- 1 What do we mean by ‘Visual Research Methods’ (VRM) ?
- 2 Why might we use VRM?
- 3 Why might we NOT use them?
- 4 Further resources (all external web links will open in a new tab)
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.
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
- Qualitative Inquiry see eg special issue August 1 2003, Volume 9, No. 4 on the Arts and Narrative Research
- Visual Studies peer-reviewed journal, published on behalf of the International Visual Sociology Association.
- Visual Methodologies See in particular Vol 5 No 1 (2017) Special Issue
- Social Research Update (published quarterly) Relevant articles include:
- McCulloch, D. (2018) “Do Participatory Visual Research Methods ‘give voice’?” (Video of lecture delivered at ESRC Research Methods Festival)
- see also “Recommended readings – a reading list for creative methods” https://www.nicole-brown.co.uk/reading-list/
Drawing & Collage
- Rees, C. (2018) Drawing on drawings: Moving beyond text in health professions education research. Perspectives on Medical Education 7, 166–173
- Gerstenblatt, P. (2013) Collage Portraits as a Method of Analysis in Qualitative Research International Journal of Qualitative methods
- Butler-Kisber, L. & Poldma, T. (2010) The Power of Visual Approaches in Qualitative Inquiry: The Use of Collage Making and Concept Mapping in Experiential Research Journal of Research Practice Volume 6, Issue 2,
- See also the Drawing to Learn booklets on this site
- Koivunen N., Ahmas K. (2020) The Ways of the Hand: Knitting and Handicraft as a Method of Research. In: Ward J., Shortt H. (eds) Using Arts-based Research Methods. Palgrave Macmillan
- Clare Danek Stitch Journal https://claredanek.me/stitch-journal/
Comics and Storyboards
- Al-Jawad M. ‘Comics are Research: Graphic Narratives as a New Way of Seeing Clinical Practice’ Journal of Medical Humanities. February 2013.
- Kara, H., & Brooks, J. (2020). The Potential Role of Comics in Teaching Qualitative Research Methods. The Qualitative Report, 25(7), 1754-1765. Retrieved from https://nsuworks.nova.edu/tqr/vol25/iss7/2
- ‘Graphic Medicine’ movement http://www.graphicmedicine.org
- Cross, RM & Warwick-Booth, L (2016) Using storyboards in participatory research. Nurse researcher, 23 (3) 8 – 12
- NCRM Comics as a research method
- Applied Comics https://appliedcomicsetc.com/
- Rainford, J. (2021) ‘Stripping back the novelty: A critical reflection on the dual use of a comic-based approach to engage participants and publics’ Methodological Innovations
Photo-elicitation/photo-voice – Some examples
- Harper (2002) “Talking about pictures: a case for photo elicitation”
Visual Studies, Vol. 17, No. 1, 2002
- Camille A. Sutton-Brown (2014) Photovoice: A Methodological Guide, Photography and Culture, 7:2, 169-185
- Oliffe et al (2008) ‘Analyzing participant produced photographs from an ethnographic study of fatherhood and smoking’ Research into Nursing & Health 31(5):529-39 + see also this video presentation by John Oliffe, discussing this and other examples of Photovoice projects, and multilayered approaches to analysis
- The Teaching Landscape in Creative Arts Subjects This research project undertaken through the Creative Learning in Practice (CLIP) CETL used photo-elicitation interviews.
- Zamorski ‘Research-led Teaching and Learning in Higher Education: a Case study’ Teaching in Higher Education, Vol. 7, No. 4, 2002 “12 undergraduate researchers were … asked to carry out a set of small-scale qualitative research tasks’. [These included] using a digital camera to capture 12 ‘images of research’ at the University and provide a written commentary to accompany the images.”
- Digital Video as Research Practice: Methodology for the Millennium Shrum, Duque & Brown. Useful online introduction and primer.
Remote /online visual research methods
- Tips for collecting primary data in a Covid-19 era A repository of links collated June 2020, some of which are relevant to VRM
- Lloyd & Lorenz “Can I do a photovoice project remotely? Yes you can!” Photovoice Worldwide blog
- Helen Kara Research Methods to consider in a pandemic
- Typology of online visual methods