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REVIEW: Doing visual research

Mitchell, C. (2011) Doing visual research. London: Sage.

Mitchell’s book interweaves anthropological and communication approaches to visual data in the understanding of culture.

She begins with a dose of ethics, discussing the issues that arise using photographs in the digital age. She includes many informed consent forms as a guide to handle potential problems with photos, which will be quite useful for readers. Common problems with images, Mitchell says, is that often photographs and videos exist in a public space, such as Facebook, YouTube, or other social media, but still contain private individuals, including children. Mitchell encourages readers to consider the rights of the visual creator and those in the images when using this data for research. By consistently using a very informed consent, the rights of those in the images and of those who create images are preserved. Mitchell says she put this chapter at the beginning of the book to pay more than lip-service to the topic, and to truly encourage researchers to think about the ethics of their research. Her decision is well-founded, as the section describes 21st century ethical dilemmas and gives advice about how to handle them, which is unique among visual texts.

In chapter 3, Mitchell challenges researchers to think beyond the photograph or video as part of visual inquiry. She calls on cultural artifacts, including a T-shirt and a wire car, to explain that all observable data is visual data. This idea, paired with her anthropological approach to research, harmonizes with social research methodologist H. Russell Bernard’s philosophy that “everything is data” when I explain the importance of appearance. Truly, Mitchell embodies these ideals in this chapter, drawing visual data from the participant-observer research model, finding that visual data in the subtle, the mundane, and the unremarkable, and then interpreting it to give a truly unique understanding of culture. The approach outlined in chapter 3 ties the philosophy on anthropology to the practically of communication to claim that everything within a culture sends a message about that culture.

Moving forward, Mitchell addresses the use of photography in visual inquiry, particularly the photovoice methodology, and an expansion on that with video cameras. Mitchell argues that these data gathering methods allow the researchers to see polyvocality, that is, many voices representing all sides of a single issue. Methods like photovoice are valid and valuable because they give a voice to those who might not have one, and have a greater degree of access than a researcher could get on his or her own. And, in the mindset of Mitchell’s first chapter, these methods avoid ethical conflicts, because the research subjects dictate the information captured about them.

Mitchell closes with chapters elaborating on the ability of the video camera in visual research, and how images can influence policy, citing Susan Sontag saying that images give an ability to understand, not shock. This book shows the true dichotomy of visual research: either researchers who use photo and video, or researchers who use artifacts. While each paradigm has its role, it seems that too often photos and videos are used for research because of their convenience rather than artifact research. Mitchell makes a strong argument for artifact research with the cases she presents, and strengthens the techniques for photo/video research. Additionally, she places visual research within 21st century technology and shows how its techniques enhance the understanding of culture.

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