visual research methods in an expanded field: what next for visual research methods?

I gave a keynote address at the International Visual Methods conference in Brighton a couple of weeks ago. I’m not planning to publish it in a peer-reviewed journal (thereby hangs a tale, for another time), so I thought I’d post it here instead. It’s not a polished piece, it’s my notes for the lecture, with a few references, and it gets rather vague towards its end… but it’s an attempt to provoke some new thinking about visual research methods in the context of digital visual culture, so may have some usefulness nonetheless.

You can watch the prezi that accompanies it here.

Its abstract is below; click through at its end to read my notes for the address.

This lecture will review the current state of visual research methods, discussing both methods for interpreting found visual materials and methods that involve the creation of visual materials as data and as means of disseminating research findings. It will suggest that, while creative experimentation continues, several visual research methods have consolidated and are now relatively mainstream, particularly visual ethnographies, image-elicitation interviews and visual participatory research. It will argue that now, to move forward, visual research methods must engage more fully with the range of issues raised by the fact that so much of contemporary everyday visual culture is mediated by software and, often, delivered by digital hardware. What are the implications of selfies and memes, of YouTube, Vimeo, Pinterest, Snapchat, Twitter, Flickr and Vine, for visual research methods? The lecture will suggest that image-heavy social media platforms raise three methodological questions for visual research methods: questions of scale, of distribution and of practice. The lecture will explore these and suggest that if images are to continue to be taken as useful tools in understanding social life, this may well require a radical expansion of visual research methods.

As we all know, one of the most striking developments across the social sciences over the past fifteen years has been the emergence of what we now call ‘visual research methods’. The use of that term ‘visual methods’, its recognisability, has been consolidated and also, I would suggest, constituted in large part by a range of handbooks and reviews, written or edited by for example Steve Spencer, Claudia Mitchell, Luc Pauwels, Gregory Stanczak, Julia Gainster, Samantha Warren, Sarah Pink, Paula Reavey, among many others – and myself – also a new journal of visual methods. These books are defining what visual research methods are and, by default, what they are not.

‘Visual research methods’ are methods which use visual materials of some kind, as part of the process of generating evidence in order to answer social science research questions – and in some ways, as discussed currently enacted, they’re a very diverse group of methods.

  • they use many different sorts of images – photographs are the most popular type, but also diagrams, relational maps, timelines, self-portraits, film and video, video-diaries, collages, maps, memory books, drawings, graphic novels and photo-diaries, for example.
  • they also source those images differently: some methods depend on visual materials that are generated by the researcher; others with materials created by research participants; others work with ‘found’ visual materials.
  • different projects can theorise, contextualise and analyse these visual materials differently.
  • and in terms of dissemination, some projects using VRM find it necessary to reproduce images in their publications, while others require that visuals remain absent from the final research outputs (often to protect the anonymity of the people pictured). And among those that do use images, some use them simply as descriptive illustrations while for others, images can be made to carry their own arguments, in the form of a film, perhaps, or an interactive website.

So the diversity comes from both the sorts of visual materials they work with, and in what is done with those materials.

Across the diversity, though, a number of claims are made fairly consistently. And building on those claims, a consensus has emerged, I think, about why visual research methods are valuable.

What I want to do in this lecture is first of all describe that consensus – why visual research methods are so popular, according to the researchers that use them.

Then I want to step back and think about those claims – those academic arguments about the value of working with images – put those arguments in the context of the importance of images to social life more generally now. We’re living in a highly visual culture – more and more of our social networks are online, mediated by creation and sharing of images, especially photographs – Martin Hand talks about ‘ubiquitous photography’ – want to think about the implications of that for visual research methods (hereafter VRM).

Conclude with what I think are some of the specific challenges facing VRM in that context. (going to take a broad overview – risk overgeneralisation! – to provoke us to think about where VRM might go –I am absolutely sure that over the next few days those challenges will be challenged themselves, ignored, added to…)

So – VRM – what are they good for?

Explanations given by researchers either creating their own visual materials or asking the participants in their research projects to create their own (especially those using image-elicitation methods, ie asking research participants to create some sort of image and then discussing it with them) seem to have four emphases:

1 That sort of VRM are argued to be especially effective in generating evidence that other methods – especially interviews, not to mention surveys – cannot. Almost all visual research methods involve talk between the researcher and the researched, and it is claimed that things are discussed in the talk about visual materials that don’t get discussed in talk-only interviews; for example, one project found that it was the photographs and drawings that it asked children to take, rather than conversations with those children, that revealed the importance of pets to children’s lives and especially to the physical activities they undertook.

