Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-19, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 23 January, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2019.


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core definition

Iconography is the assessment of the subject matter of a cutural object (such as a painting) and attempts to identify the intended meaning of the object by analysing the representational elements.

explanatory context

Iconography is one of three levels of analysing cultural objects. The other two are the descriptive and the iconological.


The origin of this tri-layered approach is in the analysis of paintings but it has been applied more widely, for example, to the analysis of the sexist content of advertisements.


The primary, descriptive or pre-iconographical has two facets. These are the 'factual' description of the object (how the shapes and juxtoposition of colours, etc. represent objects) and the expressional (how gestures and emotions are represented).


The secondary level is the iconographical and this assesses the subject matter of the painting. It is concerned with the meaning of the painting by analysing the motifs or combination of motifs.


The third level is the iconological.

analytical review

Marjorie Munsterberg (2008–9) states that iconographic analysis:

establishes the meaning a work of art had at the time it was made.  This may or may not include what the maker of the work intended or, usually a more important factor, what the person who paid for the work wanted. Any particular time or place provides different possible audiences, each of which will demand specific kinds of information and make certain assumptions.  The iconographic argument always depends upon assembling historical evidence to reconstruct these things.

associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section 5.12


Munsterberg, M., 2008–9, 'Iconographical analysis', available at (accessed 14 September 2018).

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2019


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