Visual methodologies: an introduction to researching with visual materials



“Now in its Fourth Edition, Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to Researching with Visual Methodologies is a bestselling critical guide to the study and analysis of visual culture. Existing chapters have been fully updated to offer a rigorous examination and demonstration of an individual methodology in a clear and structured style. Reflecting changes in the way society consumes and creates its visual content, new features include: Brand new chapters dealing with social media platforms, the development of digital methods and the modern circulation and audiencing of research images. More ‘Focus’ features covering interactive documentaries, digital story-telling and participant mapping. A Companion Website featuring links to useful further resources relating to each chapter. A now classic text, Visual Methodologies appeals to undergraduates, graduates, researchers and academics across the social sciences and humanities who are looking to get to grips with the complex debates and ideas in visual analysis and interpretation”– Publisher


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Images are culture and representation, but also material and affective. Vision is our ability to see, whereas visuality or scopic regime is how our vision is formed or constructed. Ocularcentrism describes our simping for visual culture. Simulacra are images detached from a relation to the real world.

Visual economy is about how visual objects travers cultures, forcefully or not, meanwhile changing their meanings, contexts, affects etc.

it’s important to reflect on the power relations embedded in images and their media, and what they enable us to see or not see.

What do images represent, how do they affect and what power relations are they transposing?

Five important aspects in engaging with visual culture

  1. visualising social difference
  2. how images are looked at
  3. Differentiating visual cultures
  4. the circulation of images
  5. The agency of images

“an image may have its own visual effects; these effects, through the ways of seeing mobilised by the image, are crucial in the production and reproduction of visions of social difference; but these effects always intersect with the social context of viewing, with how the image is circulated, and with the visualities spectators bring to their viewing.” p. 22

a critical approach to interpreting visual images:


Four sites of thinking about visual material

Three modalities of a site

Notes on figure 2.2: the womanooks at one image that we can’t see. She seems to be saying something to a man, even explaining, closely standing by. She makes a hand gesture. The man in turn looks at a painting of nude woman. In the background, a ceinturerie denotes the street is in a french speaking country. Three more people can be seen in the slightly blurry background. The photograph is black and white and could date back to something around 1900 - 1920.

Images of the same gerne share certain features. It seems that genre regarding images is much easier then in game studies. Remediation is the referencing of older genre while gestating a new one. Images often fit clearly into one genre, while  relating to others at the same time.

Auteur theory: what did the images author had in mind at production?

Compositionality: how the image‘s content is arranged

Aura: the authority, authenticity and unattainability of an umage

Audiencing: the process of witnessing, renegotiating or rejecting the meaning of an image, by particular audiences in particular circumstances

Convergence: from medium-specific visual content to transmediality, communication interdependence, many ways of accessing media content, melange between top-down corporate comm and bottom-up participatory culture


Is about how to read this book. There are three main approaches: reading by sites and modalities, by visual material at hand, and by relation to other books.

4 The Good Eye - compositional interpretation

the image itself, compositional, video games (films and fine arts)

The Good Eye involves becoming a connoisseur of what one is looking at, acquiring a certain expertise. Compositional interpretation (CI) needs a lot of context information in order to have this expertise at hand. CI does neglects the social sites of an image and needs to be paired with other methods, such as semiotics or discourse analysis. CI is close to phenomenological approaches. It can be a good starting point to other, more critical inquiries.

CI can take production into account, if it relates to how the image looks like it does.

Michael Nitsche discusses functionality as something that influences how a game looks and feels like. Looking at the rules that define functionality can be important in CI in video games.

Compositionality is built up from the following characteristics

As of 2016, Gillian Rose knows of only two sampling strategies to analyse visual material from video games: screenshots and clips, both manually initiated (see chapter 5 for more on sampling strategies).

Further keywords regarding film

mise-en-scène, screen ratio, screen frame, screen planes, multiple images, superimpositions, shot distance, focus, angle, point of view. Regarding camera movement there is pan, tilt, roll, tracking shot, crane shot and zoom shot.

Expressive content (mood, feel, atmosphere, vibes)

the combined effect of subject matter and visual form (Taylor (1957)

5 Content and cultural analysis

CCA is about analysis large sets of images through sets of rules and procedures concerning selection, coding and quantitative analysis.It thus has an inherent relationship to mass media, also, originating from that corner of visual culture.

Lev Manovich recently developed an approach called cultural analytics. CCA doesn’t necessarily exclude qualitative analysis. It enables the researcher to look at visual material at different scales, sometimes making out patterns for example. Therefor it is important to concentrate on two aspects in particular: replicability and validity. CCA tries to be methodological explizit and reflective by avoiding sampling bias. On the downside, CCA focuses mostly on the compositional modality of images and says little about production and the social.

Stages of CCA

This approach is based on counting clearly defined visual elements on a clearly defined corpus of images, and then analyse the frequency of those elements.

Cultural analytics is more software based and works on a more compositional level (colors, forms, etc), less on meaning and signification.

Numbers do not easily translate into significance.

6 Semiology (social semiotics) - Laying bare the prejudices

…is about how images make meanings. It has close ties to the social sciences. One of the most important aspects of semiology is … wait for it … the “sign”. It has an elaborate vocabulary and sets of categories on how we make sense of images and how they produce meaning. Semiology claims to be scientific, through unearthing inequalities (as opposed to ideology, which is knowledge constructed to hide inequalities). This shows the social sciences (Marx) influences on semiology, and hence it is concerned with social effects of meaning.

That said, of late the terminology “ideological complex” is used in order to denote that semiological approaches are not necessarily objective (Althusserian science) but also a form of ideology since they have their own distinct interests and resistance against another social group. This approach can lead way to more reflectivity in working semiologicly. 

Social semiotics concentrates on the act of doing meanings, instead of the sign/the meaning itself. On the downside, semiology is heavily theoretical loaded and uses a distinct analytical vocabulary, which makes it a very elaborate and work-intensive methodology. 

8 Discourse Analysis 1 - Text, intertextuality and context

Concentrates on how texts are involved in the construction of social difference, hence, concentrates on power relations and their politics. One of this methods main intellectual is Michel Foucault. He saw discourse as a form of discipline, hence the focus on power.

Discourse produces the world as it understands it. Foucault said that painting “is discursive practice that is embodied in techniques and effects”. That said, he was rejecting methodological and theoretical analysis and focused mainly on how the power in question works.

How to discourse analysis 1

An important aspect is to find the institutional location of a discourse, to locate the social site from where particular statements are made, what social authority authors of a statement have.

How to be reflexive

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