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REVIEW: Visual communication research designs

Kenney, K. (2009). Visual communication research designs. New York: Routledge.

Kenney’s book examines a range of qualitative research methodologies as they apply to visual communication. His book uses a semi-case study approach for each method, using a narrative of a research situation to explain the purpose of each methodology. Chapters explain methods for sampling, data collection, and analysis, as well as ethical issues that can arise with each method.

In the first chapter, Kenny gives my favorite definition of visual communication saying it is a “social process in which people exchange messages that include visuals.” The definition’s strength is in its vagueness; any message that includes a visual element. This means things like a text message received on a mobile telephone can be considered visual communication because the message must be consumed with vision. In the information age, the visual is as important as the verbal, and this definition gives visuals the heft they deserve.

Unlike journalism and mass communication research, visuals must be studied at the intrapersonal, interpersonal, group, organization, public, and mass levels of communication study, Kenny argues. This argument is valid, because visuals are exchanged at all of these levels. However, visual communication’s position as a orphan of schools of communication and mass communication makes this difficult, as students gaining their doctoral degrees in visuals must do so in one of these schools, and must have some sort of split focus. Kenney’s discussion here illustrate the point that 1. Visual communication needs to be its own speciality, or 2. Schools of communication and mass communication need to embrace the many facets of viscom and let their students explore the other side of communication.

Kenney’s book takes primary methods of qualitative inquiry, such as interviewing, case study, and observation, and places them within a research context to help the reader understand the fine points of each method. For example, in Chapter 2, Kenney talks about using in-depth interviews, which he calls miner interviews, to understand the impact of a phenomenon on individuals. Along the way, he discusses coding, idea mapping, credibility, bias, and computer mediated communication. Each chapter concludes with a list of advice tips about using each research method.

A key aspect of each chapter is a discussion about the unit of analysis and the sampling strategy for the method. Here, these discussions focus on the topic of the chapter, digital photography, social media, drawings, etc. However, they offer deeper lessons about the methodology. For example, the case study chapter, which examines computer mediated communication on a virtual thesis committee, discusses the ways of defining a case, and then explains the differences in single case vs. multiple case analysis, and argues that the research question or hypothesis should determine the number of cases to be used. As case study methodology is particularly useful, in my opinion, when answering visual questions, this explanation rationalizes why studies can use single cases for some questions and multiple cases for others.

With each chapter, Kenney offers a guide for analysis. In the chapter about visual ethnography, Kenney offers strategies for engaging artifacts, video, and photos for analysis, brainstorming, and reinterpretation. Throughout the book, these sections put a practical focus on turning a mass of collected data into a usable product. While the book does not go heavy into the specifics for each method of analysis, it does steer researchers to a variety of analysis schemes, which could be further explored in other texts.

One thing I really like about this text is its inclusion of a glossary in its appendix. Beginning researchers could simply read these few pages and be introduced to hundreds of “big picture” ideas in visual communications research.

Like Kenney argues, visual communication has its interests divided between communication and mass communication. But its message to both fields is united: visuals impact all communication in the information age. Researchers should be aware of the effects of visuals when conducting research, and should be willing to engage visuals as analysis and as method. The importance of visual research is rising as more messages become visual, and their effects must be understood to advance the field of communication research.

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