Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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Reading visual images

2.2 Theories, documents and knowledge

Documentary evidence is often messy and inconsistent, and even where it seems to be ‘factual’ (for example in the form of official records) its precise meaning in terms of wider social processes is far from clear. There is uncertainty about what it means, as well as the representation of uncertainty and diversity in the images. In every case, the meaning of the evidence is dependent on interpretation, that is, the part of the theory we employ to understand what is going on. However, theories cannot simply be plausible accounts of the meaning of data, they must also be capable of being tested via the evidence. As social scientists we are not interested in just describing the evidence, but in using it to understand why things happen as they do. Theories are essentially arguments about the connectedness of the social phenomena that they describe. A social theory attempts to argue that there are mechanisms of society which give a distinctive patterning or ‘structure’ to social behaviour.

At the same time any proper social theory must get to grips with the fact that, as social beings, our purposes and intentions play a part in the behaviour we exhibit. Our active role as agents must also be taken into account. This is where questions about structure and agency enter into the discussion. Can we shed some light on the dynamic interplay of structure and agency by using images as part of the research process?

As individuals and as social scientists, we are often confronted with information that is presented to us in the form of images in newspapers, magazines, books, posters, etc. In some cases we may confront the same image in two apparently quite different places: the front page of a newspaper, for instance, and the walls of an art gallery. It is worth asking whether the context of presentation changes the nature of the evidence or information supplied by the image.

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