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Visual Social Research Methods Beyond Talk and Text Dr. Richie Nimmo

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1 Visual Social Research Methods Beyond Talk and Text Dr. Richie Nimmo

2 Visual Social Research Methods: Beyond Talk and Text Why Study Visual Methods? Thinking about research methods always involves thinking about what the world is like, and about how we can gain knowledge of it: Ontology – What is the world like? What is real? Epistemology – How can we gain knowledge of the world? When we make decisions about what research methods to use we are actually answering these questions, perhaps without realising.

3 Do the conventional methods exclude anything? Are there things that are significant in our lives but dont get acknowledged in social research? Do our methods over-simplify reality? Do they filter out certain elements of our experience and make them invisible? If so, then how can these things be brought back in and made visible again? The argument: unusual methods can help to make social science less reductive (less over-simplified).

4 One reduction of reality that social science has often been accused of is a reduction to language. It sometimes seems as though social life consists only of what is spoken or written, as most methods rely mainly upon what people say. But what about the data of the other senses? What of sight, smell, touch and hearing – are these forms of experience reducible to language? If not, then why are they so often neglected by our social research methods?

5 E.g. is our social world exclusively linguistic? Or is it also material and sensory, and therefore visual? Isnt our visual perception shaped by our culture and society? And arent our social actions partly shaped by our visual experience? Therefore, arent the visual dimensions of our lives socially significant? The argument: visual data can help to make social science less dependent upon language.

6 If there is any doubt about the role of visual experience in organising everyday social life: consider the routine exclusion that confronts the visually impaired in all societies. try living for a single day without the use of sight. If there is any doubt as to how much communication takes place through visual interaction: consider the silent films of Charlie Chaplin and the subtlety of the meanings and identities depicted.

7 Of the special sense-organs, the eye has a uniquely sociological function. The union and the interaction of individuals is based upon mutual glances. (From Soziologic, cited in Goffman 1963, p. 93). So visual perception is a social as well as a physical phenomenon. On this basis one can imagine a sociology of eye contact,or even a sociology of smiles, i.e. Social relationships can be analysed in terms of the visual aspects of social interaction.

8 Visual Perception is a Social Phenomenon John Berger (1972) – Ways of Seeing Seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak. But there is another sense in which seeing comes before words. It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world… The way we see things is affected by what we know or believe. Berger argues that ways of seeing are socially conditioned – our perception depends upon our social existence. What we see depends upon what we are (i.e. how we live). Walter Benjamin (1936) – The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction During long periods of history, the mode of human sense-perception changes with humanitys entire mode of existence. The manner in which human sense-perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined not only by nature but by historical circumstances as well.

9 The Sensory Turn in the social sciences This is the time of the senses (Beyond Text, June 2007) According to the anthropologist David Howes, we are witnessing a sensorial revolution in social science, equivalent to the textual revolution of the 1970s. At the forefront of this is a renewed interest in the visual, i.e. visual data and visual ways of doing social research. At the same time, visual ethnography and visual sociology are increasingly seen as more than just the use of photographs and images in research…

10 What is Visual Sociology ? Until recently visual sociology was a marginal sub-field of sociology, largely detached from the mainstream. But the broadening of visual sociology beyond the study of images (as part of the sensory turn) has reconnected it to the core questions of sociology. Ideas about display, status and interaction allow us to tap into the rich vein of Goffmanian interactionism. Ideas about surveillance, visibility and privacy bring to mind Elias and Foucault. Readings of objects, buildings and places allow reference to Levi-Strauss on nature/culture or to postmodern theory on architecture, and so on. (Emmison and Smith 2000, ix).

11 Visual sociology is more than just the study of photographs and images. (Emmison and Smith 2000, ix). The sociological study of the seen and the observable. i.e. the whole field of visual experience. This would include: objects buildings interiors environments bodies and movements as well as 2-dimensional images. Therefore the visual links: the body and senses space and materiality culture and meaning

12 The importance of the Visual There are 2 main arguments for why social science should take visual research seriously: i) The Post-modern argument. ii) The Ontological argument. 1. The postmodern argument: Suggests that we have entered a new historical era in which the visual has become a much more important aspect of social life…

13 Historical sociologists point to the key role of writing and printing press in the emergence of bureaucratic industrial societies (Benedict Anderson, 1991). Some have suggested that if writing was fundamental to modern society, then visual images are fundamental in post-modern society. According to the sociologist Scott Lash (1988) the cultural logic of post-modernity has seen a heightened visual sensibility replace a literary/textual one.

