Visual Research Tools

March 22, 2010

Trained in cultural anthropology and filmmaking my favorite research process is one that is highly observational: that looks at; feels; records details, relationships, connections & disruptions. In our recent and fast-paced research project on Barriers to Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities for the FCC it was a challenge to find moments to observe ethnographically. That is, to place yourself in a situation and let its flow and nuances sink into you.

We interviewed 170+ people in 4 states in a highly compressed time frame. Without the time to hang out and look as much as in traditional anthropology we made use of “camera eyes”. Outfitted with two digital photo cameras we snapped hundreds of images in our visits around the country and made use of images not only as a documentation tool, but as research and organizational tools. While processing the images later on it became clear that they fell into three highly useful categories:

1. Memory photos: We attempted to take at least one photograph of every person and place we visited. These images were helpful in the process of writing the report in terms of jogging our memories (what was that place like?) and helping the transcribers to imagine the speakers in interviews (who is talking?).

A library in Greene County, NY

A focus group

A focus group

2. Infrastructure photos: We took frequent shots of computer terminals, old monitors, empty pay phone booths, cell phones and other evidence of today’s existing and changing communications infrastructure. As a research project about internet access and the reasons why people need it, the study took into account not only what people said about the internet or how many public computers there were in a given community center, but especially the relationship between the people and the technology. These photos help to illustrate how embedded information and communications devices are in our everyday lives and how are lives are affected when they are limited or broken.

A broken computer

300 residents at a homeless shelter share limited number of phones


3. Process photos:
In focus groups we frequently used big pieces of note paper to record themes and keep track of topics as the conversation unfolded. This helped us to efficiently create an initial coding of the data, and also made our interpretations transparent to the group who could (and did) offer corrections and additions. Because we needed to move quickly from location to location, as well as from state to state it was sometimes difficult to take these papers with us. As a solution we photographed the notes after each focus group. The papers could then be recycled and the images could be shared among the research team – and used as a basis for writing up daily summaries, or later on as quick references for the topics discussed in different groups.

Notes from a focus group

Overall, part of what made photos a useful tool in this project was that they are digital. We needed quick representations of what we’d done and seen (especially in the case of the process photos), and it was helpful to be able to share them quickly. The images of course would have had less utility if we had needed to wait for them to be developed, printed, and mailed.

**For more on visual research methods check out these resources on visual research from a visual anthropology POV:

1. Books: A good theoretical book on the visual + research is anthropologist David MacDougall’s The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses. He writes for example, “Visual Media allow us to construct knowledge not by description, but by a form of acquaintance…visual anthropology may offer different ways of understanding, but also different things to understand.” Flip to the last chapter for MacDougall’s new principles of visual anthropology, which point towards areas of understanding – the topographic; the temporal; the corporeal; the personal – which he suggests may be especially well understood not only via visual presentations but through visual methods. For a more practical treatment of the use of media in anthropology read Sarah Pink’s Home Truths, see especially the chapter in which Pink writes about using video ethnography to explore the sights and smells of people’s homes for Unilever product development.

2. Media: lost in a moment is a beautiful short observational film of a sushi train restaurant in Tokyo by Dennis Wheatley and Stefan McClean. Likewise, the project tea in china (and other places) documents everyday restaurant place settings around the world. Meanwhile the blog Unphotographable: a text account of photos missed is lovely and visual in the way it describes images that went unrecorded.

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Media, Methods Madness