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Visual and arts-based methods in social sciences: an interview with Dr Anna Bagnoli

Dr Anna Bagnoli is an Associate Researcher at Cambridge University Department of Sociology and a tutor and Fellow at Wolfson College Cambridge.

Interview by Lorna Rouse.

I think visual and arts based methods are probably something that a lot of people don’t know very much about, could you start by telling me a little bit about your research interests and your interests in those methods?

My research interests have focussed on young people and identities and I have always had a huge interest in qualitative methods. I became fascinated with the use of visual methods when I was working towards my PhD and my interest was trying to study identities holistically. I thought that it would be insufficient to just ask people to speak about themselves and to express themselves in words, so I wanted to find different ways to try and get to identities and that’s how I came to be interested in visual methods.

Is the use of visual methods a fairly new approach?

It’s become more popular recently, but it’s not that new. It’s been around for a while, it just wasn’t mainstream. Visual methods had been used for a long time in anthropology, and in sociology, visual sociology developed in the 1960s. In the last few years these methods have become more popular and now many more people in the social sciences use visual methods.

Is it a method that you think works particularly well with young people?

Certainly, and they are widely used with young people, but they work well not only with young people. I think with others too you can get very good results when you apply visual methods. Quite often in the social sciences researchers use interviews and this is based on the idea that people will be able to express themselves through words, to verbalise their thoughts and that is not always the case. Even when people are very well able to verbalise, I think the use of visual methods can get to some other dimension. There are lots of ways in which it can be helpful, for instance if you show a photograph, it could be a personal photograph from somebody’s family album or a photograph of a city for example, it can really elicit lots of memories and make the interview more interesting.

Is it a method that tends to be used alongside interviews?

Often it is used that way, but it can also be used on its own. When people use visual methods they can be coming from different backgrounds and perspectives. For instance, there are people who just take photographs and then do their own reflection about these, but do not really engage in interviewing people.

Is there a particular philosophical background that this approach lends itself to?

There are different backgrounds, visual research is an interdisciplinary area, and people use visual methods coming from different disciplines: sociology, psychology, anthropology and cultural studies, for instance. There are different perspectives with which you can look at the world through visual methods. I am really interested in seeing how people make sense, say of photographs: if they take pictures what is the meaning that they attribute to those photographs? I am interested in using these methods in a participatory sense, trying really to be guided by participants themselves, to see what is important to them. At the same time, of course, I have my own perspective. It’s important always to distinguish between what is the interpretation of the researcher and the interpretation of the person taking part in the research because everyone has their own background and may see different things in the same photograph. The beauty of images is that they have multiple meanings.

Do you find using images in interviews helps the interview?

It works well to break the ice during an interview and to help people remember things they had forgotten about. Typically it has been found that to insert a photograph into an interview has really a huge effect on how much you can help people remember about their lives. I’ve found this is also true using things like drawings and asking people to make relational maps - showing me on a map where they’d put the people in their lives. Even just a very simple exercise like this helps people remember. One interesting example was a thirteen year old girl who I was interviewing about her life and her family. It was only during the second interview, when I asked her to do this relational map that she finally realised that she had a dad as well. Her dad wasn’t a part of her everyday life and she said ‘oh, I need to put my dad there’ and then she started talking about her father, so just asking her to do a very simple exercise was really insightful.

Are there any disadvantages of using these methods?

There have been occasions when people have felt a little bit self-conscious and have been resistant, especially if you ask them to draw. I can think of one example when I asked people to show me on paper who they were and one person said ‘no, I’m sorry I don’t want to do this’ but this was the only total rejection. Most people would say things like ‘oh, I cannot really draw’, but that’s a normal reaction because most of us are not really very talented at drawing. Then they would proceed to draw anyway. In terms of the analysis that you can do, you have to be inventive. It is challenging of course if you are mixing different methods, so you need to be interested in doing that work and in facing this challenge.

Can you describe some of the visual methods that you’ve used?