14 Scott Lash claims that we now live in what he calls an image-based culture founded on spectacle. Spectacle = forceful visual impacts upon the human consciousness. These are different in nature from the meanings mediated through language. The argument: Images have replaced texts as the dominant cultural form in contemporary societies.

15 The critical theorist Walter Benjamin argued that: In the photograph, a space informed by human consciousness gives way to a space informed by the unconscious. (1985, p. 243). If this is true then there is something unique about visual experience. In which case we need to use specifically visual methods in order to properly grasp our visual social world.

16 … the importance of the Visual 2. The Ontological Argument: Suggests that the Visual has always been central to social life and to human cultures. Anthropological studies of traditional societies have shown the key role of visual communication in practices of ritual, symbolism, totemism, and everyday life. Richard Sennett (1977) has shown that the public life of early modern Europe was dominated by visible markers of identity, status and belief, in the form of clothing, make-up and insignia.

17 It can also be argued that sociology has always incorporated elements of visual analysis, often without acknowledging it. Some examples: Georg Simmels (1921) sociological phenomenology of the modern city. Dick Hebdige (1979) Subculture: The Meaning of Style. Erving Goffman (1979) Gender Advertisements. Pierre Bourdieus concept of Habitus. So the visual is of tremendous significance in social life and social research, but what is visual data and how can we make sense of it?

18 Visual Social Research Methods: Types of Visual Data

19 What is Visual Data ? Until fairly recently visual data essentially meant photographs, and visual methods meant the use of photographs in social research. But there have recently been influential attempts to broaden the definition of visual data and visual research. Emmison and Smith (2000, 107) have argued that visual research must break free from the tyranny of the photograph.

20 They suggest that visual data encompasses the whole field of the seen and the observed. On this broad definition, visual data could include: Photos maps signs living rooms displays statues newspapers art galleries bodies shopping centres tattoos clothing cartoons hairstyles gestures buildings facial expressions gardens etc.

21 So the visual field is enormously rich and diverse, reflecting the sheer heterogeneity of visual experience. This means that visual research has immense potential. But it also means that it is easy for a researcher to be overwhelmed by the diversity of visual culture.

22 ... what is Visual Data ? It is useful to subdivide visual data into 4 main types: 1) 2-Dimensional visual data. 2) 3-Dimensional visual data. 3) Lived visual data. 4) Living visual data.

23 2-Dimensional Visual Data… 2-D visual data means flat visual images. These are usually classified as either: produced/existing images. images produced by the researcher. i) Existing Images These are images produced by the research subjects (i.e. the people being researched) and could include: photographs drawings, sketches, pictures visual diaries

24 … existing images Existing Images may be images that were produced in the past by the researchees (e.g. old photos). Or they could be images which the researchees have produced for the research (e.g. visual diaries). This method can help to create a collaborative relationship between the researcher and the researched, which may be very empowering and produce highly insightful data. These images can then be used by the researcher as a valuable resource to help them to make sense of the social worlds of those who produced the images.

25 How are the research participants biography, identity, and view of the world expressed (and constructed) through the images they choose to produce, keep, or share? This can also be a very useful way for the researcher to question and reflect upon what the research participants may have told them, and to come to a more critical and reflexive understanding.

26 … 2-Dimensional visual data ii) Images produced by the researcher Visual images are produced by social researchers for 2 main purposes: EITHER as part of the research writing, as an aid to communicating the findings of the research. This is standard practice in quantitative social research (e.g. bar charts, tables and graphs as part of research reports) but there is no reason why qualitative researchers cannot use visual images as part of their writing.

27 OR alternatively, researchers may use images as a a method of documentation or data-gathering, usually supplementing written field-notes and/or sound recordings (although some visual researchers will rely almost exclusively upon visual records). E.g. this could involve taking photographs of interiors, of urban spaces, or even of research participants (although this raises ethical/legal issues).

