Using Visual Images In Research

Some general principles and helpful hints:

1. Be guided by the research question.Keep your question in mind as you interpret the data.Ask how the collection and how each image or scene or metaphor addresses your question.What do they contribute to an increased knowledge or understanding of your topic?What might they mean in light of your question?

2. Keep track of your reactions and ideas in a journal or log.Sometimes an idea that seems silly or irrelevant early on becomes useful again later.We always think we are going to remember our keen insights or inspirations, but unless you write them down or draw them, you risk forgetting them.

3. Every time you gather or analyze your data, keep a meticulous log giving a detailed account of the context.Things like the time, date, place, social status, and situation can turn out to be essential to a valid interpretation.As much as possible, try to keep track of such things as what people do or say, who took the photos, when and why, where objects come from or what they mean to the people in question, what the relationships between people are etc.

4. Keep track of data and label everything carefully, so that you can play with images and rearrange them without worrying about being able to identify where they came from, what they are and so forth.

5. Laying out the data:If your data consists of images or photographs, you might want to lay them out in different ways, constructing different “wholes” or groupings.The important question to consider here is “what groupings make sense in light of my research topic?”There are many ways to “lay out” your data:In columns, circles or other patterns-on a vertical surface (perhaps taped to the wall) or on a large table-upside down or right side up.Experiment!It’s hard to know what will stand out within a new arrangement unless you try it.For example, even just moving images around within the same row or framework can unexpectedly throw into relief a feature of the image you place it next to.

6. Drawing or imaging the data:It is often useful to analyze images in terms of images!Look for images within images.Another useful technique is to sketch the evolving understandings, or doodle, make charts, or choose and arrange images that represent the interpretation.

7. Questioning images using a Critical Theory or Cultural Studies framework.For some projects, it makes sense to analyze your data in the light of critical questions such as the following:

  • For whom are the images intended? What significance does that have?
  • How were the images produced or created? By whom and under what circumstances? Are there power relationships involved?
  • What stories do the images tell?
  • What does the image-text say about whatever you are researching (e.g., learning, teaching, love, play, politics, work, technology)?
  • How do these images create meaning? What social, cultural, or political knowledge is required to be able to interpret the images?
  • What is your emotional reaction to these images? How do other people react to them? What might these reactions signify in terms of interpreting the images?
  • What is the main “text” or messages conveyed by the images?
  • What are the counter-texts or the hidden (implicit) messages?
  • How are visible minorities represented or portrayed?
  • How are gender differences and similarities portrayed?
  • How is the group you are focussing on (e.g., children) represented?
  • Who has power or how is power distributed or used?
  • What is the relationship between the image-text and the status quo?
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