Presentation on theme: "Visual Social Research Methods"— Presentation transcript:
1 Visual Social Research Methods Beyond Talk and TextDr. Richie Nimmo
2 Visual Social Research Methods: Beyond Talk and TextWhy Study Visual Methods?● Thinking about research methods always involvesthinking about what the world is like, and about how wecan 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 methodsto use we are actually answering these questions,perhaps without realising.
3 The argument: unusual methods can help to make ► Do the conventional methods exclude anything?► Are there things that are significant in our lives but don’tget acknowledged in social research?► Do our methods over-simplify reality?► Do they filter out certain elements of our experience andmake them invisible?► If so, then how can these things be brought back in andmade visible again?The argument: unusual methods can help to makesocial 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 thoughsocial life consists only of whatis spoken or written, as mostmethods rely mainly upon whatpeople say.■ But what about the ‘data’ of theother 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?● Isn’t our visual perceptionshaped by our culture andsociety? And aren’t oursocial actions partly shapedby our visual experience?● Therefore, aren’t the visualdimensions of our livessocially 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 inorganising everyday social life:► consider the routine exclusionthat confronts the visuallyimpaired in all societies.► try living for a single daywithout 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 thesubtlety of the meanings and identities depicted.
7 “Of the special sense-organs, the eye has a uniquely sociological function. The union and theinteraction of individuals is based upon mutualglances.” (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 evena ‘sociology of smiles’,i.e. Social relationships can beanalysed in terms of the visualaspects 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 humanity’s 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 1970’s.● 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 ■ The sociological study of ‘the seen and the observable’. ■ Visual sociology is more than just the study of photographs and images. (Emmison and Smith 2000, ix).■ The sociological study of ‘theseen and the observable’.i.e. the whole field of visualexperience.■ 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 scienceshould 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 andprinting press in theemergence of bureaucraticindustrial societies(Benedict Anderson, 1991).► Some have suggested that ifwriting was fundamental tomodern society, then visualimages are fundamental inpost-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 callsan ‘image-based’ culturefounded on ‘spectacle’.■ ‘Spectacle’ = forceful visualimpacts upon the humanconsciousness.■ These are different in naturefrom the meanings mediatedthrough 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, aspace informed by humanconsciousness gives wayto a space informed bythe unconscious.”(1985, p. 243).► If this is true then there issomething unique aboutvisual experience.► In which case we need touse specifically visual methods in order to properlygrasp our visual social world.
16 … the importance of ‘the Visual’ 2. The Ontological Argument:► Suggests that the Visual has always been central to sociallife and to human cultures.► Anthropological studies oftraditional societies haveshown the key role of visualcommunication in practicesof ritual, symbolism, totemism,and everyday life.► Richard Sennett (1977) has shown that the public life of earlymodern Europe was dominated by visible markers ofidentity, status and belief, in the form of clothing, make-upand insignia.
17 ► It can also be argued that sociology has always incorporated elements of visual analysis, often without acknowledging it.► Some examples:● Georg Simmel’s (1921) sociological phenomenology of the modern city.● Dick Hebdige (1979) ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’.● Erving Goffman (1979) ‘Gender Advertisements’.● Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of ‘Habitus’.► So ‘the visual’ is of tremendous significance in sociallife and social research, but what is ‘visual data’ andhow 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 theuse of photographs in socialresearch.● But there have recently beeninfluential attempts to broadenthe definition of visual data andvisual research.Emmison and Smith (2000, 107) have argued that ‘visualresearch 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 visualresearch has immensepotential.► But it also means that itis easy for a researcherto be overwhelmed bythe diversity of visualculture.
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 theresearcher.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 These images can then be used by the researcher as a valuable … ‘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 valuableresource to help them to make sense of the social worlds ofthose 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 toquestion and reflect upon what the research participantsmay have told them, and to come to a more critical andreflexive understanding.
26 … 2-Dimensional visual data ii) Images produced by the researcherVisual images are produced bysocial researchers for 2 mainpurposes:► EITHER as part of theresearch writing, as anaid to communicating thefindings of the research.This is standard practice inquantitative social research(e.g. bar charts, tables and graphs as part of research reports) butthere is no reason why qualitative researchers cannot use visualimages as part of their writing.
27 ► OR alternatively, researchers may use images as a a method ofdocumentation or data-gathering,usually supplementing writtenfield-notes and/or sound recordings(although some visual researcherswill rely almost exclusively uponvisual records).E.g. this could involve takingphotographs of interiors, ofurban spaces, or even ofresearch participants (althoughthis raises ethical/legal issues).
28 3-Dimensional Visual Data 3-D visual data means ‘objects’ whichcarry 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 peopleuse, react towards, andmodify these objects canhelp the researcher tounderstand certain aspectsof social life.e.g. A sociology of graffiticould be a productive wayto explore how outsideridentities are negotiated inpublic space through visual markers.
30 ‘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 canidentify and analyse.Questions arising:► What is the culturalsignificance of thespace and how isthis communicatedvisually? (what kindof meanings does itcarry?)► How does the visible space influence/shape human actions?
32 ‘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 mightexamine the norms of visualdisplay observable in queues,workplaces, public parks, onpublic transport (e.g. theLondon underground), oreven in cars (e.g. amount ofeye-contact between motoristsfrom 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, whatthey suggest, what they exclude, etc.This approach lends itself to one of three methods:● Photo-analysis● Semiotic analysis2. In terms of their use. ● Content analysisi.e. Why have they been produced, how they are used, how people talkabout 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 bythe structural linguistics of the Swisslinguist Ferdinand de Saussure.● Saussure had argued that languageis essentially a system of signs,and that the meaning of a word/signdepends upon its place within thewhole system.
39 ■ Saussure distinguished between: ► The ‘Signifier’ = the word itself. ► The ‘Signified’= the idea or concept.Barthes (right) believedthat 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 - He called this method ‘semiotics’. Barthes combined Saussure’s model with the Marxist concept of‘ideology’, arguing that in any image there are always two levelsof 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 hiddenin an image it was necessary to trace the relationships between all thesigns 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.
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 callsitself a ‘journal of the mental environment’ and uses the techniques ofsemiotics against advertising, developing ‘sub-verts’ which satiriseadvertising 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 analysisto analyse hundreds of televisionnews programmes.Focussed especially on the newscoverage of industrial disputes(e.g. the 1984 Miners’ Strike) andeconomic issues.Looked at how the combination ofthe stories covered, the languageused and the visual images showncreated a pro-capitalist and anti-labour perspective on events.Identified a consistently pro-conservative and anti-union bias in the newsreporting of the BBC throughout the 1980’s and early 1990’s.
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 brain’s 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 discipline’s 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, orshould they rely upon already-produced images?
50 Some Practical Considerations ► Photos cannot easily be made anonymous.► Sometimes photos can be counter-productive; somepeople 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 inthe use of photographs and film (visual images seen asvisceral, dangerous and subversive compared to text)► Permission can be refused to reproduce imagespublished elsewhere.