Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2018

Page updated 16 November, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

5. Document analysis and semiology

5.1 Introduction
5.2 Document analysis for what?
5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)
5.4 Approaches to document analysis
5.5 Evidence of occurrence
5.6 Content analysis
5.7 Qualitative document analysis
5.8 Historical research

5.9 Hermeneutics
5.10 Semiology
5.11 Critical media analysis
5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

5.12.1 Introduction
5.12.2 Types of image analysis
5.12.3 Sources of images and their uses
5.12.4 Ethnographic type analysis of images Context and interpretation Acquiring and selecting ethnographic images Photography as reality? Photographic illusion Photograpy is not neutral Representativeness of photographs Photographer's point of view Specific non-critical moment or action Selection of images Meaning of images

5.12.5 Semiotic analysis of images
5.12.6 Reconstructing iconological meaning
5.12.7 Visual ideology


5.12 Aesthetics, art criticism, art history

5.12.4 Ethnographic type analysis of images Photography as representing reality?
There has been a continuing debate in ethnography about the claim of objectivity or reality in the use of film and photography. Photography or video recording involves the direct recording of an image and superficially it records a moment of, or sequence from, 'real life'.

However, this is arguably a naïve view. There are several reasons why photography does not necessarily record reality. Photographic illusion
First, there is the issue of the illusion created by a photograph. Marcus Banks (1995) argued that 'while film, video and photography do stand in an indexical relationship to that which they represent they are still representations of reality, not a direct encoding of it'. The representation is not a direct copy but a two-dimensional image of three-dimensional reality, guided by the culture and subjectivity and of the image maker. Photograpy is not neutral
The latter point raises a second objection; that photography is not a neutral device for capturing reality but is culturally specific. Paul Henley (1998, p. 42) repeated the argument of Jean-Louis Comolli, (1977) and Rosalind Morris (1944), that conventional camera and lens construction reproduces the world 'according to a set of perspectival conventions based on a single and unified point of view. This is not a universal or objective perspective, it is claimed, but rather the product of a particular cultural tradition which originated in Europe around the time of the Renaissance'. Representativeness of photographs
A third concern relates to what is photographed: for example, whether it is typical or representative of the fieldwork setting (and how does the photographer know?); whether just special events are captured; whether the action being captured it is staged or natural; whether or not, as noted above, the protagonists react to the presence of the camera and camera operator.

Ethnographers in the main react to this by finding means to reduce the impact of the image maker and equipment so that life can proceed as 'normal' and by providing an account of why certain fieldwork events were selected as photographic or filmic subjects (an argument made by Bateson and Mead (1942), above (Section The conventional view of documentary ethnographers is that as far as possible the camera is just a tool and is used to record neutrally and dispassionately, with no use of special effects when recording or any attempt to create artistic images or construct a 'story' while filming. Bill Owens (1973), for example, opted for a neutral approach to his study of class in American suburbia by placing the images alongside the bland commentary of the residents themselves. This was in contrast to the approach adopted by other street photographers who represented the 'decisive moment' and politically oriented tradition of HenriCartier-Bresson (1952) and Robert Frank (1959).

His [Owens] approach to photography is similar to that of Eugene Atget's Paris street photography of the early twentieth century. By not privileging any part of the streetscape, Atget didn't emotionalise particular subjects within the street. Unlike other photographers who might single out a building or person, his photographs are records of what was in front of him. Walter Benjamin (cited in Meyerowitz & Westerbeck, 1994, p. 109) says that 'Atget photographed Paris as if it were "the scene of a crime"'. This is ironic as Atget's unemotional style came about by commissions in which he was asked to photograph the older parts of Paris by people who romanticised its demise through modernisation. (Gray, 2009, pp. 15–16) Photographer's point of view
A fourth concern is that photographs may reflect reality but they do so from the point of view of the photographer. In so doing they are influenced by the photographer's preconceptions, knowledge and biases.

Turk (2011, p. 130) maintained that:

Indeed, photographs are always framed. The edges may be seen as proscriptions, prohibitions of the image—they define what is to be photographed and what is not (Faris 1996:255; see also Sontag 1977). Such rules may be apply to photography, or for that matter, any other "practice of representation" (Hall 1997).

The preconceptions of the researcher influencing capture of the photographic image is no different in principle from any other data collection process (for example, notes on observations are what the researcher thinks is worth noting; responses on questionnaires are to questions the researcher thinks are worth answering). Specific non-critical moment or action
A fifth concern is that documentary type images typically focus on the specific event or action. As such they tend not to aid system-wide analysis or critique. There is also a tendency for such photography to portray social problems as personal stories (a device also frequently used in televised news broadcasts) or to photograph issues such as deprivation in captivating, evocative or even beautiful images. In so doing the 'reality' in the image obscures or masks the underlying social reality that the image maker may (or may not) be attempting to reveal.  

