Visual Research Methods International Journal of Social Research Methodology

International Journal of Social Research Methodology

Visual research methods are those that incorporate some kind of imagery into the research process.  Images can constitute the research data, or the tools through which research data is analysed, or the medium via which research results are communicated.  The rise and rise of visual research methods across the social sciences over the past decade or so has been remarkable, and the International Journal of Social Research Methodology has faithfully tracked their popularity.  The journal seems to have published its first paper on visual methods in 1998.  It published two more in the next five years; five more appeared between 2008 and 2010; and since 2011 readers will have noticed around five papers every year on visual methods. 

Many reasons have been suggested for this growth.  Visuals are so ubiquitous, it’s argued that social scientists must engage more with them both as data and as tools for research.  It’s argued that, inserted into interviews of various kinds, images can encourage talk about things that would not otherwise be achieved.  It’s suggested that they are very useful tools to deply in participatory research projects, enabling marginalised identities and groups to articulate their worldview.  And it’s often claimed that research results can be communicated more effectively and more powerfully to non-academic audiences if images are used.  The nine papers in this virtual issue engage, often critically, with all these claims and more. 

The papers by Croghan et al (2008), Hammond et al (2011), Hoecher (2015), Lomax (2012) and O’Connell (2013) are part of one of the largest bodies of work using visual research methods: research on and with young people.  All their papers examine in rich detail the complexities of using images made by young people as research data.  Two more papers, by Jordan et al and Wiles et al, reflect an another major area of debate in relation to visual research methods: the ethics of working with images, which may (though by no means always) flout the ethical default requirement of participant anonymity.  And one paper, by Greasley (2006), reflects on and evaluates the use of images as a means of disseminating research results. 

'Visual research methods' tend to be defined with reference only to these sorts of qualitative, small-scale projects, in which images are embedded into interviews or ethnographic methods.  The final papers in this issue point to one of the many forms of visual research omitted in this constitution of visual research methods: those that deal with large amounts of data in a semi-automated manner.  Snell (2011) examines the usefulness of software in analysing large amounts of video data, while Angus et al (2013) examine the value of software-generated visualisations of data.  With the emergence of digital sociology and the rise of big data, it may well be that a range of new digital methods will emerge that will reshape the field of visual research methods.  I look forward to seeing such future innovations in the pages of this journal too.

Professor Gillian Rose
Department of Geography
The Open University

The below articles are free to access until 31 October 2016. To begin reading, simply select the below link(s) of your choice.