Visual Methods In The Social Sciences Research Paper

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Visual methods, relative to other methods, are underdeveloped in the social sciences. The probable explanation is that social science reasoning generally relies on the analysis of aggregate data, and photography and other visual methods locate their attention on the particular. Thus, it requires a reversal of typical social science reasoning to generalize from the particular, especially when the particular is a visual image.



The nature of visual evidence is also problematical for social science. Photographic (film or video) images appear to represent the world ‘objectively,’ that is, without interpretation. At the same time, it is recognized that photographs are socially and technically constructed, thus embodying points of view and interpretive influences. The tension between the competing qualities of objectivity and subjectivity influence the use of visual images in the social sciences.

1. Forms Of Visual Methods

1.1 Empirical Evidence

Photographs (or photos linked together in film or video) are the most common form of visual sociology. The most common use of visual images is to catalog aspects of material culture or social interaction (see Collier 1967), which was a common aspect of articles published in the first issues of the American Journal of Sociology (see Stassz 1979). In the first 20 volumes of the American Journal of Sociology, until 1916, sociologists used photographs to make arguments about the character of rural and urban life; the working conditions in offices and factories, and living conditions in industrializing cities. As sociology sought a more scientific posture, the visual research method (which was not well developed in these early examples) was largely abandoned.

Anthropologists, working in the first decades of the twentieth century, also used photography extensively (Edwards 1992). Anthropology’s primary mission during its early eras was to document and classify human groups. Photography’s ability to gather a large amount of information in a single document made it an important data-gathering method. As anthropology abandoned paradigms based on the taxonomic organization of racial classifications, photography became less important as a research method.

The full development of photography as part of ethnographic analysis is generally attributed to Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead’s (1942) study of Balinese culture. In this project, the researchers used 759 photographs (selected from more than 25,000 made during their fieldwork) to support and develop ethnographic observations and analysis. Bateson and Mead used sequences of photographs to show how the Balinese performed social rituals or engaged in routine behavior. These images typically record the unfolding of events, and thus are similar to short movie clips. The researchers also used images to survey material culture such as dwellings and agricultural techniques. This promising expansion and redefinition of visual anthropology has been followed by contemporary examples such as Danforth and Tsiaras’ study of death rituals of Greek villagers (1982), and several other examples in sociology and anthropology.

Howard Becker was the first modern sociologist to suggest a link between photography and sociology (1974). Much of Backer’s argument referred to the ability of photographs to record the world as observed. For example, Becker noted that photography and sociology, since their inception, had both been concerned with the critical examination of society. Becker noted that the early twentieth century photographers, such as Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis, were concerned with topics such as urbanization and industrialization, the exploitation of labor, and the conditions of immigrants, all of central concern to sociologists. Becker suggests that a modern visual sociology should emerge from documentary practice engaged with a sociological theory, and the sociological use of visual data developed in the context of common concerns with validity, reliability, and sampling. Becker’s article, reprinted in several anthologies, is credited with the rebirth of visual sociology in the US.

In the meantime, sociologists have used photographs as evidence in the study of social change (Rieger 1996), in sociological classification of farmsteads (Harper 1997), and other topics that reflect conventional sociological research. Visual ethnography, however, remains a relatively small movement within the field methods tradition in sociology and anthropology.

1.2 Photos As Cultural Narratives

Anthropologists have used film and video (and, to a lesser extent, the ‘photo essay’) to communicate typical events of a cultural scene. This tradition is largely attributed to Robert Flaherty’s seminal ethnographic film, Nanook of the North, completed during the 1920s (see Rotha 1980). The resulting film tradition in anthropology has both embraced and challenged the capacity of visual narrative format to communicate cultural information. Nevertheless, the use of film (and photography) to tell ‘cultural stories’ remains a viable part of visual anthropology, and constitutes the single most influential demonstration of visual methods in social research. In anthropology, ethnographic films are presented at professional meetings, scholarly film festivals, and as a part of normal pedagogy.

1.3 Photographs In The Research Process

Collier (1967) first described how researchers may employ photographs to elicit cultural information. The process, now referred to as ‘photo-elicitation,’ uses images to stimulate culturally relevant reflections in interviews. Researchers may take the photos prior to the interview, or the photographs may be from a personal collection or professional archive. Photoelicitation has become a common method in visual sociology, used in a wide range of studies, including public responses to social problems (Faccioli and Zuccheri 1998), cultural definitions of an urban neighborhood (van der Does et al. 1992), the ‘working knowledge’ of a rural artisan (Harper 1987), and ethnic recognition among Asian immigrants (Gold 1991). The promise of photo-elicitation lies in the understanding of how photographs communicate different meanings to the researcher and the subjects; thus the images become a basis of interviewing that explores the taken-for-granted assumptions of both researcher and subject.

