Brock University

Visual Research Methods: Practice, Policies, and Ethics I

Gillian Rose, a leading visual researcher, recently observed that “(o)ne of the most striking developments across the social sciences in the past decade has been the growth of research methods using visual materials” (Rose, 2014). Sociologists are part of this ‘striking’ development, as more and more researchers are turning to visual methods as ways of enriching research practices and as routes towards presenting “a more visual sociology” (Pauwels 2010); yet at the edges of this methodological explosion lie questions about visual history, purpose, practice, politics and ethics.

This panel is guided by several questions: What do visual material and visual research methods do within our research practices? What is the epistemological status of visual data; are they representational? performative? How do visual research methods and/or visual materials reframe or reconfigure our research relationships – and with what effects? Do visuals enable us to see more and know more and if so, how do we theorize this seeing/knowing? Do visual research methods enhance social justice objectives and outcomes in research – and if so, how?

We invite papers that reflect on epistemological, methodological, ontological and/or ethical issues when deploying visual research methods in projects that aim to “make a difference in the world” (Haraway, 1997).

This session is co-sponsored by the Social Justice Research Institute at Brock.

Session Organizer: Nancy Cook, Brock University, ; Andrea Doucet, Brock University,


Autophotographic Narratives of Social Change

Nancy Cook, Brock University, , David Butz, Brock University,

Sociologists have recently been exposed both to critiques of an epistemology of vision and calls for the increased use of visual methods. In response, qualitative researchers are searching for new visual techniques that allow them to avoid the spectres of objectivism and appropriation that haunted earlier approaches. In this paper we make a case for one of those emerging techniques: autophotography. We recently used autophotography in a study of the impacts of road accessibility on social organisation in a village in northern Pakistan, and found that the technique allows us to access and construct spatial knowledge in ways that address epistemological concerns about visuality. It does so by locating the process of representation with participants, making them the subjects rather than objects of vision. In this context, participants’ narratives about their photographs constitute local, subjugated knowledge produced by an ‘unseen’ community whose lives and struggles remain largely invisible. These narratives highlight participants’ editorial decisions about what they photographed and why, thereby providing important insights regarding the social construction of visual knowledge.


Champions for Social Change and Photovoice Ethics

Gloria Nickerson, University of New Brunswick,

In response to the enduring ‘crisis of representation’ many researchers have sought out research projects collaborative in design to share knowledge and shift traditional researcher-subject relationships. Photovoice, developed by Wang and Burris (1994) offers a research design that requires a positive and engaged audience to affect this desired change. Within the aims of photovoice to elicit social change, critical conscious raising and social action mobilization will be ineffective if the study is negatively received by the wider public or those in positions to commit to change. There are many researchers who have commented that photovoice also has the potential to raise false hopes as efforts to rally public concern or inform public policy fail (Wallerstein and Bernstein 1988; Tanjasiri 2011; Mitchell 2011).  Claudia Mitchell has asked “Why is finding the solution to a social issue always the responsibility of those most affected by the issue (Mitchell 2011p. 14). Wallerstein and Bernstein argue that people cannot assume sole responsibility for creating a healthier environment. Individuals alone are not responsible for enacting and changing complex multiple categories and issues. This paper explores the ethical issues of photovoice in terms of  the rarely discussed research design that has an imbedded pressure for the participants to be the champions of social change?


Seeing disability through a different lens: Epistemological and ethical issues in applying visual methods in disability research

Natasha Saltes, Queen's University,

Although visual methods have the potential to provide a candid and unscripted account of a participant’s subjective reality, the use of images in the research process raises questions concerning how to contextualize “seeing” and “being seen” (Chalfen 2011). Similar issues concerning portrayal, representation and interpretation have had a significant influence on disability scholarship. Yet, there remains a paucity of research that incorporates visual methods when documenting the experience of disability. A concern with disability research is that it often excludes disabled people from the process (Shakespeare 1996) by relying on a limited and inaccessible range of methods. This presentation examines how visual methods can be used as a means to access “subjugated knowledge” (Foucault 1980, 2003) by providing an alternative and inclusive means of participation. In doing so, this presentation draws from a qualitative study on disabled people’s experience using mobile devices to examine the epistemological and ethical issues involved in collecting and analyzing participant-generated photographs. In particular, this presentation outlines how incorporating photographic images in the research process might challenge and redefine the context of how we know and what we know about the lived experience of disability.


Investigating Photography as Process through Somaesthetics, the Soldier and War: an Interdisciplinary Inqury

Terry Trzecak, Brock University ,

My inquiry examines the viability of the process of photography as a somatic aesthetic (somaesthetic) strategy to assist military veterans returning from deployment as part of a journey towards well-being. The process of photography is the conscious act of photographing. Somaesthetics, coined by Richard Shusterman, is based in contemporary pragmatism and grounded in philosophical aesthetics, frames this inquiry. Anchoring the process of photography in somaesthetics extends the conversation between Humanities and Social Sciences thus accentuating somaesthetics’ inherent interdisciplinarity. In situating the process of photography the camera acts as a tool or prosthesis aiding the military veteran by enhancing somatic consciousness, facilitating a heightened sense of awareness. Through heightened sensory awareness of the body, the act of mindfulness, defined as living in the present moment, becomes more accessible and conceptually easier to replicate. For the returning veteran, living in the present moment could be key in minimizing inevitable life stressors that accompany transition back to civilian life.

Employing Lincoln and Guba’s naturalistic inquiry, photographic exercises, journaling, emergent interviewing and grounded narrative provide the methods needed to investigate the viability of the process of photography as a somaesthetic strategy to assist veterans, returning from deployment as part of a journey towards well-being.


© Canadian Sociological Association ⁄ La Société canadienne de sociologie