Seeing is Believing? Approaches to Visual Research: Volume 7

Cover of Seeing is Believing? Approaches to Visual Research

Table of contents

(12 chapters)

In assembling a collection of papers which address issues relating to the visual image as the medium through which we might come to know the social world, we are in a sense, merely drawing on something that most of us do and take for granted during all of our waking hours. For most of us, the world in which we live is experienced through our capacity to see and to make sense of what we see. At its most fundamental, visual research draws on our basic capacity to interpret the world through our sense of sight. In this respect, for those of us who are not in anyway visually impaired visual research might be seen to be little more than something that we do all the time in order to go about our everyday lives. We might also argue that all or at least the great majority of social research relies on our capacity to interpret and to make sense of visual images. This is true not only in cases where methods of observation and participant observation are used, but also in respect of the need to read written data of various kinds, to interpret statistics and merely to orient ourselves within any given research location. Whilst there is no intention here to deny or overlook the contribution that blind or partially sighted researchers may make to our understanding of social life through their work with the written medium or through their capacity to give accounts of their personal experiences of research sites and locations via other, perhaps more developed, senses such as hearing, touch and smell, it remains a fact that most social research relies on the capacity of the researcher to see and to interpret on the basis of what is seen.

There are several contenders for the title of being the “pioneer of photography,” of which in France, Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre (1787–1851) is the most internationally famous. In Britain, it is widely accepted that although William Henry Fox Talbot (1800–1877) was not the first to produce photographs, he had a major contribution to the development of photography.

In 1984 the number of photographs taken by people in the U.K. broke the 1 million mark and 75% of all households had a camera. By the end of the millennium (1999) people in Britain spent over 1 billion on cameras, film and processing and the number of photographs taken had exceeded 3 billion.1 There is little doubt that most people are familiar with cameras, and the majority will be engaged in forms of photographic practice as amateurs, that is as a “pastime” or hobby or as an adjunct to events, activities and leisure in their everyday lives.

The arrival of cheap video equipment would seem to have opened up a whole range of methodological opportunities for the social scientist, especially the sociologist. The poor quality, expense and time-consuming clumsiness of film has over the last ten years been replaced with a flexible and easy to use technology, cheaply available in the high street that enables the researcher to record social action “au naturel.” As a social researcher who has been seduced by this opportunity I would like to comment on the process from the experience of a recent project. Without the breadth of experience to offer anything like a systematic methodology for using video in the social sciences, what I hope to do in this piece is to raise methodological issues that affect every research method but which take on a different quality with visual data. It is remarkable how little film and video data feature within the social sciences. Because of the capability of capturing the visible and hearable actions and interactions of people going about their ordinary life, it would seem to provide a rich source of data for those social scientists interested in studying local social situations. The flow and pattern of life as it is lived is recorded and retained in the moving picture with sound, to become available for close study and multiple replays. The action can be frozen, slowed down and instances separated in time and place easily compared.

Visual ethnographic methods are increasingly popular in social science research. Much has been published on their design and use (e.g. Banks, 2001; Pink, 2001; van Leeuwen & Jewitt, 2001). Yet little has been written on using video in in-depth interviews, or how such video-interviews might differ from tape-recorded interviews. In this chapter I discuss the video interview, as developed in my research about gender in the sensory home,1 to reflect on the nature of the ethnographic knowledge about everyday life and experience this method produces. I focus particularly on informants’ uses of narrative as a vehicle for self-representation that reveals and conceals. Video invites informants to produce narratives that interweave visual and verbal representation. In doing so they reference familiar everyday narratives and practices that are in part visual. Here I discuss how three narratives – which I shall call the “Hello magazine,” “estate agent” and “self-analysis” narratives – were developed in an audiovisual research context.2

In all its stages, qualitative research inhabits a visible world. Yet the use of visual data across the life of a research project is a visual span seldom considered in the methodological literature (Albrecht, 1985; Brannen, 2002). From a study largely based on observation and interviews in which visual data did not feature at the outset, we illustrate this longer perspective by focussing on two aspects of span. One refers to the inclusion of visual data throughout a project, from the search for a research setting to the final stage of dissemination. The other concerns the more frequent approach that includes a mix of visual methods, ranging from visual documents of film and photographs (Denzin, 1989) to other visual images and sights fleetingly observed. We argue that to use our eyes in the peripheral as well as the central data gathering stages, and to glean data from what is incidentally noticed as well as harvested with specific visual tools, generate an extended sociological understanding. The visual widens the window on the world of those being studied, bringing the intricacies of their lives closer to both researcher and audience. In this latter regard, we note the value of visual data at the dissemination stage, particularly for audiences of practitioners and those with interests in policy formation.