Martha Rosler (1981) was ascerbic in her critique of what she regarded as the dominant form of documentary image making (an approach that persists):  

In the liberal documentary, poverty and oppression are almost invariably equated with misfortunes caused by natural disasters: causality is vague, blame is not assigned, fate cannot be overcome. Liberal documentary blames neither the victims nor their willful oppressors.... Like photos of children in pleas for donations to international charity organizations, liberal documentary implores us to look in the face of deprivation and to weep (and maybe to send money if it is to some faraway place where the innocence of childhood poverty does not set off in us the train of thought that begins with denial and ends with "welfare cheat." ) Selection of images
This leads to the broader issue, which is the sixth concern, of the subsequent selection and presentation of photographic images from fieldwork settings. Why are some images selected and used in the research narrative?

Are images selected, for example, because they are intrinsically interesting, or of good quality or taken from an unusual angle. Or are they included because they illustrate the commentary, or do the images drive the enquiry.

The same issue arises when quotes are selected in qualitative research; are they just examples to legitimate the point of view of the researcher or are the quotations leading the enquiry and orientating the perspective of the researcher? In practice, is likely that verbal and image-based evidence both inform the researcher's understanding but also operate as examples to clarify that understanding for the reader of the research. Meaning of images
However, the seventh, rather important concern is that of establishing the meaning, for both the actors and the image makers, of the recorded event.

David MacDougall (2006, p. 1) argued that meaning guides seeing; meaning provides the framing and categorisation so that what is seen is comprehensible. However, if meaning is forced onto things, it can also inhibit what we see, 'causing us to see only what we expect to see or distracting us from seeing very much at all'.

One argument is that to understand the meaning involves the image makers engaging with the actors but that inevitably introduces an element of subjectivity. In essence this is a spurious argument because all forms of data collection involve a degree of subjectivity because, in one way or another, the researcher is selecting what constitutes research data.

The more radical approach is to say that an 'objectivist' stance is irrelevant and that the camera is not neutral but a research tool that provokes reactions, it acts as a catalyst to generating atypical events. Rouch (1974, p. 41) argued that through the medium of the camera the image maker becomes fully engaged in the lives of the actors. Thereby achieving an understanding that goes beyond that which is available to those who remain neutral.

Thus instead of using the zoom, the cameraman-director can really get into the subject. Leading or following a dancer, priest, or craftsman, he is no longer himself, but a mechanical eye accompanied by an electronic ear. It is this strange state of transformation that takes place in the filmmaker that I have called, analogously to possession phenomena, "cine-trance."

The idea is that 'reality' is not encapsulated in the surface, prosaic visible activity but in the 'underlying, relationships, sentiments and attitudes which sustain them', (Henley, 1998, p. 43).

Engagement with actors, reactive or other approaches are not in themselves constructors of meaning. Meaning derives from underlying theories and preconceptions; meaning doesn't come directly from observation, photography or conversations but emerges through a dialectical process of prior theorising (at whatever level of reflection and based on whatever pre-knowledge the researcher has) that is subsequently modified or reinforced by available data.

A non-positivist view suggested that there is no 'discoverable' meaning of a photograph. Meaning does not inhere in the photograph by dint of it representing a moment of reality, rather it is constructed by the maker of the image, or by the viewer, or by both either together or separately. The views do not necessarily coincide.

This issue of who makes the meaning is one that is not restricted to ethnographic-type approaches to image analysis but is foregrounded in other approaches, notably semiotic analysis (see Section 5.10). Edwards (1996) claimed that the photograph itself becomes the signifier, becomes perceived as real or true because that is what the viewer expectsto see rather than actually sees.

Meaning is, therefore, not self-evident but constructed and in being constructed incorporates the background, worldview, preconceptions and ideology of the image makers and readers. Or, for example, in the case of medical images, interpretation depends on training. (See CASE STUDY Visual logic.)

Sometimes the ethnographic image maker leads the viewer to a particular interpretation, usually through accompanying text, in other (rarer) cases the viewer is left to make their own interpretation, as in Frank's (1959) study that provided limited captions but sequenced images. Harper (2000, p. 8) suggests that sequences of images, as in Bateson and Mead (1942) and HermanEmmet's (1989) photo narrative of ten years in the lives of a family of migrant farmworkers, 'offer an alternative to the notion of photographs as "pieces of the world" wrenched out of observation and presented as pieces of data'.


Next 5.12.5 Semiotic analysis of images