28 3-Dimensional Visual Data 3-D visual data means objects which carry meanings (also called material culture). These could include: personal possessions objects in the home statues/memorials traces (e.g. litter)

29 3-Dimensional visual data can be understood in terms of social practices. i.e. Exploring how people use, react towards, and modify these objects can help the researcher to understand certain aspects of social life. e.g. A sociology of graffiti could be a productive way to explore how outsider identities are negotiated in public space through visual markers.

30 Lived Visual Data Lived visual data means the spaces, environments and locales in which social life takes place. These could include: built environments (e.g. urban areas) interiors (e.g. living rooms) constructed nature (e.g. parks, gardens)

31 Spaces and environments carry a wealth of meanings which the visual researcher can identify and analyse. Questions arising: What is the cultural significance of the space and how is this communicated visually? (what kind of meanings does it carry?) How does the visible space influence/shape human actions?

32 Living Visual Data Living visual data means the bodies, movements and interactions which make-up visible social life. These could include: body-language (e.g. posture) gestures and movements modes of dress (clothing) Social interactions and relationships are regulated by norms of visual display (i.e. dress, body-language, eye-contact, etc)

33 These Visual signals play a key role in regulating social conduct in public settings (e.g. the role of body-language in affirming status differences) E.g. The researcher might examine the norms of visual display observable in queues, workplaces, public parks, on public transport (e.g. the London underground), or even in cars (e.g. amount of eye-contact between motorists from different social groups).

34 Visual Social Research Methods: Doing Visual Methods

35 Main trends in Visual Research There are currently 4 main approaches to the use and interpretation of visual materials, but these by no means exhaust the possibilities: 1) The production and/or use of photos by social researchers as an additional way to document social processes. 2) Analysis of commercial images/advertisements as a way of uncovering ideologies and unlocking cultural meanings. 3) Analysis of the use of visual representations such as diagrams, charts and sketches in various social situations, especially in scientific research and communication (mainly by sociologists of science) 4) The use of video recordings of social interaction (mainly by ethnomethodologists) in order to analyse the patterns of movement, gesture, body-language, and use of space.

36 Analysing visual images 2-dimensional Images can be analysed in 2 main ways: 1. In terms of their content. i.e. What they contain, what they say or mean, how they appear, what they suggest, what they exclude, etc. This approach lends itself to one of three methods: Photo-analysis Semiotic analysis 2. In terms of their use. Content analysis i.e. Why have they been produced, how they are used, how people talk about them, how people use them to talk about other things. This approach lends itself to: Photo-elicitation

37 Using Photo-Analysis in social research Photo-Analysis involves the direct analysis and interpretation of photographs or other existing images by the researcher. He/she will attempt to interrogate the image for its meanings, typically by asking questions such as: How and why has this image been produced? What is happening? What action/event is being depicted? Who/what is included in the image? What is outside the frame? What relationships are involved? What is in the background? Is this accidental or deliberate? What is being said here? i.e. what is the message?

38 Using Semiotic Analysis in social research Semiotics or semiology means the science of signs. It is most associated with the cultural theorist Roland Barthes. Barthes was heavily influenced by the structural linguistics of the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure. Saussure had argued that language is essentially a system of signs, and that the meaning of a word/sign depends upon its place within the whole system.

39 Saussure distinguished between: The Signifier = the word itself. The Signified = the idea or concept. Barthes (right) believed that the same was true of visual images: they had to be understood as signifiers in a system of signification (i.e. in a system of meaning based on signs).

40 Barthes combined Saussures model with the Marxist concept of ideology, arguing that in any image there are always two levels of meaning: The denotative level This is the surface level of explicit or overt meanings. The connotative level This is a deeper level of hidden or covert ideological meanings, which are not obvious to the viewer, but operate more subconsciously through the system of signs. (covert). Barthes argued that in order to reveal the connotative meanings hidden in an image it was necessary to trace the relationships between all the signs in the image to uncover the ideological level of meaning. - He called this method semiotics.

