Interpreting Visual Materials

In order to be able to begin to interpret the visual materials that my data collection would generate, I needed to establish how I would go about making meaning from them. Gillian Rose’s book ‘Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials’, provides an introduction into the methodologies that I could potentially use for interpreting the visual materials in my research project.

The title starts with an introduction into considering how visual methodology can be critical. Rose explains that culture is an extremely complex concept, made up of social processes, social identities and social change. Visuality refers to the way individuals see the world, what they see, how they see and what is allowed to be seen by them. In Western society, visuality is an important part of life and this is seen through an increasing saturation of visual content. This apparent centrality of visual content to culture is known as ocularcentrism, a term introduced by Martin Jay in 1993. In pre-modern times, visual images were not very important simply because there were not many of them, the move into modernity increased the production of images. Many scholars discuss why images have become prevalent in culture, from their use in science to their prominent role in mass tourism. In post-modernity the visual is still important, however the relationship between between seeing and believing is constantly being questioned. However post-modernity can still be viewed as ocularcentric because the scale that individuals engage with constructed visual experiences. Jean Baudrillard proposes that in post-modernity it is no possible to identify what it real and what isn’t, we now live in a world that is full of simulations and nothing is original anymore. Donna Haraway argues that this ocularcentric culture is only available to few individuals and institutions, particularly those with histories in military, capitalism, colonialism and male supremacy. In addition to this, there is also the concept of dominant visuality, which denies alternative ways of seeing the world other than those prescribed by the norm.

Visual images are not often seen without accompanying spoken or written text, but the ways of conveying meaning in visual images are different from that in textual material. John Berger wrote and illustrated a book known as Ways of Seeing in which he proposed that we never just consider the thing depicted, but rather we look at the relation between things and ourselves. Just as text evokes meaning when read, an image evokes meaning by being looked at; this looking at an image also involves thinking how the image positions you as a viewer in relation to it. However it is important to consider that not all audiences would respond in the same way to the same image. In order to begin looking at images critically, Rose suggests three rules:

  1. Take images seriously, despite post-modernity suggesting images don’t necessarily depict the ‘real’
  2. Think about the social conditions and effects of the visual object(s)
  3. Consider you own way of looking at the images (as a researcher or viewer)

The image itself has three sites of meaning: the site of the production of the image, the site of the actual image and the site in which it is seen by an audience. In additional to this the image is also shaped by the apparatus used to create it, the compositional element of its appearance and the range of social, economic an political processes that surround the image. The creator of the image should also be addressed; auteur theory suggests that the most important aspect in understanding a visual image is considering what its maker intended to show, however Roland Barthes argued a case for the apparent death of the author. Nevertheless, the viewer is also an important concept in considering the way an image is interpreted, Rose introduced the term audiencing to refer to the process through which an image makes meaning when it is viewed.  The particular audience member will have an effect on the way an image is read and the space in which the image is being viewed also has an influence on meaning making.

In terms of sourcing visual material to study, Rose suggests the researcher should consider the precise format of the visual material, how much material beyond the object the researcher would need. In addition to this, when studying painting as a visual material, the researcher should decide whether seeing the original in situ is necessary, or whether a reproduction would be enough. Of course when you consider Walter Benjamin on the idea of viewing a reproduction, he would argue that seeing the original is the only way of truly seeing the painting in question, because in viewing the original the researcher would experience the true aura of the art. Regardless of whether the researcher chooses to view the original or a reproduction, Rose proposes that the researcher should become an expert on the type of images they want to examine, in order to be able to interpret them fully.

Once the material is gathered, the researcher should consider what approach they are to going to take in order to interpret them. The options Rose covers in this book include content analysis, semiology, psychoanalysis and discourse analysis (in which she splits into two: discourse analysis I and discourse analysis II). Content analysis involves focusing on the compositional modality of the image, it does not consider the production of the image of the audience reception. It is based on counting the frequency of certain visual elements in a defined set of images and analysing the resultant numbers. In order to count the visual elements the researcher needs to create codes, which are a set of descriptive labels or categories that the researcher can then attach to the image. These categories should be obvious and logical enough that if another researcher created a set of codes, they should be very similar. However Lutz and Collins argue that the reducing the image to a series of codes, results in a reduction of the meaning itself. In addition to this, content analysis has the tendency of considering the content that occurs more frequently as more important than the content that occurs rarely.

