Images are used throughout academic inquiry, in a number of different ways. Images can be used to direct the research process (photo-elicitation, or projective tests), as an object of study (photographs, maps, postcards), and as a product of a study (graphs, charts, group photos). When images are to be used in the research process it is necessary to examine how and why these images are used. The use of images in research is extremely diverse. For example, Moore, et al. (2008) gave study participants cameras to record images from their daily lives. Then these photographs were used as data in the study, to guide interviews, and to facilitate discussion. In the Moore et al. (2008) study, images were created by participants, which allowed participants to take a more active role in shaping and directing the research.
Other research uses images that have already been created as an object of study. Two varying examples of this are Papson, Goldman, & Kersey’s (2007) study of using images in online environments, and David’s (2007) examination of graffiti as a means of marking public space in New Orleans. First, David’s (2007) study examines visual markings on public spaces to investigate spatial politics as well as social and cultural identity. In this study, graffiti is explained as a form of visual resistance that carves out alternate spaces with imagery. Second, Papson et al. (2007) used images and website design to allow research to become closer to the object of study. This description and use of images is interesting because historically, research articles minimized image use because of the cost of printing and publication (Palmer, 2009). However, new electronic forms of publishing allow images to be used for more than just illustrating the point: images can be objects of study (Papson et al., 2007; Palmer, 2009).
The conventional use of images in research tends to be simple images which illustrate points, or are developed from quantitative data. These types of images are typically created by the researcher to illustrate points. The construction of these images tends to be minimalist and strictly governed, for example APA use of images which will be discussed in the validity section.
Images may be used in very different ways, and for fundamentally different purposes. To understand how images are used it is helpful to look at the underlying assumptions and values and philosophy of the researchers and research process, the epistemology.
Epistemology is essential for understanding images in research. Epistemologies abound, but for the purpose of this article it is helpful to look at two divisions. Realism suggests the world exists objectively and independent of our perception. First, the realism debate. An argument from realism would suggest that the validity of knowledge may be equated to a study’s proximity to objective truth. An anti-realism argument would posit that there is no objective reality, therefore valid research would investigate perceptions and constructions of reality (Flowerdew & Martin, 2005).
The second, naturalism debate is related to how to obtain knowledge: naturalism vs. anti-naturalism. The naturalism debate argues that methods from the natural sciences can be applied to the social sciences. For example, survey instruments which collect quantitative data to understand social phenomena or; theories of gravitational movement can be applied to human migration. Anti-naturalism would argue that social phenomenon are different from natural phenomenon and therefore cannot be investigated or understood in the same way (Flowerdew & Martin, 2005). Of course, these epistemologies are not mutually exclusive, but exist on a continuum. Many different epistemologies have emerged in the social sciences, but realism and naturalism are central issues.
These are central issues because validity is the core of any research. Different approaches to research are fundamental in how validity is understood to different researchers, studies and disciplines. Irrespective of philosophy, validity refers to the quality and veracity of conclusions that are reached through the research process. Divergence occurs at the philosophical level, and is rooted in the epistemological questions: “which quality is desired”, and “what is truth”.
The two conceptualizations of validity in social science that stem from realism are classical test theory and generalizability theory. Both focus on the reliability (measurement consistency) and applicability of results. Classical test theory (Novick, 1966), suggests that for any behavioural or social observation, there is a True Score, (objective truth). However, with any Observed Score (obtained from measurement) there are inherent sources of Error (variation). Thus, through a systematic investigation of the observation and error, it is possible to mathematically derive the true score from the observation:
Observed Score – Error = TRUE SCORE
There are two epistemological assumptions that underlie classical test theory. First, the realist, assumption is that there is a true score that equates to an objective reality. The second, naturalist, assumption is that the true score can be measured using methods from the natural sciences. Therefore in classical test theory, validity means constructing objective systems of measurement, then developing reliable instruments, as a part of a rigorous process that seeks to mitigate sources of error, and to eventually attain proximity to the true score. This is well illustrated in The American Psychological Association (APA) Publication Manual with twenty-six pages of strict guidelines for the uses of images in research.
This type of research requires that images be objective representations. Typically, images used in this type of research will be graphs representing quantitative data. Photographs may also used, given strict guidelines.
