Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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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.


According to the Tate Gallery (undated):

The iconography of an artwork is the imagery within it.

The term comes from the Greek word ikon meaning image. An icon was originally a picture of Christ on a panel used as an object of devotion in the orthodox Greek Church from at least the seventh century on. Hence the term icon has come to be attached to any object or image that is outstanding or has a special meaning attached to it.

An iconography is a particular range or system of types of image used by an artist or artists to convey particular meanings. For example in Christian religious painting there is an iconography of images such as the lamb which represents Christ, or the dove which represents the Holy Spirit. In the iconography of classical myth however, the presence of a dove would suggest that any woman also present would be the goddess Aphrodite or Venus, so the meanings of particular images can depend on context.

In the eighteenth century William Blake invented a complex personal iconography to illustrate his vision of man and God, and much scholarship has been devoted to interpreting it. In the twentieth century the iconography of Pablo Picasso's work is mostly autobiographical, while Joseph Beuys developed an iconography of substances such as felt, fat and honey, to express his ideas about life and society. Iconography (or iconology) is also the academic discipline of the study of images in art and their meanings.

Artists in the Tate Gallery collection can be looked up here (accessed 10 June 2019)


associated issues


related areas

See also


Researching the Real World Section 5.12.6


Munsterberg, M., 2008–9, 'Iconographical analysis', available at, accessed 14 September 2018, still available 10 June 2019.

Tate Gallery, nd, 'Experimental ethnography', available at, accessed 10 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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