Visual methods

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"Visual data gives another layer of information which auditory data or writing cannot provide"


The use of visual methods has become well established over the last few decades in the sub-disciplines of visual sociology and visual anthropology.

More recently, interest in the method has become popular across a range of other disciplines and interdisciplinary areas such as education. Advancements in digital technology have also opened the method up to a wider range of researchers and audiences.

Visual data can be either generated by the researcher or created by others and used by the researcher (Prosser, 2006).

An example of researcher generated images comes from the production of films, sketches or photographs, which can all be used to represent and document social and cultural phenomena.

Recording visual data gives another layer of information which auditory data or written description cannot provide, for example, clearly documenting non-verbal interaction such as body language.

An advantage to the visual recording of social life is that it enables the researcher to set up cameras and record situations without actually being present. The benefit of this is that the researcher is able to avoid dangerous or unwelcoming places and moreover reduce observer effect.

Visual data which is generated by others can by analysed as a secondary source through studying family photos, historical pictures, media images, websites, maps, keepsakes, or cultural artefacts.

In analysing visual data the researcher would usually strive to look beyond the surface appearances of an image to uncover the image's multiple layers of culturally and psychologically informed meanings.

Another way in which visual data are used in qualitative social research is through using images as a tool or prompt with other forms of data collection. Known as photo elicitation, this technique suggests using pictures or film-clips in an interview or focus group setting and asking respondents for their reactions to particular images.

Visual images can also be used to understand the way in which people live their lives and visual influences they have had throughout their life-course.

Giving informants disposable cameras to take pictures of their daily lives or particular situation is an interesting technique which has the advantage of giving the informants an active role in the research and enables them to convey information in their own preferred way.

Visual data gathering in this way can be a valuable method for studying vulnerable groups or people whose communication skills are limited through language barriers, disabilities or literacy limitations.


Study Number: SN 4890
Study Title: Severalls Hospital: Interviews for 'Madness in its Place', 1913-1997
Principal Investigator(s): Gittins, D.
Date of Fieldwork: 1995-1997
Abstract: This research is based on the life stories of patients and workers at a large psychiatric hospital in Essex and presents a social history of British psychiatric care in the twentieth century. The memories and narratives of patients and workers who lived, or were employed in Severalls Psychiatric Hospital provide a personal account of day-to-day life, contextualised both in relation to wider developments and issues in twentieth century mental health, and in relation to policies and changes in the hospital itself. Drawing upon both quantitative and qualitative material, the research deals with key areas such as gender divisions, power relations, patterns of admission and discharge, treatments, and the daily lives and routines of patients and nurses on the wards. The collection also includes image-based data.

Citation: Gittins, D., Severalls Hospital: Interviews for 'Madness in its Place', 1913-1997 [computer file]. 2nd Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], June 2007. SN: 4890.


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