grant, we had the opportunity to address that question. We gathered science textbooks from junior high (12-14 years) science classes as these are students’ early exposures to organized science texts and more likely to be developed locally, with less international influence. We chose the circulatory system and the water cycle because they represent life and natural sciences and because they are generally taught. We asked friends and colleagues to send us textbooks that were widely-adopted in their countries and received textbooks from France, India, Lebanon, US, UK, Turkey, Korea, Japan and Taiwan.

We were particularly interested in exploring what cultural effects might be expected on depictions and diagrams in science texts? In interpreting pictures, people from eastern cultures rely more on context while people from western cultures focus on the central figure or figures (e. g, Kitiyama, Duffy, Kawamura, and Larsen, 2003; Nisbett and Masuda, 2003). Although the sample size was too small to find statistical differences, it was worth noting there were hints of cultural differences consistent with previous findings. The two eastern cultures did seem to provide more context than the other countries. The text from Taiwan was the only one to use diagrams of circulatory systems in other animals, a grasshopper and a snake, and also the only one to contextualize the human being in the general ecology of the world before addressing the biological systems of the human body (see slideshow). Similarly, a Japanese text provided a broader context for the circulatory system by including the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system, including its homeostatic function in regulating body temperature (see slideshow). One effective use of diagrams is to convey metaphor and analogy; these were surprisingly rare, but appeared in textbooks from the east, the use of a train from Taiwan (see slideshow) and squeezing a ball from Korea (see slideshow).

There was extensive variability in diagram design, including how well the diagrams were integrated into the text. The French textbooks were exemplary. Those diagrams used multiple related diagrams to tell a story, some more photographic, some more schematic, in a more or less standard format that is easy to follow. The diagrams were well-integrated with the text; in fact, the explanation was often through the diagrams and the text was used to explain the diagrams, rather than the diagrams merely “illustrating” the text (see slideshow).

All over the world, textbooks aimed at the early teen years, the first exposure of organized science, rely heavily on diagrams to explain scientific concepts and processes, some more effectively than others. Science texts seem to be relatively impervious to cultural differences in depictive traditions.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

More from Portfolio