Visualising themes in the Plowden Report

By Gordon Rugg

I’ve recently started looking at the Plowden Report, mainly because of my interest in sociotechnical issues. The method I was using may be interesting and useful to readers, so this article is a quick overview of the method.

I’ve been using the Search Visualizer software, which is available free online. (Declaration of interest: I’m co-inventor of the software.)

The software shows you where your chosen keywords occur within a text, representing each keyword as a colour-coded square, as if you’d gone through the document highlighting every occurrence of your keywords, and then miniaturised the document so you could see large sections of it at a time.

This is particularly useful when you’re dealing with very large texts, since it allows you to see patterns of distributions. It turns out, for instance, that there’s a fair amount in Plowden about furniture, and that most of those mentions are in one section of the report.

The image below shows where the word “classroom” appears (green dots) at the start of Volume 2 of Plowden.

Slide1Image copyleft Search Visualizer, 2014

So, what did I find?

I’ve blogged previously about how technology, including the built environment, interacts with human behaviour (the core concept of sociotechnical analysis).

I was wondering whether this issue featured in Plowden.

The Plowden Report did indeed take sociotechnical issues into consideration, though not from an explicitly sociotechnical viewpoint; instead, it took a sociological view, looking at issues such as the number of bedrooms in the children’s homes as a proxy for affluence and deprivation, and looking at the quality of furniture in the school. Here are some images for the relevant searches.

The first shows the results for a search on classroom and bedroom in Volume 2 of Plowden. It’s a closeup view of the relevant part of the report.

Classroom (green squares) and bedroom (red squares)

Slide2Image copyleft Search Visualizer, 2014

At the top, near the beginning of the report, we see half a dozen green squares, each representing one mention of the word classroom. Further down, we see numerous red squares, each representing one mention of the word bedroom. Within this part of the report (about the first 15% of the volume) mentions of bedrooms significantly outnumber mentions of classrooms, and are tightly clustered, implying that the report contains a section dedicated to something such as the home environment of the children.

This suggested that the authors of the Plowden Report were well aware of practical issues that could affect the well-being and behaviour of the children.

Did they discuss the practical issue of furniture design and/or layout in relation to discipline? Furniture was indeed mentioned, but not in conjunction with discipline. Here’s a detailed view of the relevant part of the report, showing discipline (green squares) and furniture (red squares).

furniture and disciplinev2Image copyleft Search Visualizer, 2014

Discipline is mentioned at the top of this image; furniture is mentioned at the bottom. They’re separated by a lot of text on other topics. So, although furniture was something that the report mentions about as frequently as discipline in this part of the report, it wasn’t something that the authors associated with discipline.

Here’s a mention of discipline, using the pop-up function that shows the text surrounding a keyword to give context. The red squares are for “traditional” and the green squares are for “discipline”.

Slide3Image copyleft Search Visualizer, 2014

This raises the final point that I’ll cover in this article. How often is “frequently” in this context?

One advantage of this visualisation format is that it can give you a very swift overview of how common or rare a given term is within a text.

The first image below shows the opening part of the report, with mentions of child represented by red squares.

childImage copyleft Search Visualizer, 2014

It’s clear that the child is a topic of central importance in this report.

The next image, in contrast, shows mentions of the phrase “bowel control” in the one part of the report where there is a cluster of mentions of this term.

bowel control2Image copyleft Search Visualizer, 2014

It’s something that the authors included – it’s a thorough report – but we can see at a glance that it receives very few mentions. There are two mentions near the top of the image, and seven in the main cluster. It’s clearly a topic that the authors viewed as worth mentioning, but only as a minor detail.

Closing thoughts

For anyone working with very long texts, or with large numbers of texts, this method provides a swift way of getting an overview of which themes are occurring, and of how often they occur, and of how they cluster (or don’t cluster) with each other. It’s well worth trying out. I’ve included some more detailed information in the notes section below.

I hope you’ll find this useful.

Notes and links

The Search Visualizer software is available free online here:

Our blog about ways of using it is here:

(The blog also contains a fair amount about my work on the Voynich Manuscript, much of which used Search Visualizer.)

To search the Plowden Report with Search Visualizer, you need to go to the Search Visualizer site, then select the “Single site” option shown on the left of the screenshot, and then enter the url below into the Search Visualizer menu box for urls.

It’s a good idea to set the options either to “1 result per screen” or to “smaller squares” and “2 results per screen” because the Plowden Report is very long, and the other settings won’t display it properly, for technical reasons.

The screenshot at the start of this article should make sense of anything that’s not immediately clear, and there are tutorial articles about getting the best out of the software’s options on the Search Visualizer blog site.

You’re welcome to use these copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Search Visualizer.

There’s more about the background theory for this article in my latest book:

Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese







1 thought on “Visualising themes in the Plowden Report

  1. Pingback: The Knowledge Modelling Book | hyde and rugg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

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