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Researching the Visual: Images, Objects, Contexts and Interactions in Social and Cultural Inquiry

Michael and Philip Smith Emmison
Sage Publications: London
0761958460 (pb)
18.99 (pb)
xiv + 242

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Researching the Visual is part of Sage's INTRODUCING QUALITATIVE METHODS series. With student exercises and text boxes it is a clearly written and structured student text, suitable for undergraduates and postgraduates. It also makes an argument that has implications for how social scientists conceptualise 'visual data'.

Emmison and Smith define visual inquiry as 'the study of the seen and observable' (ix). They situate their argument as a response to what they see as the inadequacy of existing social science approaches to the visual, pointing out how 'social life is visual in diverse and counterintuitive ways', and defining 'visual data' as not only photographs, advertisements and television programmes, but also material objects, buildings, clothing, body language and uses of space. In doing so they draw from various sub- disciplines, including visual sociology, visual anthropology and material culture studies.

In Chapter 1 Emmison and Smith criticise social scientists for uncritically relying on photographs as a form of data in their own right. They urge for a shift to the analysis of those 'visible features of the social world' that can be seen, rather than of photographic representations of them. For them whilst '[p]hotographs may be helpful sometimes in recording the seen dimension of social life. Usually they are not necessary' (4). They argue 'that visual data should be thought of not in terms of what the camera can record but of what the eye can see', thus giving photographs a limited use 'as means of preserving, storing or representing information', making them 'analogous to code-sheets, the responses to interview schedules, ethnographic field notes, tape recordings or verbal interaction...' etc. (3). By relegating photography to this specific role in social science they to seek to open a space for 'visual data' to be conceived more broadly as an integral part of social science.

This critique continues through Chapter 2's examination of 'current trends in visual research', namely analysis of existing images, scientific depictions and video recordings of naturally occurring interactions. Here and in their Preface Emmison and Smith develop their complaint against Visual Sociology, characterised as an 'isolated' sub field in which 'most other sociological researchers simply aren't interested', claiming their own approach facilitates closer links between visual research and mainstream social science (ix). However in their keenness to criticise both uses of photography and visual sociology (mainly of the IVSA variety), for using 'visual data' in 'simply illustrative' ways (20), the authors neglect to engage with existing critiques of such work from within the disciplines they cite. They argue that 'the use of photography by anthropologists, sociologists and ethnographers has generally led to an insular and theoretically uninspiring field' that has not connected to the 'wider currents in social theory in these disciplines' (55). The literature Emmison and Smith review is theoretically unsophisticated, largely because they do not review existing critical works that do link practices of visual research and representation in the social sciences to key theoretical developments in anthropology (e.g. Edwards 1997, MacDougall 1997) and sociology (e.g. Chaplin 1994). Many existing Visual Sociology uses of photography are problematic. However by responding that photographs are 'not necessary' Emmison and Smith fail to recognise the potential for visual representation in social science; possibly because their realist observational approach does not admit the understandings required to develop this potential.

In chapters 3-6 Emmison and Smith discuss how social scientists might analyse different categories of 'visual data'. In each case presenting methods and examples of existing studies alongside suggested student projects. Chapter 3 discusses 'two-dimensional visual data', advocating a 'sociological' (as opposed to semiotic) approach to how 'ordinary actors use or make sense of ...visual information in the course of their everyday or practical routines' (58). They recommend quantitative, cultural studies and ethnomethodological approaches for image analysis, rightly emphasising the importance of thinking of images and objects as things to use rather than simply as things to read (105).

The 'visual data' discussed in Chapter 4 is 'three-dimensional' ('seen' objects rather than texts or images). Emmison and Smith explore how objects can act as 'unobtrusive measures of social processes' and issues of space and place (107) and drawing from material culture studies point out that 'objects are not just 'things', but reflections of the lives of communities and individuals' (111). They initially discuss how we may 'decode' the visual. Following Barthes they propose going beyond a semiotic analysis of objects, noting how '[i]nteractions with objects' are also 'a source of visual data from which we can make inferences about social life' and that '[o]bjects are always positioned in particular spatial contexts' (109). Whilst they admit ethnography or interviews could usefully 'flesh out' such data, Emmison and Smith's method is designed for overt or covert use. Its advantages are that since respondents are not involved, neither researcher bias nor informant's normative responses are concerns, and it allows study of 'unobtrusive measures' (107). However, as they note, these methods are limited in the data they produce, and unreliable for sampling and validity, not to mention the ethical questions surrounding covert research.

Chapter 5 focuses on 'Lived Visual Data' to analyse 'places and settings' such as public and private buildings and spaces (153). They consider the 'locale as signifier', 'how people respond to places and move through them' and how 'visibility and invisibility are structured into built forms, influencing the arrangement of objects and human beings' (153). Following Bourdieu and recent studies of domestic contexts they suggest how such 'visual research' can generate data about gender roles and ideologies as well as notions of public and private. They advocate an observational approach to learning about how people use space and a 'decoding' approach to understanding the values that are embedded in built forms.

Chapter 6 shifts attention to living people. Seeing social interaction as 'inherently a visual activity organised in large part around observable symbolism' they concentrate on public behaviour to explore how 'activities and the relationships they embody can be captured using the visual method of observation' (190). Drawing from Goffman's work on interaction in public settings they seek to develop an observational approach that is methodologically more rigorous and historically up-to- date.

This book has much to its merit, it is ideal for students learning about theory and practice of 'observation' in sociology and for that purpose I wholeheartedly recommend it as a guide for student projects and coursework. However I have doubts about its achievement as an interdisciplinary critique.

Emmison and Smith's critique of social science approaches to the visual is often misdirected. It fails to appreciate developments in visual anthropology and its summary dismissal of film along with photography (54) precludes any consideration of theoretical debates about ethnographic film over the last 30 years. It would have been helpful if the authors had situated their own argument in relation to other existing critical approaches. For example, how might Emmison and Smith's observational approach be reconciled with Fabian's (1984) critique of the 'visualism' that embodied the objectifying tendencies which dominated anthropology in the past. Critiques of positivist and realist uses of photography and film in ethnographic work (e.g. Edwards 1997, MacDougall 1997), and of the idea that images (or performances) can be read 'as text' are mainstream in visual anthropology, yet were sidestepped, in favour of an approach that advocates the translation of 'visual data' in to written academic text. By defining the visual as only 'data' Emmison and Smith miss the point in their critiques of anthropological and sociological uses of photography; often the visual is not intended to be 'data', that is probably why it does not function adequately as such.

Sarah Pink
Loughborough University


CHAPLIN, E. (1994) Sociology and Visual Representation London: Routledge.

EDWARDS, E. (1997) 'Beyond the Boundary: a consideration of the expressive in photography and anthropology' in M. Banks and H. Morphy (eds) Rethinking Visual Anthropology London: Newhaven Press.

MACDOUGALL, D. (1997) 'The Visual in Anthropology' in M. Banks and H. Morphy (eds) Rethinking Visual Anthropology London: Newhaven Press.

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