Methods in Action: Creative Visual Methods

Categories: Qualitative

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A prime enemy of the best research is ‘the expectation.’ Researchers expect certain results or answers, and by Jove, they find them. Or they are familiar with the research terrain, and grow complacent in what they look for (or ignore what’s before their noses). If only someone could, as the old cliché goes, ‘draw a picture’ of what’s really being examined.

As Dawn Mannay, a senior lecturer in social sciences (psychology) at Cardiff University, points out in her case study for SAGE Research Methods Cases, there is a remedy for this: subjects can literally draw researchers a picture. Or render a map, compile a collage, or snap a photo.

“Visual methods,” she writes in the introduction to “Visual Methodologies: Participatory Potential, Practicalities, De-Familiarisation and Dissemination,” “can engender a more participatory approach. Importantly, participants can create materials without the intrusive presence of the researcher and in the interview setting participants have more opportunity to lead the discussions, rather than being constrained in a questions and answer style of communication. In this way, topics can be introduced and discussed that were outside of the researcher’s expectations.”

In the latest installment of the Methods in Action series, Mannay discusses her own experiences looking into social mobility in Wales through the prism of mothers and daughters, detailing the benefits and drawbacks – the time involved! – in using visual methodology.

Her own use of the visual has been incorporated in a wide range of studies and recently, I was involved with a study commissioned by the Welsh government which employed drawing, emotion stickers and sandboxing with children and young people who are looked after. The outputs featured graphic art, films, magazines and music videos.

Mannay’s research interests revolve around class, education, gender, geography, generation, national identity, violence and inequality. She is the co-convener of the British Sociological Association’s Visual Sociology Study Group and has facilitated a number of international workshops on the use of visual methods. Mannay recently edited a new collection for the University of Wales Press, Our changing land: revisiting gender, class and identity in contemporary Wales, and wrote the new book, Visual, narrative and creative research methods: application, reflection and ethics.


What was the study underlying the case about? What did you want your final dataset to look like, both figuratively and literally in this case? And what did you find out?

This case study was drawn from my doctoral research, “Mothers and Daughters on the Margins: Gender, Generation and Education,” funded by the Economic and Social Research Council. Much of my initial engagement with visual, narrative and creative methods began with this project, which explored the inter-generational marginalization of working-class mothers and their daughters both in terms of education, employment and family relationships; examining social reproduction, and the ways in which gender, place and class act as barriers to educational progression for the participants, and the psychological, physical and practical costs of social mobility. The data generated from the research included, 93 photographs, 11 collages, nine maps, 10 possible selves narratives and 262,605 transcribed words from the elicitation interviews.

The visual materials acted as tools of elicitation, rather than objects of analysis per se. However, they were considered in the analysis to clarify and extend the associated interview transcripts. The findings from the study focused on intergenerational mobility (Mannay 2013a); barriers to higher education (Mannay and Morgan 2013); the stigma of place (Mannay 2014a, 2015); motherhood and mothering (Mannay 2014b); and familial violence (Mannay 2013b).

Although there’s a great diversity in visual modes that affect particulars, could you flesh out what using visual methods to produce data generally means in practice? In what circumstances are they likely to be the best choice for research?

Visual and creative methods are particularly useful for qualitative approaches that are interested in the subjective meaning making of participants. For those working from an interpretivist, social constructivist approach, visual data can be useful for gaining an understanding of participants’ everyday worlds, from their unique perspectives.


Asking participants to create visual data in their own home is a strategy to reduce the influence of the researcher so that data could be produced without this intrusive presence. Here, a 9-year-old participant, Bryony, was asked to draw a thematic map of her home.

And what are the drawbacks?

When you introduce visual methods, alongside more traditional forms of qualitative interviewing, there are many practical, ethical and substantive issues that need to be considered. In traditional interview methods, the researcher sets a date, arranges a convenient time and that part of the fieldwork is complete. However, when participants have been asked to produce visual data prior to interview, a meeting cannot take place until this has been completed. Therefore, time factors are important and if participants are asked to create collages or maps, or take photographs, this adds to the length of the fieldwork. This can prove problematic where projects are strictly time bounded. Setting visual tasks also allows participants to move beyond the set topics and introduce new areas which offers a richer data set; but again, short-term projects may not have the capacity to accommodate areas that extend the key points of inquiry. It is also important to ensure that participants are comfortable with engaging with creative activities, for example, some people may not like to draw. Therefore, it is best practice to offer a range of activities, so that participants can choose their preferred approach.

