out now: the fifth edition of Visual Methodologies

Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Working with Visual Materials has been the longest academic project I’ve worked on. The first edition came out in 2001 and the fifth is now out from Sage. Three years ago I wasn’t planning to write another edition, but I decided that working on it largely from home during various lockdowns and post-lockdowns caution would be a really useful exercise for catching up on things I hadn’t read but should have done – though I long ago gave up trying to be comprehensive.

The new edition of the book is re-organised. It now starts with the chapter on how to use the book (with thanks to the reviewer who suggested that that would be kind of logical… only took me twenty years to come to the same conclusion).

It’s then divided into four main sections. The first, contexts, gives an overview of different theoretical approaches to understanding visual culture and develops the criteria for what I call a ‘critical visual methodology’. The second section is on designing a research project using visual materials, and covers topics like research ethics, locating images to research, and referencing the visual materials you work with. The third part is the section on methods – there are nine chapters each discussing one method in depth, as well as distinct discussions of other related visual research methods (a new feature in this edition). The fourth section has just one chapter, on using visual images to engage non-academic audiences with the findings of a research project.

There’s one entirely new chapter – on research design – and the chapters on digital methods, making images as research data and engaging non-academic audiences have been completely rewritten. Several of the other chapters have been heavily revised and the rest refreshed, while the chapter on pyschoanalytic methods has been moved to the book’s website.

I’d like to thank the folk who contributed generous endorsements of the new edition. I do hope the book continues to be useful, as they suggest it will. This one really will have to be the final edition though – not least because the archive from which I’ve sourced all the front covers doesn’t seem to have any more appropriate photographs for me to use…

digital research methods at #AoIR2018

I had a great day at a digital methods workshop run by Axel Bruns, Jean Burgess, Richard Rogers, Tim Highfield and Tama Leaver this week at the Association of Internet Researchers conference in Montreal. Well, actually it was a workshop on social media research. Given the small matter of GIS as a digital research method, not to mention semiotics and political economy as part of the app walkthrough method, I might start a one-person campaign to get a bit more precision in the labelling here. However, that is my only niggle about the entire day, which was incredibly interesting and helpful and thought-provoking. Here are my take-aways:

  • Tim started off by urging us to be experimental and innovative. He pointed out that much social media research has relied on API-based methods, but Twitter is really now the only platform that allows decent access via its API, and Tim’s sense is that wasn’t going to last. Richard Rogers repeated this: increasingly, there is limited or no access to data to social media data, data is being deleted and data is not being archived. Jean too urged us to go beyond the database model of research.
  • another issue about social media data is that the media themselves keep changing. New features are added, old ones tweaked or removed. Instagram posts can be edited and comments added months after the original post. So how do you as a researcher keep up with those changes?  (Tim and Tama have a book coming out on Instragram – and Instagram has altered hugely since they started working on it, with Stories probably being the most significant change.)
  • a crucial reminder from Richard Rogers: begin with your research questions and then figure out what metrics might work – don’t start with the method! And lots of the day focussed how to generate the answers to empirical questions. But of course there are, or should be, theoretical positions driving those empirical questions. All the methods we discussed were what Richard refers to as “forensic”: the detailed analysis of clues, big and small, to identify a truth (there’s an interesting parallel with the Forensic Architecture research agency here). But forensics have to achieve particular forms of evidentiary reliability and I did wonder what sorts of questions and answers might be co-generated digitally if we worked with a different term to describe a different kind of method: symptomatic? evocative? machinic?
  • there are lots of resources for learning more about these methods: the residential schools run by the Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam and the Digital Media Research Centre at Queensland University of Technology are standouts here but there are also some QUT MOOCs here. (There are lots of other summer schools too – I know about the Digital Humanities Summer School at Oxford as well as the Oxford Internet Institute’s – please add any you recommend in the comments box below.)
  • and finally, some words. “Mouse over” as a verb – as in “if you mouse over this dropdown menu…” – and the adverbs “appification” and “platformification”. (They’re what’s happening to identity, apparently.) And quantiquali, or qualiquanti – when digital methods are used to generate data that is then analysed using qualitative methods, or vice versa. Which kind of sounds like mixed methods, so perhaps another prompt for a more radical rethink about ‘digital methods’.

Finally finally, a big thanks to the presenters for a great day.

moodboard as method?

I’m very excited to be taking part in a methods workshop for PhD students and early career researchers, to be held in the Ringkøbing-Skern municipality on the west coast of Denmark on 18-22 June 2018. There’s more information here and you can apply here.


It’s the third in a series organised by Anette Markham, Anne-Marit Waade and Kat Tiidenberg, and as the series is called Visuality, Culture, Method, I imagine a fair few readers of this post might be interested.