2 Interviews-with-images can also prompt talk in different registers, it is argued: more emotional, more affective, more ‘ineffable’ (Bagnoli, 2009). Images themselves are also argued to be especially effective at describing the ‘ineffable’. Marcus Banks suggests that one strength of the photo-essay format, is its ability to offer a sense of the subjective experiencing of a social situation, and images are also argued to be powerful conduits for the sensory experience and feel of urban environments, or what Alan Latham (2003), in his discussion of photo-diaries, calls their ‘feel and texture’. Sarah Pink’s work highly influential here, new book on video as a research tool edited by Charlotte Bates (2014) – lines up video very clearly with an interest in the affective.

3 Many researchers argue that visual materials can ‘reveal what is hidden in the inner mechanisms of the ordinary and the taken for granted’ (Sweetman, 2009). Thus interviews with participant-generated visual materials are particularly helpful in exploring the taken-for-granted things in their research participants’ lives. Photographs taken by the researcher can likewise be a tool both ‘to uncover, reveal and convey deeper aspects of habitus’ – Bourdieu. Indeed most studies with visual materials focus on the ordinary and everyday.

4 Visual research methods are very often used in participatory or action research projects – photovoice and digital storytelling are particular kinds of participatory research using images, explicitly aiming to empower research participants by creating visual materials. Important and long history of this sort of work – great to see it so prominent in this conference programme. For projects creating participant-generated images, participants are situated as the ‘expert’ in the interview as they explain their images to the researcher. Marcus Banks, though, suggests that even researchers taking photographs have to collaborate because taking a photo always entails some sort of negotiated relationship between the person making the image and those being pictured. Some very good recent discussions on these claims in relation to participatory video projects by Claudia Mitchell (2011) and EJ Milne and colleagues (2012).

So – to risk a very broad generalisation – VRM, working with made images (photographs, very often), as they are most commonly discussed, tend to be qualitative, small-scale, people-centred projects – centred on meaningful images created by insightful photographer who can picture a social world, or by expert research participants, focussed on social change.

Now, one of the things this neglects are the many other kinds of images used by social scientists – the diagrams and graphs created by quantitative social scientists, and also the maps that geographers have worked with for a very long while…

The other thing neglected in this constitution of visual research methods as small-scale, qualitative, is any discussion of how images are working in the wider social sphere, what’s been happening in the past decade or so in visual culture more broadly. (concomitant uninterest in academic lits on visual culture, new media and so on.)

One reason often given for the rise in the popularity of VRM across a very wide range of disciplines in the last few years is indeed that they somehow reflect ‘contemporary visual culture’.   In one specific way, I think that’s correct – paper in Sociological Review last year arguing why (Rose, 2014). Images of different kinds are central to how a great deal of social life is lived now. Fundamental forms of social difference – of class, gender, sexuality, race, disability, religion and so on and so – are persistently, pervasively visualised, they are constituted in large part by being made visible – or invisible – in particular ways, as banal, as spectacular – and that visualising is being done by many many different kinds of practices – from large media corporations to small community groups to political extremists across the spectrum to familial kinship networks to diasporic communities. Images now are put to innumerable communicative uses (Kress, 2010) – just as VRM researchers are doing lots of different things with different kinds of images. So visual culture now is incredibly rich and complex, and social science researchers as part of it, we are just one of the very many ways in which images are put to use to make sense of the world – small and highly specialised way, but nonetheless part of that broader field of practice.

But I guess the question I want to pose is – are VRM too specialised? are there other things we could be doing? more we should be doing, given the visual culture that many of our research participants and our audiences are living in?

So what I want to do now, is to take a very broad brush look at contemporary visual culture – going to argue that in many of its manifestations (tho by no means all), it is not small-scale, not intensive/attentive, and not entirely people-centred either – suggests that VRM could indeed be developing a wider range of methods.

For most people in the Global North – and a good many in the Global South too – digital technologies are ubiquitous. They saturate everyday life, whether we are aware of them or not. A great many of these apps and software packages involve images. From the app icons on your phone screen, to video calls, to attaching a photo to a message or a tweet, to using your cameraphone to share images on Instagram, to the banners on websites – quite apart from all the video and photography sites like Vimeo, YouTube, Flickr, Pinterest et al – there are images everywhere. And increasingly, as well as the screens of your computer and your phone, there are larger screens in more-or-less public spaces like shopping malls and piazzas, showing news programmes, advertising and, sometimes, artworks. so as well as social media images, there’s a whole range of really technically complex digital imagery – most film and tv – and photojournalism – put through digital ‘post-production’ processes, and many things that look like photographs are digital visualisations.

