What do we see when we look at networks: Visual network analysis, relational ambiguity, and force-directed layouts

Venturini Tommaso, Mathieu Jacomy, Pablo Jensen

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


It is increasingly common in natural and social sciences to rely on network visualizations to explore relational datasets and illustrate findings. Such practices have been around long enough to prove that scholars find it useful to project networks in a two-dimensional space and to use their visual qualities as proxies for their topological features. Yet these practices remain based on intuition, and the foundations and limits of this type of exploration are still implicit. To fill this lack of formalization, this paper offers explicit documentation for the kind of visual network analysis encouraged by force-directed layouts. Using the example of a network of Jazz performers, band and record labels extracted from Wikipedia, the paper provides guidelines on how to make networks readable and how to interpret their visual features. It discusses how the inherent ambiguity of network visualizations can be exploited for exploratory data analysis. Acknowledging that vagueness is a feature of many relational datasets in the humanities and social sciences, the paper contends that visual ambiguity, if properly interpreted, can be an asset for the analysis. Finally, we propose two attempts to distinguish the ambiguity inherited from the represented phenomenon from the distortions coming from fitting a multidimensional object in a two-dimensional space. We discuss why these attempts are only partially successful, and we propose further steps towards a metric of spatialization quality.
Original languageEnglish
JournalBig Data & Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2021


  • Networks
  • networks analysis
  • force-directed layout
  • data visualization
  • digital sociology
  • relational ambiguity


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