Generalizability theory is similar to classical test theory, where sources of variation (described as facets, instead of error) are the objects of analysis. Validity is achieved by applicability of a particular sample to a population, or from a study to a theory (John & Soto, 2007). Generalizability theory is, although based on a realism assumption, leans toward anti-naturalism. While the assumption remains that there is an underlying truth (or true score), generalizability theory assumes this true score is contextual.
This type of research will also use graphs and charts. Photographs or other images may be used. Typically in this type of research different types of images may be used in conjunction with other methods.
Rose (2001) reviews methods which are based on different positions in the naturalism vs. anti-naturalism debate. First, content analysis (Rose, 2001) is based on the assumption that images are socially constructed and understood. Yet, content analysis draws from natural science methodologies that are rigorous, quantifiable and can be replicated. Content analysis categorizes then codes images to conduct analysis based on replicable coding systems. For content analysis, validity is defined as being embedd
ed in the methodological soundness of the sorting and coding. Thus, an excellent example from naturalism.
Content analysis invites more visual approaches to research and a more thorough analysis of the visual. Whereas using the previous two realism approaches images tend to be illustrative or complimentary, anti-realism approaches are more suited to examining images directly. Content analysis can examine images or films as subjective texts, while using rigorous empirical techniques.
Rose (2001c; 2001d) also describes discourse analysis, which makes thorough use of anti-naturalism. Discourse analysis examines particular sources of knowledge and how that knowledge shapes understanding and interaction with the world. For discourse analysis, all knowledge is contextual and therefore must draw on contextual understanding and a thorough examination of systems and processes related to the construction and consumption of images. Subjectivity plays a key role in discourse analysis. To conduct discourse analysis, the researcher examines the complexities and the contradictions embedded in the discourse and identify key themes and connections.
Using discourse analysis, anything visual can be investigated as data. However, this technique relies more on subjective approaches that may be fundamentally irreconcilable with other investigative and epistemological techniques
Further exploring Rose’s methodologies, in comparison with classical test theory, provides additional insight into how epistemological definitions of validity shape the research process. In classical test theory, sources of error are to be investigated and understood, with the intention of eliminating sources of error. Using anti-realism assumptions, the “error” itself may be one of the most interesting units of analysis. For anti-realism, error is not the appropriate term, the investigation can focus on the exceptional or unique. Entire fields of study are devoted to what classical test theory would define as a source of error to be controlled or held constant. For example, gender differences or socioeconomic differences would be a source of error in classical test theory whereas Feminist and Marxist Theory would treat these “sources of error” as investigative foci.
Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (5th ed.). American Psychological Association: Washington, DC.
David, A. D. (2007). Signs of resistance: Marking public space through renewed cultural activism. In Stanczak, G. C. (Ed.). Visual Research Methods: Image, society, and representation. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Flowerdew, R., & Martin, D. (2005). Philosophies underlying human geography research. In Methods in human geography: A guide for students doing a research project. Pearson Education Limited: Harlow, England.
John, O. P., & Soto, C. J. (2007). The importance of being valid: Reliability and the process of construction validation. In Robins, R. W., Fraley, R. C., & Krueger, R. F. (Eds.). Handbook of Research Methods in Personality Psychology. Guilford Press: New York, NY.
Moore, G., Croxford, B., Mags, A., Refaee, M., Cox, T., & Sharples, S. (2008). The photo-survey method: Capturing life in the city. Visual Studies 23(1), 50-62.
Novick, M. R. (1966). The axioms and principal results of classical test theory. Journal of Mathematical Psychology 3(1), 1-18.
Palmer, C. (2009). Moving with the times: Visual representation of the tourist phenomenon. Journal of Tourism and Consumption Practice 1(1), 74-85.
Papson, S., Goldman, R., & Kersey, N. (2007). Website design: The precarious blend of narrative, aesthetics, and social theory. In Stanczak, G. C. (Ed.). Visual Research Methods: Image, society, and representation. Sage: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Rose, G. (2001a). Researching visual materials: Towards a critical visual methodology. In Visual Methodologies. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Rose, G. (2001b). Content analysis: Counting what you (think you) see. In Visual Methodologies. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Rose, G. (2001c). Discourse analysis I: Text, intertextuality, context. In Visual Methodologies. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Rose, G. (2001d). Discourse Analysis II: Institutions and ways of seeing. In Visual Methodologies. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.
Rose, G. (2001de). “The good eye”: Looking at pictures using compositional interpretation. In Visual Methodologies. Sage Publications: Thousand Oaks, CA.