Social science film-makers have integrated imagery into research in a different manner. Beginning in the early 1970s, anthropologists have taught cultural informants to use film and video cameras in order to make films that tell cultural stories from the vantage point of the informant. The first example of this method was Sol Worth and John Adair’s research among the Navajo, which resulted in seven films made by native informants (described in Worth and Adair 1972). With the advent of easy to use video cameras, native-produced visual ethnography has become more common. While controversy continues to surround the redefinition of theoretical authority that native- produced films challenge, most visually oriented social scientists find the native-produced film or video a viable source of ethnographic information.

2. Problems In Visual Methods

2.1 Ethics

There are at least three aspects to the question of ethics and visual methods in research. The first concerns the matter of anonymity; the second concerns the matter of informed consent; and the third represents the burden of ‘telling the visual truth.’ These three issues are inter-related.

Because social science is generally concerned with the patterns of social behavior, individuals are represented by words, or more commonly, by responses they have made to a questionnaire. Thus the identity of individuals are protected. The protection of the privacy of subjects is, indeed, codified in the ethical canons of the social science disciplines. In the case of visual research, however, it is often impossible to protect the privacy of subjects. All discussion of ethics and visual methods rests on this fundamental fact; the photograph produces a likeness which is often identifiable.

Visual researchers thus face a more pronounced problem of informed consent. Subjects must be made aware of implications of publishing their likeness in social science research, and agreement to participate should be made in writing and prior to the research.

The matter of ethics in visual research is unique among research methods for one final reason. Because it is often possible to identify subjects in research images, visual researchers must be absolutely certain that these images ‘tell the truth.’ Visually oriented social scientists recognize that it is unethical to alter images to change their meaning, or to present an image that connotes a reality that was not consistent with the understood reality of a situation. Most visual researchers feel that the ethical considerations of visual research most separates it from that of their peers.

3. Technology

Like all social science methods, visual research depends upon technology. Like all technologies, visual technology makes it possible to record some types of information, but not others. Steiger (1995) detailed how specific cameras, lenses, film types, and camera settings create different kinds of filmic statements, which, in turn, make possible different types of sociological thinking. The specific connection between ‘technologies of seeing’ (whether relating to photography, film, video, or virtual reality) and social ideas remains an area of enormous potential and scant attention. Steiger’s article raises the important point that to be a skilled researcher using visual methods is to master cameras, video and film cameras, and possibly photo printing. Now that many of these technologies have an electronic dimension, skilled visual researchers also need to become adept at software that catalogs visual images, that allows for the improved presentation of images, and that facilitates the production and distribution of images.

New methodologies, such as computer-based multimedia, the World Wide Web, CD publication, and virtual reality, all offer possibilities for the development of innovative visual methods. Each offers an approach for recording, analyzing, and participating in the visual dimensions of society. The future of visual methods in social research will depend, to a large extent, on how well these new technologies are integrated into social science methods and thinking.

4. Publication: Organizational Basis

In the past two decades, visual research in anthropology and sociology has been institutionalized in intellectual organizations such as the Society for Visual Anthropology, a part of the American Anthropological Association, and the International Visual Sociology Association, an independent scholarly organization with ties to several academic disciplines. Publication of visual methods requires special consideration, and the journals such as Visual Anthropology and Visual Sociology feature the presentation of images. The full development of visual methods in social research will require that the mainstream journals and books accept the publication of images as a normal part of social science research, no different than the publication of tables or graphs.


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  2. Becker H S 1974 Photography and sociology. Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 1(1): 3–26
  3. Collier J Jr. 1967 Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York
  4. Danforth L M, Tsiaras A 1982 Death Rituals of Rural Greece. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ
  5. Edwards E 1992 Anthropology and Photography 1860–1920. Yale University Press, New Haven, CT
  6. Faccioli P, Zuccheri N 1998 The double vision of alcohol. Visual Sociology 13(2): 75–90
  7. Gold S 1991 Ethnic boundaries and ethnic entrepreneurship: a photo-elicitation study. Visual Sociology 6(2): 9–22
  8. Harper D 1987 Working Knowledge: Skill and Community in a Small Shop. University of Chicago Press, Chicago
  9. Harper D 1997 Visualizing structure: reading surfaces of social life. Qualitative Sociology 20(1): 57–77
  10. Rieger J 1996 Photographing social change. Visual Sociology 11(1): 5–49
  11. Rotha P 1980 Nanook and the north. Studies in Visual Communication 6(2): 33–60
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  13. Steiger R 1995 First children and family dynamics. Visual Sociology 10(1–2): 28–49
  14. Worth S, Adair J 1972 Through Navajo Eyes. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, IN
  15. van der Does, Edelaar S, Gooskens I, Liefting M, van Mierlo M 1992 Reading images: A study of a Dutch neighborhood. Visual Sociology 7(1): 4–68
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