some early thoughts on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies

I gave a short talk at The Open University’s Centre for Citizenship, Identity and Governance a few weeks ago, as part of a workshop on methodological challenges for critical social science. As I’m going to start working on the fourth edition of Visual Methodologies this week (for publication in early summer 2016), this was good timing for me; it let me put a few very early thoughts together and explore them with an insightful and lively group. I thought I’d share my notes for the event here.

My starting point was the often-made comment that visual methods are increasingly popular because, firstly, ‘we’ now live in a visual culture, and secondly because images articulate the material (the ‘texture’ of places, for example) and the affective particularly well, which is handy because that’s what’s important to study now. The second of these comments for me articulates a conflation of the affective, the bodily, the emotional, the sensory, the nonrepresentational, the precognitive and the material that seems all-too-common at the moment – and somehow ‘the visual’ is very often understood as part of that bundle of concerns. I think that that’s one bundle that could do with some serious de-bundling, not least because visual images are incredibly diverse and do extraordinarily different things; to suggest that they are inherently ‘affective’ or whatever has always struck me as rather an odd claim.

My second point was that often, of course, when researchers talk about ‘visual research methods’, what they’re actually referring to are methods using photographs. So there’s some more de-bundling that’s required. There are important distinctions to be made between a particular image type – a photograph, let’s say (and of course there are very many different kinds of photograph-like images that are rarely thought of in these discussions: surveillance and traffic cameras, Google Streetview cameras, endoscopes) – and a specific mode of apprehending the world – visuality – and specific registers of that mode – the affective, let’s say. This would be clearer if we talked more about specific materialisations of certain image types in particular social contexts, I think, instead of talking about ‘the’ visual’ or ‘the’ photograph.

My third point returned to the ‘we’re all living in a visual culture now’ line. I think it is now undoubtedly the case that there is an emerging digital visual culture, much of which is online and part of social networking platforms. Quite apart from platforms that are image based, like Pinterest, Flickr, Instagram and Snapchat, other social networking platforms all carry lots and lots of images: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and so on. Taking images and sharing and posting is part of everyday activity for very very many people. In that sense, the first way of contextualising the rise of visual research methods does have some sort of purchase (which I explore at some length in my Sociological Review paper – there are a few references at the end of this post).

Again though, it’s important not to talk about ‘the’ digital, as if it’s one thing that’s changing everything. Digital technologies come in a vast array of shapes, forms and combinations. Plus, not all things are digital: fine art practice, for example, to a large extent is retaining its institutional apparatus and practices – the attentive gaze, the critical paratexts, the gallery and studio spaces, the one-off objects – not least because unique objects can be profitable business.

However, things are also more complicated than that; there are no neat distinctions between the digital and the non-digital. For example, there’s a particular kind of overlap between fine art practice, surveillance cameras and, say, Pinterest, not least because they all appear in the results of a Google Image search (and also because many artists are engaging with these other forms of imaging – witness the enthusiasm a few years ago for working with Google Streetview images, and the current vogue for making images from large numbers of images gleaned from social networking sites).

But the large number of images (not all photos by any means) uploaded onto social networking images are significant for thinking about visual research methods, I think. In particular, their massive, circulating trails and archives have a number of implications that will need unpacking and exploring.

And that was my fourth point. It’s not completely obvious (to me at least, yet) just how we should be approaching those online image hoards. For instance, do we use these huge numbers of images as data: big visual data?   There are a number of commercial image analytic applications that do just that, crawling through huge numbers of images and tagging what they are programmed to recognise. There’s also the sort of content analyses being pioneered by Lev Manovich and his Software Studies Initiative. These approaches show us some things: patterns in what is visible and shareable now, which we might see, with Helen Grace, as signs of user-generated, innovative mass creativity.

One challenge, though, is grasping the performativity of these doings with images. These are images that represent things, but, as importantly, they performatively create sociality – through links, sharing, networks, likes – as they are taken and uploaded and glanced at. With authors like John Hartley and Rebecca Coleman, I think we need to be thinking about images as not only representational but also as performative, and thus we also need to think about production, immersion or intensity as analytical terms to understand their relation to the social.

Another challenge for big data analytics is that the (striking) visualisations of these big numbers of images assume that more is just more: that big means straightforwardly scale-able, zoomable, from the individual image to the accumulated pattern with nothing inbetween. But of course the huge collectives of images on Facebook or Twitter or whatever or not simply aggregated, piled on top of one another – they are managed by software, by likes and search results and hits and comments and the algorithms that manage these.

So in order to get to grips with the large number of images on social media, we need to think not just about their numbers but also about their uneven patterns and distributions, networks and frictions, selection and navigation.   We need to map those distributions, including their connections and accumulations as well as their fragments and dead-ends. This would then enable us to map a specific form of the social, as it’s being performed in collaboration with a range of digital devices and their products like text and image.  I have no idea what such a method would look like, though, or if anyone is trying to develop one.

And my final comment was to wonder whether, if we want to understand the role of these pictures in the world now, being so attentive to them, inventing yet more careful methods to analyse and track them, or using them as ways of getting research participants to do more talk, different talk, assuming that taking a photograph makes someone more reflexive, thoughtful, articulate – all that might actually be missing the point – or at least, missing how many images now act in the world, especially many of those embedded in social media. How do we deal with the casualness with which these images are made and seen, their possible meaninglessness (which is not to say that they are insignificant and do nothing)?  Do we need an equally casual method, a glance-and-delete, like-and-move-to-trash method?  Again, I have no idea!  But I’m looking forward to exploring these questions in the coming months as I revise Visual Methodologies.

Coleman, R., 2013. Sociology and the virtual: interactive mirrors, representational thinking and intensive power. The Sociological Review, 61(1), pp.1–20.

Grace, H., 2014. Culture, Aesthetics and Affect in Ubiquitous Media: The Prosaic Image, London: Routledge.

Hartley, J., 2012. Digital Futures for Cultural and Media Studies, Chichester: John Wiley.

Rose, G., 2012. The question of method: practice, reflexivity and critique in visual culture studies. In I. Heywood & B. Sandywell, eds. The Handbook of Visual Culture. Oxford: Berg, pp. 542–558.

Rose, G., 2014. On the relation between “visual research methods” and contemporary visual culture. The Sociological Review, 62(1), pp.24–46.

Rose, G., 2016. Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. Fourth edition. London: Sage.


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