One method that I designed was the selfportrait. During the interview I presented participants with a white sheet of paper and felt-tip pens and asked them to show who they were at that moment in time. In the second interview for the same study I asked them to bring me some photographs of themselves that they particularly liked and I would ask them about why they were significant. I didn’t only rely on their words, but also on my own reading of the photographs. As a qualitative researcher, you are the instrument, so it’s always important to be explicit about your own view and perspective. I have also asked people to take photographs and then interviewed them on the basis of those photographs, which is known as photo elicitation. Another method I’ve used is relational maps, asking these young people to show me who were the important people in their lives. This is a widely used method. People usually use concentric circles, but I preferred to leave things as open as possible because I’m interested in seeing the different patterns people come up with, the different ways they interpret my own instructions. I also asked thirteen year olds to draw timelines highlighting the important events that had happened in their lives and any world events that were particularly significant during their lives. A method I’m especially interested in developing at the moment is collage, and I would like to work with collage to ask people to reflect about their lives and about themselves. My interest is in using visual methods to allow people to reflect and to think a little bit differently about themselves. I think employing visual methods allows you to do this a little differently and more creatively than in a normal interview. Another method that I’ve used has involved having videoed walkabouts with young people, asking them to take me to some place that was significant for them. Basically like a guided tour. Other participants made video diaries describing a typical day in their lives.

How do you go about analysing visual data?

I try to be stimulated by the images themselves in making sense of the different materials. I collected a variety of materials: interviews, drawings, photographs, collages, diaries and videos. I used narrative analysis so I was looking at the stories that were being told. For instance, in one study participants drew a self-portrait in the context of an interview, and I also audio-recorded their comments and my questions as they were making the self-portrait, so you get a record of the interaction between the interviewer and the respondent. I would always try and put the materials in context, using the same codes in the analysis.

How did you analyse the videos?

The videos give visual and aural data and you look at what is happening in the interaction. There are quite a lot of different dimensions that you may want to look at, but from my perspective I would then try and have an overall analysis of all the different data. It’s not about just focusing on the video but putting it in context with all the other materials.

Is it quite complicated to mix methods in that way?

Yes, but I found it really interesting. I wanted to allow myself to be led by the images because I was trying to get a picture of these young people coming from different sources and some of the drawings were so insightful. One young woman, who had just decided she wanted to leave her job, drew herself as a house in the middle of an ocean and the ocean was representing the uncertainty in her life, the fact that there were things that were not right at the moment and needed to be adjusted. Then she drew some black clouds above for things that needed changing. The image was very evocative. Whenever I see it, I remember everything that she was telling me about her life. I found such images to be extremely interesting in identifying what was really going on for these young people.

Did you ever ask people to complete the same tasks on different occasions?

Yes, for studies that had a longitudinal approach I would show them again the image they had made some time before. That gave me insight on their reaction at some time distance and I asked them whether it was still a true and valid representation of themselves. In one study I asked for timelines during the first interviews, then in the second wave of interviews about a year and a half later I asked for a timeline, not looking towards the past, but towards the future - how they saw their future life from then on. That was very interesting because by this time the young people were about fifteen and most of them didn’t imagine their future much beyond twenty-twenty five or thirty.

Were there similarities in the kinds of things they imagined about their futures?

By this time a lot of the boys had dropped out, but what came out with the girls was that there were similar aspirations, regardless of social class, for instance. It was quite common to aspire to go to university and to have children in your thirties. As one participant of mine put it, she needed to ‘have found who she was’ before she had children, before she could dedicate herself to them. That was quite a clear idea emerging from all these young girls, that they need to have a life before they have children. There were contradictions between the timelines and what was said in the interviews and also in the timelines themselves. I remember specifically one girl who had put that at fifty she would be a grandmother, but she didn’t want to have children before the age of thirty. She didn’t leave her own children the same time to find themselves!

Are there any particular ethical issues that come with these methods?

