Representing Freedom: How Mobility is Remade Through Data Visualisation

March 2017 - October 2017
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The world is increasingly characterised by human mobility. Notions of ‘freedom’ prominently feature in political discussion about migration policies, rights afforded to citizens and migrants, and the roles of states to intervene. Ralf Dahrendorf thought of freedom as ‘the absence of coercion. Human beings are free to the extent to which they are able to take their own decisions’ (2007, 125). Extending from his work, as well as other philosophers such as Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, there has been considerable work examining how the concept of freedom relates to different kinds of freedoms: freedom of expression, or free trade, for instance.

‘Representing Freedom’ considers another kind of freedom and how it is being re-made: freedom of movement. For some time now, social scientists have understood human behaviours and organisation as increasingly networked and transnational in character. But others have argued that this so-called ‘mobility turn’ actually reinforces particular values or ideologies associated with movement instead of critically engaging with them. Here, ‘mobility’ includes movement of all varieties and occurring at all scales, rather than in the narrower, policy-oriented sense of ‘international migration’. This also includes its obverse aspects of ‘immobility’—whether actively chosen or forcibly imposed. The aim is to critically examine how the concept of freedom is expressed in the context of mobility.

This project asks ‘how do data visualisations about mobility encode particular assumptions and ideologies relating to freedom of movement—what it is, what it achieves, and why it is so valuable?’ It starts from the need to question assumptions that come with the dominant rhetoric around mobility and movement. The study focuses on the domain of data visualisation, which is highly relevant to study in this context for two reasons. First, data visualisation increasingly appears in many settings, from journalism to social media to civil society publications. In fact, people increasingly encounter data and information about many topics through visualisations rather than in ‘raw’ tabular forms. But visualisations are not inherently objective windows onto data: instead, they do persuasive, even ideological, work by prioritising some values over others. Second, human mobility and migration is a particularly salient domain for visualisation because it readily lends itself to interactivity, movement, and mapping. This makes focusing on visualisations about mobility particularly useful for seeing how ‘freedom of movement’ is constructed: Dahrendorf argued that ‘for real people in the real world…freedom becomes relevant through particular freedoms or liberties’ (2007, 130).

Using social semiotic analysis of a selection of publicly available visualisations about migration and mobility, this project will analyse how key semiotic dimensions express particular views of ‘freedom’. These may include, but are not limited to: colour, layout, use (or lack) of perspective, motion (if examining interactive visualisations), and contextual features such as location within a website or publication.


Dahrendorf, Ralf (2007) ‘Freedom’. In Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Ed Randall & Duncan Brack, 125–30, London: Politico’s Publishing

Principal Investigator

Will Allen


Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford