Visual methods

Visual communication is characterised by mimesis: having the capacity to produce reactions that are immediate and emotional, in contrast to written or spoken words, which tend to produce accounts that are explanatory and characterised by logics of individuation and rationality. Consequently, visual methods can be used to overcome some of the limitations of language as a method for empowering research, including differences of language in the multilingual society of India. We will discuss the use of focus group discussions and video diaries as research methods that can support communication across cultural and power boundaries.

Activity: Film Focus 12, ‘Visual methods’ – Emma Bell

Watch the film and make your own notes in response to the following questions:

  • List some ‘objects of research’ (two- or three-dimensional data) you have encountered in your research. Did you include them in your research? Why, or why not? What do you think about these objects now?
  • What considerations, technical and methodological, do you need to take into account in the analysis of audio-visual data?
Download this video clip.Video player: 07-250634-35-36-visual-methods.mp4
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I’m Emma Bell, and I work at The Open University in the UK. And in this talk, we’re going to be looking at visual methods in management research. The talk is structured around three questions. What are visual methods? And related to this, why are they used in management research? Second, what kind of knowledge does visual methods create? And third, what does the growing popularity of visual methods in management research tell us about the changing nature of knowledge in our field?

Along the way, I’ll encourage you to think about how visual methods could enable more empowering research. Many qualitative methods in management research involve seeing, looking or observation, including interviewing or ethnographic methods. So a wide range of methods could be considered visual in that sense. Many qualitative methods in management research involve seeing or looking for example, participant observation, interviewing or ethnography, which all involve the researcher using their sense of sight in order to collect data. But often, the data that has been collected through observation is then subsequently translated into words for example, through written field notes.

So the focus in this talk is on visual data of a different sort. What we’ll be considering is visual methods that produce data that may be two-dimensional for example, photographs, participant-produced drawings, and diagrams and organisational charts that might exist in an organisation. Also, thinking about film as a moving set of images. In addition to this, we can think of visual data that may be three-dimensional in nature, such as the architecture of a building or an object that might be found in an organisational setting. And all of these can be considered as objects of research.

So visual data can be produced for the purpose of research. An example of this concerns a study of child labour which involved researchers giving a small disposable camera to each child who worked in a factory and asking them to go and take pictures of their working day and the things that they saw and experienced. Now, clearly, this enabled the researchers to gain access to a social setting that they wouldn’t otherwise have encountered or been able to reach, and to experience it from the vantage point, from the angles and the experiences and the everyday encounters, of the children, rather than of adults. So that’s a very powerful example of how research-generated visual data can be used.

Visual data can also be pre-existing. It can be part of the research setting. It can be something that a researcher finds in the course of their research. So some of my work has involved collecting images about loss and death in relation to the closure of factories. And it has involved, sometimes, images that are produced anonymously. So in one case, I was researching the car manufacturer, Jaguar, and I was in a factory, and I was in an office, and on the back of the door was a picture produced on a computer and printed out on a sheet of paper and stuck to the back of the door.

And it was at a time when the factory was facing the threat of closure. And the Jaguar brand, the Jaguar cars, are very closely associated with a very clear set of visual images, the iconography of the brand, which is ‘The Leaper’. It’s a wild cat that’s springing as it jumps. And someone had taken the imagery that’s associated with the brand and created a new image. In this case, it was an image of a Jaguar cub, a baby, that was having a gun held to its head. And the gun was a Colt 45, which is a gun which is associated with Western movies. And this was a reference to the fact that the owner of Jaguar at the time was Ford.

So it was owned by a parent company, an American parent company, Ford. And Ford was threatening to close this factory. And so in this single image, someone had conveyed a very powerful message: a message about the murderous intentions of the organisation and the violence that they were doing through the decision to close the factory. So very powerful, emotional content in the image.

And so this is an example of a found image, something that existed before I entered the field work setting. And I came upon a quote. I came across it and used it in my research as a basis for analysis. ‘Visual data is often multi-modal.’ And what this means is that the process of communication often involves different modes simultaneously. So it often involves language as one mode, as well as the image, and potentially also sounds, in the case of film. And so you can have different messages being communicated using these different modes.

So in the case of the Jaguar car factory, another image involved a graphic design which was produced by the union as part of a campaign to protest against the planned closure of the factory. And this featured a Jaguar wildcat, the brand mascot, being held by Uncle Sam. And in Uncle Sam’s embrace, there was a knife. And this was being used to pierce the heart of the cat, and there was blood droplets of blood running from the wound. So a very visceral, very powerful, very graphic image, again, of the violence that was perceived to have been perpetrated through this decision of the parent company to close the factory.

And yet, against the background of this image as part of the design that featured on placards, were the words, ‘Jaguar workers fighting for a future.’ Quite a different message. So when we analyse visual data, we need to pay attention to the words that accompany the image and how they interrelate with one another.

But how are we to handle this complex data? We need to think about different ways of collecting, analysing and presenting it. So why are visual methods used in management research? This is about the relationship between seeing and knowing. We’re constantly looking at the relationship between things, including living things and ourselves. So the visual is an increasingly important medium of communication in society, of equivalent importance to that of language as a way of conveying meaning.

We can see this from the role of the internet in communicating using imagery and the way in which those images circulate rapidly. In the context of organisations studies, we have already experienced a linguistic turn: a turn to language as a recognition of its role in constructing the meaning of organisations and management practices. So the linguistic turn suggests that organisations are socially constructed verbal systems which are actively constructed by social actors through discursive activity. Perhaps now what we are experiencing is the pictorial turn, as Mitchell refers to it a recognition of the role of images in constructing meaning. And potentially, it’s also about recognising that the linguistic turn is only useful up to a point, that we need to recognise images and their role in constituting meaning.

Yet management research has been relatively slow to pick up on this trend in comparison to other social science disciplines. In management research, we tend to be quite conservative and restrained in our use of methods. And treating the visual as a source of data of equivalent status to that of language is something that has been perceived to be somewhat risky. But this is changing. In recent years, there has been much wider recognition of the role of visual data in constructing meaning and knowledge about management and organisations. And this presents opportunities for those of us interested in ways of creating research that’s more empowering.

So what kinds of knowledge can visual methods help to create? What we need, first of all, to overcome the myth of transparency – the realist assumption that the camera never lies. We know this not to be the case from the way in which digital images can be manipulated, distorted, so that the idea that the lens is a window on the truth is something that needs to be problematised.

This is important in avoiding naive realism: the idea that because you present an image, its meaning is self-evident and shared. Instead, images are polysemic. They contain multiple meanings. They can be read in different ways potentially to a greater extent than written or spoken words. The way I interpret an image may be quite different from the way that you do. This depends on my cultural and historical location, the points of cultural reference that are important to me and that I bring to my reading of the image.

And so we have to be very wary about assuming that there is an objective truth in an image. As Gillian Rose explains, ‘There is no essential truth awaiting discovery in an image. Instead, it’s a matter of developing a convincing interpretation.’

However, there are distinctive characteristics about the visual which differentiate it from written and spoken words. Visual communication relies on mimesis. It’s more literal, immediate, and powerfully emotional in its effects. When we encounter an image a shocking or a violent image for example, a photograph from a war zone where we see the horror of what violence creates we are struck by that image in a direct and immediate way. This is quite different from the way in which communication happens through language. This is characterised by diegesis by telling an explanation, often a rational one, which explains something to the audience.

Visual methods often focus on representation on portraying or representing someone or something in a particular way. In my research, one of the analysis that I conducted related to the death of the former CEO of Apple, Steve Jobs. Following the death of Steve Jobs, we noticed that there were a huge number of images circulating online taken by fans of Apple who were commemorating what they saw as his leadership. This included constructing shrines outside Apple stores, of showing images of lit candles on iPads and iPhones, using religious commemorative memorialising iconography to celebrate Steve Jobs’ leadership and to commemorate his passing.

So we started to collect this data. We collected it and we analysed it, and that formed the basis for an analysis of how leaders are represented not only in their life, but also in their death and post-mortem. What this highlights is that visual methods are useful in capturing different kinds of knowledge and experience. They enable access to emotional experience, to pre-discursive and embodied forms of knowing. How the world is experienced through the body is something that you could photograph more easily than you could explain using words alone.

Finally, visual methods are useful in communicating with research participants in empowering ways. They potentially enable language differences to be transcended. It can be more empowering to give someone a camera and allow them to determine what they represent. It enables people to overcome issues of literacy through drawing pictures. And we’ll come on to give some examples of how these methods might be used.

The diary method is established in management research as a way of encouraging research participants to reflect on the processes of work as they unfold over time. However, video diaries fulfil some additional purposes. They can be helpful to encourage reflection on embodied practices through the representation of people’s movements and activities.

The diary method is also a way of encouraging people to reflect on their own identities by talking to camera or vlogging. They can also be useful to generate insights into the work worlds of participants, by asking participants to film the places and settings where work happens. Finally, research diaries can be used by the researcher to keep an account of their research experiences. This is a form of reflexivity: a way of reflecting on the process of doing research and considering how who you are as a person influences what you find.

In a recent article, Zundel and colleagues make a series of recommendations for researchers who are interested in using video diaries or some method. First, they suggest that the method is best used in conjunction with others, rather than in isolation. Other methods are important in enabling the researcher to give direction to the research process, to understand the sequence of events and to clarify issues with participants. When research participants keep a video diary, they are keeping a personal record on camera of their thoughts, reflections and experiences. Because of the lack of interaction with the researcher, this limits the opportunity for the researcher to direct attention in certain directions to clarify issues or to guide the participant in certain directions. So it’s best to use more than one method.

The second recommendation is that you give participants clear instructions about what you would like them to film, such as their work surroundings or events as they unfold. This casts the participant as a documentary filmmaker of their own organisation or situation.

Thirdly, they emphasise the importance of trust. The method of using video can be seen as quite intrusive, as an invasion of privacy, and therefore, building trust enables participants and researchers to work together using this method. Without trust it’s unlikely to be successful. This takes time and effort. Sometimes, the level of personal disclosure that is enabled by the video diary method may be greater than was intended or envisaged by the researcher. This raises ethical issues about the status of that information and whether it becomes public the need to protect research participants from any possibilities of potential harm.

A final consideration is a practical one, related to the technical issues that can arise. The wide availability of smartphone video recording potentially means that this is a method that can be widely used. However, there are questions about how the data is stored and uploaded and shared. For example, in the study done by Zundel and colleagues, they asked research participants to upload their video diaries on a weekly basis. But there were problems with the YouTube channel, which was a private channel, which meant this wasn’t always successful. So always, in advance, think about how you’re going to enable the data to be collected and shared.

So what does the rise of visual methods tell us about the changing nature of management studies as a field of inquiry? Visual methods are a valuable way of gaining insight into organisations and management as performative, as embodied, as emotional and aesthetic spaces, rather than as rational and logical processes and practices. They can also be useful as a way of overcoming differences of language and engaging with non-linguistic, non-numeric ways of knowing. And because of this, they can be particularly valuable in engaging with Indigenous communities and cultures.

The growing importance of digital media and the internet means that visual methods are needed in order to understand these new domains of social life and experience. In the past, there has been a questioning of whether these are as real as other organisational contexts. However, when we see the effects in terms of meaning-making, I would argue that these are contexts that we need to study. And therefore, we need visual methods in order to be able to make sense of them.

Finally, visual methods have the potential to enable the production of more engaging and engaged research. There is a risk in management studies that the production of academic papers involving the use of technical language and read by very small numbers of researchers creates a referential system of knowledge production – one that is internally focused. Through the use of visual methods, we potentially open up opportunities to communicate to wider audiences using a medium that is readily understood by wider audiences.

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