Semiology involves the study of signs, which according to semiologists, make up all of visual culture. However some scholars discuss that if all knowledge depends on signs, there is a risk that these signs may be misinterpreted. There are a number of terms involved in semiology: the sign refers to the visual element, the signified is the concept or object and the signifier is the sound or image attached to the signified. The referent is the actual object in the world to which to sign relates, an icon means the signifier represents the signified by having a likeness to it, index refers to the inherent relationship between signifier and signified and symbol means a conventionalised but loose relation between both. Denotive refers to a sign that is easily read, connotive means the signs have a higher level of meaning, diegesis is the sum of the denotive meanings and anchorage is the text provided in relation to the sign. Metonymic is a sign that is associated with or represents something else and synecdochal is either a part representing a whole or a whole representing a part. Lastly Barthes referred to a concept of mythology, in which he proposes that meaning is defined not by the content but by the form in which is comes. Interpreting these signs are all about considering the preferred meaning and the preferred reading in relation to the audience. Williamson proposes that signs create a space in which we can create ourselves, however this identity is not freely created but regulated by the environment the signs construct. Semiology has been criticised, as the interpretation one researcher makes of an image, might not be the same as the interpretation of another researcher. In addition to this, there are concerns about semiology and reflexivity, if the researcher fails to acknowledge their subject position in relation to the preferred meaning and the intended audience.

Psychoanalysis was fronted by the scholar Sigmund Freud and involves considering human subjectivity, sexuality and the unconscious. This relates to visual material as the term scopophilia refers to having a pleasure in looking. Pyschoanalysis does not have a code of methodological conduct and is only concerned with subjectivity; referring to the characteristics of the viewer and not their identity. This concept involves considering ideas including the unconscious, voyeurism (which refers to a way of seeing that distances and objectifies what it looks at) and the imaginary (a field of interrelations between subject and other people/objects). Like in semiology there are concerns in relation to psychoanalysis and reflexivity, as psychoanalysis argues that full awareness and knowledge of the self is impossible.

In considering discourse analysis, Rose splits this concept into two parts: discourse analysis I and discourse analysis II. The term discourse is understood as a particular framework of knowledge about the world, which shapes the world we look at as individuals and way we act as a result. Discourse produces subjects and subjectivity is constructed through particular processes, institutes and practices define what it is to be a normal (and abnormal) human. The theorist Michel Foucault wrote a lot on discourse analysis and related it to the theory of power, those with power shape know and the ways of thinking. Discourse is powerful because it shapes the way subjects think, not by oppressing them but by shaping them through the operation of discourse. Rose proposes discourse analysis I as an approach that pays more attention to the notion of discourse expressed through images and text, whereas discourse analysis II focuses more on the practices of institutions. However Rose draws on Rosalind Gill by stating that all forms of discourse is organized to make itself persuasive. In procuring sources for discourse analysis, Tonkiss proposes that quality is not necessarily a priority, rather that the quality of the visual material is important. Discourse analysis I involves a critical reflection on your own research practice, for example a critique of the structure of academia itself in prioritising the study of certain cultures and othering the others. Discourse analysis II involves a critique on the apparatus and technologies of the institution for example a gallery or museum. Galleries and museums were characteristically visited by the middle class because only they had access to an education that included the study of art. In addition to this, the layout of the art gallery in providing singular pieces, produces viewers as contemplative eyes, and the art as objects to be contemplated, as a spectacle. It is also important to consider in what format are visual sources selected, as an archive from a museum or gallery is a product of what the dominant institutions identified as important.

There are other methods to consider visual material including ethnography, Rose also proposes that the researcher can combine methods to conduct a more detailed analysis and therefore produce new forms of knowledge. It has been really beneficial to consider the different methods of analysis available when using visual materials. Content analysis and semiology wouldn’t be very suitable as I feel it would produce a quantitative form of qualitative analysis, which although it might be useful when dealing with large numbers of data, I feel that it is too detached for the research I want to carry out, which focuses on the formation of identity. Psychoanalysis would also not be suitable as it doesn’t consider the concept of reflexivity to be possible, as I am going to be carrying out auto-ethnographic study, I will need to be an incredibly reflexive researcher, constantly reflecting on the data production, collection and analysis in relation to my own subject position. Discourse analysis would be the most relevant to my research project, as I can examine the evidence of discourse in the images and reflect on how particular discourses shape the formation of identity.


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