Chapter 5 - Trends in Visual Analysis

Critical Thinking

Every picture tells a story

Different levels of analysis exploring relationships between images

When using images, diaries or other documents do try and put them into the context of their use, meaning and significance for the times. For example, taking images from a family album might reveal the Who? When? and Where? but, by digging deeper, social and historical context may also be explored through secondary literature to enhance the discussion. Similarly images and objects may slowly reveal their secrets as other facets of research are built up. The relationships between images, artefacts and theoretical literature can add depth and validity to a study.

Critical Questions

1. What is the importance of the ‘sociological imagination’ (C W Mills 1957) in recognising the importance of the everyday experience of individuals in society?

2. How might the ‘dialectical’ principles of Mills’ imagination be put into practice in visual research? Can you give examples of this from your own observations of a social context or a specific image?

3. Why are the categories suggested in Ritzer’s Integrative (macro/micro, objective/subjective) theory of social analysis problematic – and particularly at issue where visual images are concerned?
(Ritzer’s model can be seen in Ritzer, G, Goodman, D (2003) Sociological Theory, 6th Edition, McGraw Hill pp 486–87).

4. Consider the two slides below: Micro/ Macro Relations 1 and 2.
The further development of the relationships explored in slide 1 is extended into 4 clusters of images to highlight 4 specific forms of understanding about ‘aboriginality’.

4.1 What inherent problems might there be in exploring case material in this way?

Micro/ Macro Relations 1

In the 2nd model the clusters of images suggest different ways of seeing a particular group.

4.2 To what extent could these be considered ‘spectacles’ or myths?

The ethnography domain is presented as just one way of seeing the group – could it be argued that a visual strategy which recognises multiple domains is less likely to be prone to bias and myth making?

Micro / Macro Relations 2


Using a series of images from your own studies, try and draw up your own table of corresponding relations. E.g. If I was studying the meaning of any social identity (such as ethnic. or youth sub-culture etc), it would probably be possible to examine them at different levels. You could use the Ritzer Goodman model as a basic template, and discuss relationships between the different levels of analysis which become apparent.

Then see if you can find clusters which might suggest the borders between different ways of perceiving the group(s).

Levels of Discourse Analysis

Discussion of different forms of discourse analysis are included in this chapter (pp 159-164). In the example given pp 160-1 (Fig 44) the image below is discussed in terms of its immediate attributes and then with a more searching analysis the image is linked to broader discursive structures which inform its context and position in the culture (see below).


1. Are there elements within the postcard image of ‘aboriginality’ which are not properly addressed by this treatment?

1.2 How might such perceptions change over time – and what factors in the social context (both national and global) might alter them?

2.  What are the problems inherent in Foucault’s version of discourse analysis? Could there be a fundamental problem about the nature of the subject and the idea of social agency in this form of analysis?

3. If the origins of the two images above are a little unclear, what is the danger of constructing explanations around them in this way? Could the term ‘aberrant decoding’ be relevant in this discussion?

This process of developing the broader discursive meanings and linking the image to institutional practices is similar to the separation proposed by Gillian Rose (2007) between Discourse Analysis I and II.

In the example below I have tried to illustrate this through the use of two photographs I came across in a family album. While they remain rather mysterious, the broader contextual and explanatory descriptions which are available may add depth and ‘thick description’.


Choose an image or object like the ones shown above and try and make a denotative Discourse Analysis 1 reading of the item – then try and expand to Discourse Analysis II

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