With visual methods there are lots of ethical issues. In fact it’s becoming more difficult to do this sort of research, especially if you are working with young people because you cannot openly show the image of a child. When I asked people to make collages, some of them were really beautiful and I made an exhibition of them at the end of the project. Many of the collages included photographs of these girls and of their friends so I had to blur these images. It can be quite annoying, but it’s something you have to do because, of course, you need to protect the images of your participants. Often this was something that the young people did not understand; even when they say something in an interview they often don’t quite understand why you should change their name. Of course there are ethical issues with adults too. As in any research, you really need to make sure that people have a clear idea of what you’re doing with their data. Particularly with visual methods you don’t want to misrepresent people’s images, so it’s important that people have been well informed and that you have informed consent to use the images. It can be problematic when you want to show data at the end of a project. It can be frustrating if you have very beautiful data which you cannot show in quite the same way as it was produced. In the example of the collages, I could retain some of the artistic content, but it may be useless to show a photograph when you cannot see any face details, for instance. It can also be a problem when you want to write-up your research. I have recently published something in which I am talking about an image and I couldn’t include that particular photograph because when I went to contact them for consent that person had moved home and I didn’t have their new address. Sometimes, however, it is enough just to talk about an image without showing it, which is what I did in this case.

You said that you like to give people freedom, do you find there’s a lot of difference in their choices? Are the choices that they make revealing?

Yes, I think they can be revealing. In one particular study there were some methods that were optional. The majority who chose these activities were middle-class girls. I think only one boy chose to do something extra. The collage was the most popular option, but it was only chosen by girls and by girls who were at the same school. It might have been that they talked between themselves. Sometimes it’s reflective of their culture, the school culture and their particular interests.

Are you doing research at the moment using visual methods?

I am planning a research project about young migrants. I’m interested in studying migration through the use of visual methods, thinking about different ways to look at migration and exploring the identities of migrants.

Would you use similar approaches to those you’ve used in the past?

Yes, I would like to use collage again and other participatory ways to apply photography and video in research.

Do you think that these kinds of methods will continue to become more popular in the future?

I think they are already rather popular now. They have certainly become more popular since the time I started using them, in the late nineties. We can only hope they will be more popular. It can be extremely rewarding for a researcher to use visual methods because it allows you to see things holistically, not just relying on words. It allows people to be reflective and more specifically, tied to my interest in identities, to reflect on who they are. For people who are interested in collecting biographies and want participants to remember things about their lives, that’s also something that can be done using visual methods. Researchers are moving towards studying everyday reality through paying more attention to sensory experience. This does not just involve focusing on the visual, but considering the visual in relation to the other senses, such as touch and hearing. We have always privileged vision in relation to the other senses, but it’s interesting to try and think about ways in which research can investigate everyday life in all its components.

How do researchers go about that?

Well for instance, when we make a video there’s the aural dimension together with the visual. You can analyse what is happening in terms of the sound as well as in terms of the visual. There is a lot of interest in widening the focus of attention. I’ve also seen people doing research recreating smells. If you are investigating people’s identities and memories it may be quite interesting to think about some smells that will bring back childhood experiences, such as some particular place where they lived in the past. People also use music for elicitation to evoke memories using songs associated with an important time in someone’s life. I’d like to try using music in the context of an interview or extracts from old movies. Nowadays, from a technical point of view there are so many possibilities that you can put into practice quite easily, it’s challenging and interesting to think about other ways of interviewing. It’s not just about people responding to your questions, but also trying to bring together all these different elements that can give you a more complex picture of someone’s life.

That’s great, thank you.

References

Bagnoli, A. (2004). Researching identities with multi-method autobiographies. Sociological Research Online, 9(2). Retrieved from: http:// www.socresonline.org.uk/9/2/ bagnoli.html.

Bagnoli, A. (2009). Beyond the standard interview: The use of graphic elicitation and arts-based methods. Qualitative Research, 9(5), 547–570. doi: 10.1177/1468794109343625.

A change of view: Using visual methods to explore experience in qualitative research http://jeps.efpsa.org/ blog/2013/05/15/a-change-of-viewusing-visual-methods-to-exploreexperience-in-qualitative-research/#more -1764

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