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REVIEW: Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials

Rose, Gillian (2004). Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. Thousand Oaks: Sage.


Rose’s book examines the traditional methodologies for answering visual research questions. Rose begins with a discussion of “the cultural turn,” which is a period when humanistic research began to inquiry by examining the context of ideas, practices, beliefs, and values of the research subject. It sparked the postmodern movement in research, and called for an abandon of positivism. In many ways, this movement paralleled the linguistic turn, where researchers began to look at the way language effected information gathering and the language’s effect on culture. Following is is the visual turn, where the idea that culture can be derived from is visual artifacts. This topic popularized the notion of a visual society. The visual society is one where the visual is understood to communicate an equally important message as the verbal.


Rose argues for a critical approach to visual methodology, meaning that visuals should be considered for their place in society, and how they impact culture. She outlines a guide for the understanding of visuals: 1. Take images seriously. 2. Think about the social conditions and effects of visual objects. 3. Consider your own way of looking at images. These points are valid, but quite elementary. In today’s visual society, and in a realm where the academy is as accepting of qualitative research as quantitative, arguing for researchers, especially visual researchers, to take images seriously is akin to reminding an anthropologist to take the ethnography seriously, or the opinion researcher to take regression statistics seriously. This is merely a defense of visual inquiry and appears to cater to those with a positivist mindset. The second is the strongest claim, and is highly indicative of the cultural turn in the research. However, cultural research tends to avoid understanding effects, as that is best done with quantitative methods. That said, the cultural argument fits well with understanding the social conditions of images. One must understand, however, that these conditions change over time, and vary from audience to audience. This is where Derrida’s argument for linguistic immersion comes into play; a researcher must understand the social construction of the image’s rhetoric to actually understand the image’s meaning. Take, for example, the message contained within the enduring Confederate flag from the United States Civil War. In most parts of the country, the flag is viewed as offensive, and sometimes as a symbol of a culture defined as “rednecks.” Yet, many of those who display the flag claim that it is symbolic of their Southern identity. I am not defending the Confederate flag here, but I am explaining that an image can have varying meanings, even within the same society. In regard to the third guideline, I simultaneously appreciate its openness but and not pleased with its openness. Generally, methodology books offer guides for varying kinds of research, and encourage explorations of varying methods for inquiry. I feel this section would be made stronger with an approach that guided the research to examine the problem, examine the existing tools of research, and find a good fit, or find a way to combine tools to create new ones to approach said problem.


There are three key components (modalities) to the understanding of the image. 1. The technological aspect. 2. The compositional aspect. 3. The social-cultural situation of the image. These basic ideas of visual research are a good theoretical plan for image analysis, but again does not drill down to the technical aspect of methods. Auteur theory says that to understand an image, one must understand the intended statement of the image’s creator. However, auteur theory has largely been discredited for visual studies outside of film research, as it puts too much emphasis on the creator of the image rather than the social situations of the image.


Examines production of images. Especially concerned with the image itself. Key components are color, content, spatial organization, light, and expressive content. Moving images, including film, can be examined by mise-en-scene, montage, sound, and narrative. The method is not concerned with the social setting of the image.

Content analysis can be both quantitative and qualitative. The first step of CA is to acquire the images. Second devise categories for coding. Third, code the images. Fourth, analyze the results of the coding. Quantitative content analysis does not handle visual cultural issues well, it takes images out of context, and it does not make the researcher thing reflexively.


Semiology depends on the signifier and the signified by the sign and symbols. The semiology of codes is contained within language as established by culture and society. In semiotics, the researcher is concerned with the image and the codes contained within the image. To conduct a semiotic analysis, one must decide what the signs are, decide what they signify in themselves, think about how they relate to other signs in the image and outside the image, explore the relationships of the signs in the images to the codes of the language and culture, and then return to the signs to compare their codes to the codes of ideology.


Psychoanalysis Psychoanalysis follows the Foucaltian tradition of cultural analysis and focuses on film. The keys of psychoanalysis is the sexual gaze of the camera and the sexual viewpoint of the audience. To conduct a pyschoanalysis, one must understand the looks, temporalities, and spaces of the characters in a film. Psychoanalysis does not examine the social norms of the film or the film’s effects on the audience.


Discourse Analysis 1 & 2

Rose separates discourse analysis into two types. The first places the discourse of visuals, particularly in film, in their social context. This method follows along the ideas of a qualitative content analysis in that it examines themes and commonalities within a unit or collection. It particularly examines the social construction of society and differences between the claims of the discourse and the truth.


In discourse analysis 2, the research focuses on the institutional discourse through visual media. It follows the same method as discourse analysis 1, but focuses on the institutions that make statements and the situations in which those statements are made. The contradictions within the discourse are of less importance here, as the goal is to understand the institutional message through the visuals.


While this book has developed an international appeal, its theoretical approach does more to encourage dissecting the research question rather than serve as a practical guide for conducting visual research, as its title would suggest. The book itself seems more suited to film research rather than photography or design; the logic of these methods fit more Derrida and Foucalt and their ideas about visual-cultural analysis. Therefore, this book is not a good fit for broad-based visual inquiry, but well suited for film inquiry. The lack of general qualitative, visual methods distances this book from its peers in the discipline. If a research is studying film, this book is a theoretical guide for inquiry, but for those studying design, image, artifacts, identity, and communications should only read this book for its theoretical guidance.

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 © 2019 by Matthew J. Haught

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