Barthes (1977) famously argued that the meaning of an image does not become apparent until it is accompanied and explicated by text. Pictures are ambiguous, he suggests, and their interpretation is dependent on words to specify and focus their multiple and uncertain meanings. However, it is also apparent that relationships between texts and images may take many different forms (Becker, 1981; Berger, 1972; Chaplin, 1994; Pink, 2001). Furthermore, for the social scientist, the texts that mediate the meanings of pictures come in two different forms and contexts. There are the words of respondents – captured by interviews, questionnaires and other research devices – and those of social science theory and analysis. Similarly, images may be generated by respondents, by researchers or derived from secondary sources by respondents or researchers. Thus, an examination of the methodological foundations of visual research in social science must address the varied and dynamic interrelationships between pictorial images, interview transcripts and theoretical interpretations, through which meaning is constructed rather than simply found. As Chaplin comments, sociologists make rather than take photographs (1994).

In order to sustain our argument that a blending of visual sociology and the sociology of development can be productive and politically engaged, we need to locate the debate in the wider developmental context into which sociological interventions can be made. As this chapter will demonstrate, popular understandings of development, mostly mediated by visual imagery, reflect a rapidly changing development industry, as well as affording significant social theoretical insights. Thus, we need to briefly consider some of the key features of the development landscape, and the ways in which sociologists might engage in this, particularly in the context of the globalisation of development; the ways in which processes of globalisation are transforming the actors and agents involved in development, the roots of development authority and legitimacy and the changing ways in which development is defined and understood. This already hints at an important link with the visual; “development” must be understood as being linked to the same processes and relationships which underpin a world increasingly shaped by the visual image.

Learning is a total human experience. Research rarely reaches the grounds of the inner world of how students experience learning. Conventional methods relying on spoken or written language suffer from the fact that the power relationship is slanted in the adults’ favour when young people are confronted with verbal argumentation or pre-fabricated questionnaires. Culturally and historically speaking, this has to do with academic tradition, founded as it is on the written word. A move beyond the “outer” world of spoken and written language requires other possibilities of looking into the “inner world” of schools from the pupils’ perspectives without their (and our) falling into the traps set by language.

Early in my career (similar I suspect to most other evaluators I knew of around the world) I had never considered using the visual medium as a major form of data for evaluations. This was not surprising, as we had been just emerged from a fifty-year period when the social sciences relied on quantitative, positivist approaches with the result that pictorial images were perceived to be imprecise, subjective, representations that could not be accepted as evaluation data.

Pat Allatt is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Teesside, U.K.Tim Dant is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of East Anglia, U.K.Carolyn Dixon is a researcher and an independent artist.John Donnelly is Senior Lecturer in the Sociology and Criminology Division at the University of Northumbria, U.K.Alan Felstead is Professor of Employment Studies at the Centre for Labour Market Studies at the University of Leicester, U.K.Barbara Harrison is Professor of Sociology at the University of East London, U.K.Rosalind Hurworth is Director of the Centre for Program Evaluation within the Faculty of Education at the University of Melbourne, Australia.Nick Jewson is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for Labour Market Studies at the University of Leicester, U.K.John Martin is Principal Lecturer in Economic and Social History at De Montfort University, U.K.Ruth Martin was the Research Assistant for the “Asian Leicester” project.Sarah Pink is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Loughborough, U.K.Christopher Pole is a Reader in the Department of Sociology at the University of Leicester, U.K.Andrea Raggl is a Research Assistant in the Department of Teacher Education and School Research at the University of Innsbruck, Austria.Michael Schratz is Professor of Education at the Department of Teacher Education and School Research of the University of Innsbruck, Austria.Matt Smith is a Lecturer in the Sociology and Criminology Division at the University of Northumbria, U.K.Sally Walters is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Labour Market Studies at the University of Leicester, U.K.

Cover of Seeing is Believing? Approaches to Visual Research
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Studies in Qualitative Methodology
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Emerald Publishing Limited
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