Early work by new media studies scholars tended to focus on just one of these devices or platforms – but increasingly we’re seeing studies of how they intersect in everyday life – Sean Moores, Jill Walker Rettberg’s discussion of ‘seeing ourselves through technology’. This is what Nick Couldry calls the ‘media manifold’, and, to quote the title of danah boyd’s recent study of how teenagers in the US use social media, ‘it’s complicated’.

Let’s take a look at some of its key characteristics. Pick out three in particular: mass mutable mobile.

1 mass. In November 2014, for example, a hundred hours of video were uploaded to YouTube every minute and sixty million photographs were uploaded to Instagram every day, figures which were dwarfed by the 350 million images uploaded onto Facebook and the 400 million photos sent to Snapchat. Professional digital images too – drafts but also created through layers – many many iterations.

2 mobile. Images made to be shared. They circulate through, and constitute, social networks. Highly sophisticated digital images also travel – global division of labour with sophisticated and expensive digital visualisation studios in global north and cheaper ones in eg China.

3 mutable. these social media images are embedded in specific sorts of practices which are active, participatory – participation is one of the cultural values of digital culture, as Mark Deuze and Henry Jenkins point out. liked, favourited, retweeted, shared – but many are also modified, memes, adapted, put to different uses in different formats – true also of professionally-produced images.

What are the implications of this digitalised contemporary visual culture for visual research methods?

Well, we could say that there are no implications. social science research is a specialised, niche part of contemporary visual culture, working to specific demands of rigour and robustness, strong commitment to critique and to empowering marginalised groups, and all this visual culture stuff is actually pretty irrelevant.

Indeed, I think that the kind of work that currently dominates VRM – insightful and empowering qualitative, small-scale projects – is extremely important and necessary – a vital niche! but, does VRM need to expand to address the characteristics of digital visual culture that I’ve just sketched, characteristics that many of our research participants, and the audiences for our research, are embedded? I would suggest it does, not least because, as Noortje Marres (2012) has discussed, there are all sorts of expertise out there, among the people we research, we research with and for, which is enabled by aspects of digital culture. If our research is going to get a grip on that digital visual culture in all its complexity – both analytically, but also as a means of engaging people – we may need a wider range of methods.

I suggest there are three aspects of digital visual culture in particular that suggest to me that VRM need to get more diverse, engage with a bit more of what’s happening out there, a result both of technologies and of how people are using them: scale, pattern, practice.

I’d like to think about expanding visual research methods – not police them! – expand them by learning from the expanded field of visual culture.

1 mass -> scale

The vast numbers of images on various online platforms is often used as evidence of the saturation of everyday life with images. And while many of these images are made and shared quickly and casually, many of the digital images that we see have gone through elaborate revision using visualisation software like PhotoShop.

Given such vast numbers of images, important to think about how quantitative methods continue to offer valuable insights. Helen Grace and John Hartley, for example, understand the vast numbers of unstable cultural objects now being created by huge numbers of people making, modifying and sharing images, among other things, as ‘a new form of mass expression, possessing its own patterns and structures of innovation’ (Grace, 2014). For them, it follows that significant meaning emerges from those patterns; it does not reside in specific individual contributions but rather results from ‘the generalized sphere of expression’ created by their cumulative effects (Grace, 2014′). ‘We need to understand cultural, creative, and knowledge-systems across whole populations‘, insists John Hartley (2012); ‘at the very least that we need to focus on probabilities in large-scale systems (e.g. ‘what can I find on YouTube?’) rather than on essences found in single texts (e.g. the signed work of art in a museum)’.

An interesting project in relation to this is Lev Manovich’s cultural analytics, and more specifically his Phototrails project, which pictures four cities by collating and displaying 50,000 Instagram photos taken in each.  It prompts me to ask the question, what does New York look like now?  Is this what a participatory photography project would work with, if it had 50,000 participants?

2 mobile -> distribution

One of the things that happens to digital images – one of the things that people do with their digital snaps, eg – is to share them, circulate them. important to understand those distributions , but also to appreciate the knowledge about those distributions that research participants have themselves. note here Helen Lomax’s argument that research participants in marginalised communities are themselves very savvy about circulation of images about the places they live, how they’re shown in the media, and that knowledge inflects how they talk and picture their homes and neighbourhoods in participatory projects using photo and video.

Understanding the distribution of visual images also entails understanding what the technologies themselves are doing. Platforms for image sharing, for example, or social media platforms, have their own forms of internal organisation. Hartley (2012), among many other new media scholars, emphasises how platforms like Facebook and Google depend on internal algorithms to sift their data and that this structures what their users see in quite particular ways: for example, Google Maps prioritises in its search results those locations that have received most ‘likes’, and it may therefore be shaping who goes where (Graham et al., 2013). (this is a problem with Phototrails project – it doesn’t show the patterns of distribution of its photos).