What are the benefits of using visual methods? Could you explain why it’s important to ‘fight familiarity’?

Visual methods can engender a more participatory approach. Importantly, participants can create materials without the intrusive presence of the researcher and in the interview setting participants have more opportunity to lead the discussions, rather than being constrained in a questions and answer style of communication. In this way, topics can be introduced and discussed that were outside of the researcher’s expectations. This can be advantageous when the researcher is indigenous and has ‘insider knowledge’ about a place, community or subject area. Then it can be important to ‘fight familiarity’ (Delamont and Atkinson 1995); as familiarity can act as a barrier in researching any field that we have previous experience of, as opportunities for discovery become clouded with the conventions of acquaintance (Geer 1964). In my own ‘insider’ research, I have employed visual methods of data production in order to suspend my preconceptions of familiar territory and facilitate an understanding of the unique viewpoints of my participants (Mannay 2010; 2016; Richardson 2015). Importantly, fighting familiarity is also useful for participants, many of my areas of interest were related to participants every day, mundane activities; and drawing and collaging helped participants to step back, reflect and see their lives in a different way. The visual then can act as a tool of defamiliarization for both researcher and researched; and make the familiar strange and interesting again.

Does everyone accept the legitimacy of visual methods? 

Visual researchers have worked hard to overcome a pervasive textual bias and the argument that the social sciences are a discipline of words, in which there is no room for pictures, except as supporting illustrations. In contemporary social science research there has been an appreciation of the value of visual approaches; where the visual is often positioned as ‘an immediate and authentic form, which verbal accounts are unable to fully encompass’ (Spencer 2011, p. 32). There has been a proliferation of visual and creative studies in the social sciences and academic journals are now far more open to publishing visual images and alternative forms of writing such as poetry. The expectation for researchers to increase the impact of their social research outputs has also seen a rise in more accessible and multimodal forms of dissemination, with the potential to engage wider and more differentiated audiences. Therefore, I would argue that both visual data production and visual forms of dissemination have become more mainstream and more recognized as legitimate forms of fieldwork and tools of engagement.

Your case study asks about ethical concerns arising from visual methodology. Could you explain?

Ethics are important in all forms of social science research, but there are particular concerns that arise when we introduce visual materials. In a climate of open access publishing, dissemination concerns around the ethics of photographic data are particularly pertinent (Mannay 2014c). Techniques to anonymize photographs are problematic because pixelating faces acts to criminalize participants; and if contextualization of place in the background remains then participants can be easily identified. There is also a tension between enabling participants to be heard and then making them invisible. However, once a visual image is created it becomes very difficult to control its use or remove it from the public arena if participants decide that they no longer want to be represented in a fixed visual trope for ‘time immemorial’ (Brady and Brown 2013, p. 102). In my own practice, I have moved away from photo-elicitation and photo-voice to visual methods that do not make participants visible. In doing this there is a danger of losing some of the impact and affective power that images provide; but to overcome these limitations I have experimented with music, poetry and art, to communicate the salience of participants’ stories without their photographs.

What advice would you offer a neophyte considering this approach?

I would suggest that they read widely and consider the opportunities and limitations of previous studies. It is also useful to talk to others who have employed visual methods in their own work, to talk to colleagues and peers; but also email people you have read and ask if they have five minutes to talk on the phone or meet up. The visual methods community are generally very friendly and I was given a lot of support from key names in the field such as Helen Lomax, Janet Fink and Gillian Rose when I began working with the visual, so it is always useful to actively seek out advice and support. There are also lots of platforms to join such as visual studies groups and some great visual methods conferences.

I think that it is also really important to work with your own moral compass, institutional guidelines and ethical protocols will not provide all the answers; so it is important to continually reflect on and adjust your own practice. Lastly, before entering the field with camera, paintbrushes and crayons, it is best practice to try techniques yourself and discuss these materials with others, this positions you as participant and gives you further insight into what you are expecting of your participants, how it feels, the strengths, limitations, practicalities and opportunities.


One thought on “Methods in Action: Creative Visual Methods

  1. Thanks Dawn for this – really interesting research is being done using visual methodologies, and your idea that the visual work of participants is used for elicitation rather than analysis per se really struck a chord with me. I’ve been doing some pro bono work on Pinterest as a thesis coach, and it led to more deeply consider how the visual image can support eliciting learning or “provoking” the learner (and the educator) rather than “instructing”. Your works helps me think through visual as a research method – thank you.

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