ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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A process of interpretive engagement for analysing visual images

Marilys Guillemin, Sarah Drew

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 9 - Law Building, Room 102
Date: 2012-07-12 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
Last modified: 2011-12-19


The increased adoption of visual methodologies is to be applauded. However, the growing publication of visual methodology reports has often been accompanied with little regard to the analytical complexities involved in quality visual research. A number of approaches for the analysis of visual images are available. However, we suggest that while there are some notable and excellent exceptions, there is still more scholarly work required to elucidate the particular methodological challenges of using visual methodologies. Our interest here is on the analysis and interpretation of visual images in research, and the analytical processes required to elicit an interpretation of a visual image.
We propose a framework of ‘interpretive engagement’ as a way of conceptualising the processes of analysis used to generate meaning from visual images produced in a research context. Our focus is on the use of participant-generated photographs in the qualitative research context. We draw on our own work and the work of others to illustrate this process of interpretive engagement with visual images. The aim of interpretive engagement is not to make definitive knowledge claims about the ‘true’ representation of the image. Rather, the process of interpretive engagement recognises that it is a process of co-construction involving the researcher, the person who has generated the image, the image and the context of its production, the context of its interpretation, and even the ‘consumer’ of that research dissemination (whether via visual exhibition or written research report). The process of interpretive engagement acknowledges that the interpretation is an ongoing process, offering multiple possibilities and understandings.
Using relevant examples, we examine the ways that visual images have capacity for meaning-making, before going on to discuss the process of interpretive engagement that works to elicit visual narratives. Our aim in this paper is not to claim that there is a right or wrong way to interpret visual data. Rather we wish to highlight that visual methodologies need to incorporate sound rationales for their analysis. As with analysis of other forms of data, analytic approaches to visual material require relevant discussion of the theoretical framework in which the research is situated so that readers are well placed to judge the appropriateness of the research design and the credibility of the associated findings. This process of analysis needs to be systematic and transparent to enable the rigour of the analysis and knowledge produced to be evaluated.