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Visual Research methods

Visual Research

What do we mean by ‘Visual Research Methods’ (VRM) ?

(Please note that this section is not about the type of visual research that is a central part of most art and design courses, where students are encouraged to use observation, museum visits and other image-related searches to inspire and inform their own practice. Instead it addresses the potential use of visual tools for qualitative research in any discipline.)

  • The term can cover a wide range of approaches which make use of non-verbal modes of representation and/or communication as part of the research process.
  • May include photography, drawing, mapping, diagrams, collage, objects  – any of which may be produced by research participants or introduced by the researcher as a prompt
  • Almost always combined with verbal communication from and/or discussions with research participants
  • Sometimes overlaps with ‘creative methods’ or ‘arts-based research’

Why might we use VRM?

  • Traditionally used when working with participants with limited language fluency but potential to work well with anyone
  • Can help to elicit ideas, reflections, experiences, embodied knowledge, that may be hard for people to express verbally
  • It is often the move back and forth between visual and verbal modes of communication that generates key insights

Why might we NOT use them?

  • Unfamiliarity – qualitative research in most disciplines still relies heavily on written or spoken language, with questionnaires, interviews and focus groups dominating most students’ assumptions about research methods.
  • Lack of confidence in techniques, or worry that special skill or resources are necessary
  • Unfounded concern that VRM may not seem sufficiently ‘academic’ or rigorous

Despite such doubts, visual methods have become more widely accepted, with many handbooks and guides available (see Resources below). Indeed, some disciplines, particularly in the fields of sociology, anthropology and ethnography, have used qualitative visual research methods for many years and have generated a rich literature on practical and methodological issues. These often focus on photographic approaches, so students may need extra help and confidence-building to use more hands-on methods such as drawing and collage where these might suit their research.

The links below offer a small sample of projects and methods to indicate the possibilities; for a more comprehensive view, the general handbooks and anthologies are probably the best starting point.  I have also added a few resources at the end on conducting visual research remotely, in response to Covid restrictions.

Further resources (all external web links will open in a new tab)

General Books (some available as e-books)

  • Banks, M. & Zeitlyn, D. Visual methods in social research. Sage, 2015
  • Butler-Kisber, L. Qualitative Inquiry: Thematic, Narrative and Arts-Based Perspectives, 2nd ed. Sage 2019
  • Kara, H. Creative Research Methods: A Practical Guide 2nd ed., Policy Press, 2020
  • Kara, H., Khoo S. Researching in the Age of Covid Vol 3 Creativity & Ethics Policy Press 2020l
  • Knowles, J . & Cole, A.  Handbook of the Arts in Qualitative Research, Sage 2008
  • Leavy, P. Handbook of Arts-Based Research Guilford, 2019
  • Mannay, D. & Pauweis, L. (eds) Sage Handbook of Visual Research Methods 2nd ed. 2019
  • Rose, G. Visual methodologies. London: Sage, 5th Ed 2022



Drawing & Collage


Comics and Storyboards

Photo-elicitation/photo-voice – Some examples


Remote /online visual research methods

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