41 Semiotic Analysis: An Example » A classic example of the use of semiotics to analyse the covert messages hidden in advertising images. » Judith Williamson (1978) uses semiotics and structuralist Marxism to develop a model of how to decode the ideological meanings buried in advertising. » Williamson argues that hidden meanings in advertising are not just intended to persuade us to buy things, but actually serve to reproduce our belief in the legitimacy of capitalism. Hence advertising imagery is part of capitalist ideology.

42 … Semiotic Analysis: Some Examples

43 Problems with Semiotics Signs are polysemic – they have multiple meanings and the exact interpretation in any instance is likely to depend upon contextual circumstances and the personal biography of the viewer. Many of Williams examples could be interpreted differently – there is no way to show that the connoted meanings she identifies are really correct. Williams may underestimate the interpretative competence of the viewer – arguably consumers are more knowing than she acknowledges; they know that adverts are intended to instil in them a desire to buy the products and this reduces their impact. Semiotics has been criticised for failing to take sufficient account of the social context in which a visual sign is produced, circulated and interpreted; it looks at the relationships between the signs in an image but has no way of talking about what is outside the frame. Semiotics often seems to view the world as if it were a collection of images, but images are just one part of our complex material culture, and need to be understood in that context. So semiotics is not sociological enough.

44 Semiotics Today: Ad-Busters The journal of the Canadian culture jamming group Ad-Busters calls itself a journal of the mental environment and uses the techniques of semiotics against advertising, developing sub-verts which satirise advertising imagery and critique commercial culture.

45 Using Content Analysis in Social Research Content analysis is a relatively simple method, but it can be very effective. It involves devising a series of categories and then counting the number of times a particular content (typically a media product which involves the use of images, such as a television programme, an advertisement or a magazine feature) falls into each of these categories. Conclusions can then be drawn concerning ideologies, cultural representations (e.g. gender stereotypes), media bias, etc. Because it involves counting which can lead to statistical analysis, there is some debate as to whether content analysis is truly a qualitative rather than a quantitative method.

46 Content Analysis: An example Bad News – The Glasgow University Media Group. Famously used content analysis to analyse hundreds of television news programmes. Focussed especially on the news coverage of industrial disputes (e.g. the 1984 Miners Strike) and economic issues. Looked at how the combination of the stories covered, the language used and the visual images shown created a pro-capitalist and anti-labour perspective on events. Identified a consistently pro-conservative and anti-union bias in the news reporting of the BBC throughout the 1980s and early 1990s.

47 Using Photo-Elicitation in social research Rather than the researcher attempting to analyse and interpret images themselves (i.e. photo-analysis or semiotics), in Photo-Elicitation the research participants are asked to talk about images, (usually but not always photos), how and why they were made, what they mean to them, etc. So this is really a form of qualitative interview technique which draws upon visual material as a tool. But Photo-analysis is not just a supplement to verbal interviewing, as the use of photographs can change the very nature of the interview method. Many researchers have noted that the use of photos in interviews elicits different kinds of data in the interview situation than where verbal questions alone are used.

48 The case for Photo-Elicitation John Berger (1992, p. 192) The thrill found in a photograph comes from the onrush of memory Douglas Harper (2002): Photo-elicitation enlarges the possibilities of conventional empirical research (p. 13) images evoke deeper elements of human consciousness than do words; exchanges based on words alone utilize less of the brains capacity than do exchanges in which the brain is processing images as well as words (p. 13) breaking frames - photographs can jolt subjects into a new awareness of their social existence (p. 20, 21)

49 Obstacles to Visual Research The Ambiguity of Visual Data: - It is difficult to assess the place of visual data in the social sciences. - There is little agreement about what visual data should include. - There is no consensus on how visual data should be incorporated into the disciplines central analytical concerns. Questions Arising: Is visual data inherently qualitative or can it be readily quantified? (e.g. in a quantitative content-analysis) Should visual researchers produce the images they analyse, or should they rely upon already-produced images?

50 Some Practical Considerations Photos cannot easily be made anonymous. Sometimes photos can be counter-productive; some people do not want to be photographed. Publishers often resist the inclusion of unnecessary images because they cost more to produce than text. There are complex legal and ethical issues involved in the use of photographs and film (visual images seen as visceral, dangerous and subversive compared to text) Permission can be refused to reproduce images published elsewhere.


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