Visual Research Methods and Visual Ethnographies

In 2015/16 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the second time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support. 

By Abigail Hackett

Whilst interest and enthusiasm for the visual within research methods is increasing, the field remains fragmented and multi-disciplinary, drawing on diverse epistemologies and assumptions about the nature of the visual. These issues of diversity, multiple perspectives and fragmentation were the subjects of healthy debate at the 33rd Annual Qualitative Analysis conference at Brock University, which adopted the theme of visual research methods this year. I was fortunate to attend this conference, funded by The Sociological Review early career researcher travel grant, in order to present a paper on the intersection between arts practice and research, and to participate in a panel on publishing in the digital age.

Messiness, Unknowing, Obstacles, Making-neat

Within my field, early childhood literacy, I am particularly interested in the embodied, sensory and kinaesthetic nature of young children’s everyday lives. The paper I gave as part of the conference, titled ‘Messiness, Unknowing, Obstacles, Making-neat: Exploring the intersection between research and arts practice as ways of knowing’ described separate collaborations with two visual artists, Rachael Hand and Caroline Claisse, focussed on bringing new insights to the embodied nature of children’s literacy practices through arts based approaches. My work with Rachael has centred on visualising children’s embodied paths of movement that are the focus of my own research through Rachael’s arts practice, including photography, video and made objects. My collaboration with Rachael involved us both doing fieldwork and then responding to what we experienced in the field through our separate mediums (ethnography and visual art). In contrast, Caroline worked with existing video data I had collected during my doctorate, of children exploring museums. Caroline re-visited these same museums, and working from the video data, transcribed children’s paths through the museum as a visual, sensory experience, using line drawings, digital linear collages of photographs and sensory boxes. In my paper, I set my descriptions of these collaborations in the wider literature about the intersection between arts practice and research, in which arts practice can be seen as a route to decentring academic knowledge, foregrounding experiential and procedural knowledge and as a space for disrupting established assumptions or dominant discourses.

My paper was part of a session themed around arts practice and research, which led to some fantastic synergies and rich discussions across the papers. Across the session we talked, for example, about the diversity of ways in which arts practice can play a role in research (and vice versa), about possibilities for funding and ethical concerns attached to this work, and of the ongoing challenge of decentring words within research methods.

Publishing in a digital age

Additionally, I participated in a panel discussion entitled ‘Publishing in the Digital Age’, bringing my perspective as an early career researcher to discussions of how publishing was changing in a digital context, and key considerations for researchers as we connect our findings and thinking with wider academic and non academic audiences. My contribution to the panel focussed on the multiplicity of channels through which I publish my work, and some of the tensions inherent in the decisions I make about where to focus my time and energy for publishing. The other panels members were an academic librarian (Laurie Morrison) and experienced editors of open access journals (David Butz, Dolana Mogadime), and much of the discussion focussed on critical analysis of the mainstream journal publishing system. For example, David Butz, editor of Studies in Social Justicespoke cogently about the problems with the current publishing system and the need for academics to resist and try to find new paths for publishing our work. These discussions were an eye opener for me; in my context in the UK there is strong engagement with the star rating and ‘ref-ability’ of papers, and intense pressure on early career researchers to publish in the ‘right’ journals but very little wider discussion, in my experience, of alternative approaches that can be taken to publishing, with the purpose of resisting these, admittedly, powerful and insistent, pressures to communicate our research in particularly ways through particular channels.

Holding on to the dissonance and fragmentation

The conference participants represented a particularly broad spread of arts, humanities, medical and social science disciplines. Consequently, a rich and full range of interpretations around the visual in research were represented; including use of photography, drawings or making as components of either data collection and analysis, study of online and offline visual cultures and images, and collaborations with artists and other visual industries, as a route to building theory and method.

As well as this diversity regarding what it means to do visual research, there was a particularly focus in discussions on the multiplicity of the image; both in terms of the production of an image and how it is read or perceived by others, including researchers. Speakers often referred to the danger or risk associated with images, be it the power images have to move or to convince others, or the way in which images can falsely appear to be transparent representations of the truth. Ethical considerations were also deeply engaged with by delegates at the conference, with discussions centring on the way in which images can be reused in different contexts, across long timescales, coupled with the extent to which images can or cannot be made anonymous. Delegates also expressed frustrations, however, over the institutional barriers they sometimes encountered to working with visual based research methodologies.

In her keynote address, Kirsten McAllister from Simon Fraser University urged delegates to embrace and hold on to this dissonance and fragmentation across the visual within research. Without these multiple approaches and perspectives, warned McAllister, there would be the risk of a formula for ‘doing visual research’ to emerge, closing down other possibilities and ways of working. This honouring of the multiplicity of visual epistemologies also extends to collaborations with those outside academia, as McAllister described the impact learning from the practices of photographers, journalists and research participants has had on her own understandings of the practice of taking and viewing photographs across time and space.

It was refreshing and energising to participate in a conference with such a wide disciplinary spread, a methodological focus so close to my own work, and a critical engagement with the key issues in the field. I would like to thank The Sociological Review for funding my participation at this conference, without which I would have been unable to attend.

More details about the work of Rachael Hand and Caroline Claisse can be found on their websites:

More in depth descriptions of my collaborations with Rachael and Caroline can be found on my blog

Originally published 6th June 2016.

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