Francesca Bonalumi, Christophe Heintz, Nausicaa Pouscoulous, Akos Szegofi and Liangqi Li: Pragmatics of Graphs and Charts


Experimental pragmatics has mainly focused on verbal communication, while non-verbal communicative stimuli also trigger pragmatic processes. We argue that data visualisations are a type of communicative stimulus, as they are taken as evidence of the speaker’s informative intentions; thus, we aim to apply pragmatics to the study of data visualisation. Previous literature on data visualisation focuses on syntactic and semantic analyses, but such research often underestimates the role of pragmatics: charts and graphs always convey a meaning, which must be inferred by the reader. We intend to show that data visualisations are understood as communicative acts, and that their semantic and syntactic elements will be interpreted on the basis of the presumption of relevance.

Deploying pragmatics in the field of data visualisation yields important and testable ideas. Previous research in the pragmatics of verbal communication shows that the interpretation of utterances is critically modulated by the context in which such utterances are produced. In our experimental setting, we present participants with visualisations depicting changes or differences in magnitude. We reasoned that depicted differences in graphs and charts can be similarly interpreted as conveying different information, depending on the context. We therefore predict that different contexts will lead readers to derive different interpretations from the very same graph. Experimental evidence supporting the claim that context matters with data visualisations will support the claim that readers of graphs and charts make pragmatic inferences when interpreting non-verbal communicative stimuli.


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