Is Photo Elicitation Right for Your Study?

Categories: Creative Methods, Data Collection, Online Research, Other, Research, Research Design

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explored design steps, starting with a January focus on Finding the Question. We learned more about the design stage in February by focusing on Choosing Methodology and MethodsThe March focus was on Designing an Ethical Study. In the second quarter our focus will move from the design stage to the data collection stage. Our focus for April is on Collecting Data from & with Participants.


We sometimes think of interviews in terms of questions or prompts from the researcher and responses from the participant. Here is one of my favorite quotes:

Questions, after all, raise some profound issues about what kind of knowledge is possible and desirable, and how it is to be achieved. For example, do all questions have to be made in words? Michael Pryke,  2003

  • Must questions be posed with words?
  • Must answers be given with words?
  • Can questions be posed with pictures?
  • Can answers be given in pictures?

My responses: no, no, yes, yes! As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words! Images, whether in still or media formats, can convey context and culture, relationships and abstractions. The term elicitation means we use images as a springboard for conversation with one or more participants. We might even use them for our own reflections in research journals or autoethnographies.

Researchers have been using photo, graphic, film elicitation techniques for a long time, but with today’s technologies we have new opportunities to expand these modes for collecting rich data. We can send images back and forth via text message or email, or even better, share and discuss them on a videoconference platform.

One design consideration: whose images should be used?

The researcher can create or select images, or ask the participants to provide images that represent their experiences or perspectives on the questions being investigated. As with any research decision, there are advantages and disadvantages to weigh when making this decision:

Participants’ ImagesResearcher’s Images
+ Participants can make choices about
what they want to share
+ You can select or create images specific
to the phenomenon you want to
discuss with participants
+ Participants are actively engaged
as co-researchers
– You might not capture all aspects of the
participants’ lived experience or priorities
+ Participants’ unique perspectives are
represented
+ You can use the same images with
all participants for consistency
(and simpler coding)
– You might not be able to use the images
in presentations or publications
+ You have permission from any
persons visible in images and are assured
that no non-consenting
secondary participants are shown
+ You have the right to use the images in
publications or presentations
What will work best for your study?

Visual and creative elicitation techniques in online research are discussed extensively in Doing Qualitative Research Online and Qualitative Online Interviews. Use the code MSPACE20, for a 20% discount, or look for my books on SAGE Research Methods in your academic library.


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