Hartley (2012) argues that this means we need to understand online platforms and databases as more than the sum of their individual parts; we also need to understand them as systems that organise themselves – through their software – in quite particular ways. (what I meant when I said contemporary visual culture not entirely human-centred.)

Challenge taken up by Richard Rogers in his book called Digital Methods (2013). Rogers focuses on the web and its data, and for him, digital methods are methods that use the ways in which the web itself organises its data, to examine that data. Digital methods thus examine ‘natively digital objects’: things that are only found on the web, including ‘specific digital media’ (Rogers’s examples in his introduction are a blog post and a Wikipedia edit). And digital methods analyse those ‘objects’ using techniques that are only used on web data: searching for hyperlinks, tags, user locations, hits, datestamps and likes, for example. He suggests that using digital methods on digital objects not only allows us better to understand how the web is organised; he also argues that such methods can help us to answer questions about social life now.

As I understand it, there are some significant technical issues to be overcome before we can track the circulations and distributions of images – technical, access, ethics. But some work has been done on the dynamics of online image-sharing platforms, using the platform’s own digital capabilities (Burgess and Green, 2009).

Another approach to understanding the distribution of images combined ethnographic work with people taking an and sharing photographs with analysis of around 9,000 of those photographs – Helen Grace’s study of migrant workers in Hong Kong –  her argument is about the importance of circulation to maintaining social relations and a sense of self in highly exploitive circumstances.

3 doing things with images -> A attentiveness

Some digital images given very careful attention.  They can be highly crafted, watched carefully, like, commented on.  Others mich less so… think about a stream of Instagram or Snapchat images.  Social science researchers are mostly interested using images as ways of getting research participants to do more talk, different talk, on the assumption  that taking a photograph makes someone more attentive, reflexive, thoughtful, articulate.  But what if it doesn’t any more??  How do we deal with casual, meaningless photographs? Inattentive glances? Or ones which parody existing visual genres?

And for academics too? Katherine Hayles’s (2012) work suggests that identifying meaning as it emerges from a mass of images requires a shift from close, diagnostic reading of individual items to what she describes as hyper reading: readings that are fast, casual, scanning, skimming.

So should we be looking for things other than serious meaning, or affect, in images – what about play, experimentation, silliness, creativity (Hartley 2012), even idiocy (Goriunova, 2013).

3 doing things with images -> B ethical knowledges

I want to explore another aspect of what is done with images now – how they are treated.

For Kress, the participatory nature of much contemporary text production using new media is fundamentally reshaping how people deal with texts, visual and otherwise. Briefly, he suggests that there are now widespread ‘new principles of text-making composition’ that depend in large part on re-using existing materials while paying little attention to the integrity of those materials; new texts are designed using whatever is to hand, in order to communicate something in a specific social context.

This reflection generates a lot of ethical disucssion about images. Think of the public controversies over Facebook’s privacy rules, or whether news photographs have been faked; think of the care taken to educate young people about how to present themselves online, or what to do about cyberbullying, viral videos about women’s body image etc

As Andrew Clark (2012) points out, there are many conventions in contemporary visual culture about how to deal appropriately with various kinds of images, including, for example, family snaps. Ethical discourse is alive and well in many locations of contemporary visual culture, and to ignore it as a researcher may be to enact a kind of ‘paternalism’ that negates research participants’ agency (Wiles et al., 2012).

So where does that leave VRM?

There are two tensions in particular, I think.

1 between studying social practices through small-scale ethnographic methods – and large-scale quantitative or computational methods. How can two be merged or related? can large-scale deliver meaning of images? Or is their meaning no longer what many images are doing? Are they more about enacting social relations and identities, performing (Lasén and Gómez-Cruz, 2009; Gómez Cruz and Meyer, 2012; Larsen, 2005)?

2 another between different constitutions of expertise. On one hand, there’s the researcher’s expertise – careful analysis, robust methods, theoretical engagement – and on the other, expertise generated by participation, participatory methods but also the kinds of openness that thrive on the web: open forms of data, of interpretation, commentary.

In conclusion: many of the issues I’ve raised in relation to digital visual culture are not necessarily new. Images have always travelled, research participants have always had their own understandings of the appropriate ways to share images, and of how the mass media represent marginalised and oppressed places and people. However, I think the emergence of a widespread digital visual culture has intensified the pressures of non-academic knowledges and practices for our academic production of knowledge using visual images (just as it has with big data). And as a consequence I do think that VRM need to expand, to engage more fully with the core dynamics of that culture, in order to remain engaged with and relevant to research participants and with wider publics.


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