There’ll be lots of activities to develop participants’ visual research methods, but the one that most intrigues me is the design of a moodboard as “a speculative, future oriented method for making sense of, analyzing and visualizing culture”.

Mention of a moodboard immediately makes me think of the advice given by interior design magazines for ‘tasteful’ home decorating: create a moodboard of materials, colours, objects. I guess it’s a kind of collage, but one that has perhaps rather less didactic intent than many academic uses of collage. Its aim is not to place contradictory images in relation as a form of critique, but rather to layer things together to create, well, a mood. This seems an interesting model in relation to the ongoing interest in affect and atmospheres. I’d love to see what participants in the workshop do with this as an analytical tool.

The idea of a moodboard also reminds me of the digital equivalent: Pinterest.

Pinterest seems to me to be shamefully understudied as a social media platform. I’m pretty sure there’ll be technical reasons for this lack of attention: quite how you’d scrape the front end stream of images I don’t know. Particularly as they appear to me to be closely related to the sorts of things that an individiual user searches for and pins onto their boards (those pesky algorigthms): so each stream will be different for each user. And then there are the boards created by users, some of which are public but many of which are private.

There are also the difficulties in analysing large numbers of digital images. To what should your method be attentive: content? Colour? How do you sample? Should you sample?

I also wonder if there are other reasons for the neglect of Pinterest though. It has a very high proportion of female users, and much of it is devoted to feminised concerns: domestic design, relationship advice, fashion, weird cures for fixing bad skin or flab. (There’s also a professional design/architecture engagement with Pinterest which is less visible to me, given what I use it for.) Does this also contribute to the lack of attention it’s received?

Which raises the question, how will a method based on moodboard gain credibility and traction? I very much look forward to exploring these questions – and I’m sure many more – in June.

seeing the city in digital times: a lecture

I gave a keynote lecture at the Neue Kulturgeographie XIV conference a couple of weeks ago, at the University of Bayreuth. My topic was ‘seeing the city in digital times’. I talked about the challenges of keeping cultural geography relevant as a critical project when so much visual culture is now digital, and I shared my recent work looking at how so-called ‘smart cities’are pictured on YouTube and Twitter.   You can hear my talk and see the presentation that accompanied it here.


Listen through til the end if you can (or indeed just skip to about an hour in) because I got some great questions afterwards.  It was a privilege to speak as such an energy-filled event – thankyou to my hosts Matt Hannah, Eberhard Rothfuss and Jan Hutta.

smart cities on Twitter: or, urban / cultural / visual / digital

I’ve been trying to work on a paper about how smart cities look on Twitter over the past few works.  One answer is this:

trial 3 brightness_median vs hue_median copy small.jpg

That’s a trial run I’ve done, working with the 900-odd images attached to a range of smart city-related hashtags, scraped over a week last month by my OU colleague Alistair Willis, and run through Lev Manovich’s ImagePlot software.  Saturation increases closer to the centre of the image, and hue is distributed much like a colour wheel.  Yes, smart cities are mostly either blue or orange!!

This is part of my effort to think about different visual methods that can respond – even if only partially – to the sheer scale of image circulation in digital visual culture now. It doesn’t touch on the dynamics of their circulation, but it does suggest, I think, a possible effect of the speed and numbers of images on social media platforms and the casual way in which they’re often seen: that we might see a certain sort of city as a colour field that enacts smart (for example) rather than a set of images that represent it. So the blue and orange mean almost nothing (though not entirely). What they might suggest, though, is something about the feel of the notion of the smart city, as it’s performed through Twitter.

What I’m now doing is digging a bit deeper into that ‘feeling’: what does a smart city hashtag on Twitter do with both smart cities and with the hashtag followers? What kinds of affect does it intensify?  I think I’m kind of getting towards an answer, but of course I need to do some more reading.  And here is my pile of books that I hope will help me think about what thousands of images of smart are and do, getting me away from smart and Twitter specifically and more towards thinking about the intersection of the urban, visual, cultural and digital. I’m also looking forward to reading a roundtable in the online journal Mediapolis, on the urban as an emergent key concept for media theory.


(I was going to make a snarky comment about it obviously being compulsory to use grey, black, red and white when designing the covers of these sorts of books – but then I realised that my workspace is pretty much the same colours….)



pre-register now for online advanced image elicitation methods research training

Three years ago now, I worked with Professor Helen Lomax and Dr Nick Mahony to produce three online advanced research training modules in image elicitation methods, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.   Module 1 looks at using image elicitation methods with ‘vulnerable’ research participants; module 2 examines discourses of elicitation and participation more generally; and module 3 looks at a couple of possible futures for digital image elicitation methods.


They’re free and open to all researchers, but are aimed primarily at PhD students, and this is the last year that they’ll run.

Pre-registration for module 1 is now open here, and closes on 25 November.