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“More Than Just a Picture ”: Creating and using visuals in social science research. Jennifer Cool M.A. Visual Anthropology, 1993 Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology University of Southern California Talk Outline. Workshop Purpose Definitions

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More than just a picture creating and using visuals in social science research l.jpg

“More Than Just a Picture”: Creating and using visuals in social science research

Jennifer Cool

M.A. Visual Anthropology, 1993

Ph.D. Candidate, Anthropology

University of Southern California

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Talk Outline

  • Workshop Purpose

  • Definitions

  • Representation Across Media

    • Rhetoric

    • Filmmaking

    • Informatics

    • Documentary / Visual Anthropology

  • Putting it all into practice: “Home Economics”

  • Practicum in documentary video

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Workshop Purpose

  • The proliferation of digital technologies has increased the ease with which graduate students use self-made still, moving, and interactive images to support their research.

  • Despite this trend, images are often added to dissertations, presentations, and publications as an afterthought.

  • This workshop will encourage us to think critically and creatively when we use visual images — moving, still, and interactive — in our research by exploring the use of photography, film, and interactive media.

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Stable, established


Relatively centralized



Top-down publication

Unified layers (bits linked to atoms)

Writing presented per publication

Largely mono-media (text) with separate repositories for different media/genres (pictures, artifacts)

Unstable, emerging


Relatively decentralized



Distributed publication

Discrete layers

Write once publish anywhere

Highly multimedia & intermedia (text, image, audio, video, multiple document formats; multilingual, modular)


Digital technology

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By “Visuals” I Mean

  • Photographs, film/video (sound and image), any recording made with a camera as data to be studied

    • Research media

      • using (audio)visuals to record data

  • Still images, films, videos, PowerPoint presentations, any visual media made to convey or illustrate the insights and analyses of academic research.

    • Rhetorical media

      • using (audio)visuals to make argument

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Research & Rhetorical Media

  • Can the boundaries be traversed?

    • Absolutely. Two modes are mutually informative.

    • But important to consider each mode separately.

  • Research media fall under methods

    • Generally, these are techniques, forms, and norms of data capture established within disciplines and sub-fields.

  • Rhetorical media fall under___?

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Basic Premise of this Talk

  • No image is understood outside a discourse.

    • Discourse/Context may mask itself (art)

    • Discourse/Context may be explicit (newspaper)

  • The question is, how to craft your images so they are consistent with the discourse in which you operate?

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Representation Across Media

  • As scholars, you already have mastery in certain forms of communication, in particular, reading and writing texts.

  • Whatever the medium, thoughtful acts of representation begin with these basic questions:

    • What do I want to say?

    • Who is my audience?

    • What is the best way to say it?

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What do I want to say? (Content)

  • What’s my main message, or thesis?

  • What’s my goal or purpose in making these photographs; this video, slideshow, webpage, or other media presentation?

  • What’s my investment in the subject?

  • With what authority do I speak?

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Who is my audience?

  • What knowledge can I assume of my audience?

  • What ideas/information need to be presented explicitly?

  • What issues or objections might they have to my argument?

  • What are their values, goals, and interests?

  • How do might these relate to my message?

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What’s the best way to say it? (Form)

  • Choose medium, genre, format:

    • Oral: lecture, discussion, informal speech

    • Written: essay, book, email, letter

    • Pictoral: photos, illustrations, diagrams, graphs

    • Mixed & multimedia: PowerPoint presentation, film, video, website, other new media

  • Match tone & formality to audience & content.

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My Frameworks

  • Rhetoric

  • Filmmaking

  • Informatics

  • Documentary / Visual Anthropology

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Drawn from my experience

Visual anthropology

  • M.A. Visual Anthropology, USC, 1993

  • “Home Economics: a documentary of suburbia,” M.A. Film

  • “The Experts of Everyday Life: "The Experts of Everyday Life: Cultural Reproduction and Cultural Critique in Antelope Valley," M.A. Thesis

    Film, documentary multimedia, Internet and web production:

  • Synapse Columbus project & Computer Curriculum Corp.

  • Cyborganic, Netscape, Disney/ABC Cable Networks

    Teaching film production, written, oral, and graphic communication:

  • Assistant Lecturer, Freshman Writing, U.S.C.

  • Lecturer, Cinema Dept., San Francisco State

  • Lecturer, Information & Computer Science, U.C. Irvine

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Representation is a rhetorical act

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Rhetorical in a classical sense

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Rhetoricalin a modernist sense

  • It’s never just a pipe.

  • The images you make are not prima facie evidence. Even the most straight forward illustration involves interpretation and construction.

Although we often hear that data speak for themselves, their voices can be soft and sly.

— Frederick Mosteller, Stephen E. Fienberg, and Robert E.K. Rourke,

Beginning Statistics with Data Analysis, 1983, p. 234.

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Rhetorical in a postmodernist sense

Viewers make meaning

  • Reception, cultural construction

    The treason of images

  • A picture may be worth ten thousand words, but…

    • You, the producer, don’t get to choose any of those words

    • They may not even be in your language


  • All acts of representation are partial, situated, interested, and occasioned

    • Creating, using, and reading visuals in social science requires attention to these contexts

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Two parables, an aphorism, and three aspects

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Cocktail Party Effect

  • The ability in perception to select one desired sound from a background of ambient noise. E.g., at a party, where many voices speak simultaneously, we can 'focus' our ears on one conversation and ‘filter out’ voices and sounds which are equally strong.

  • A microphone cannot ‘filter’ noise from signal thus and, placed at the party, records a babble of sounds.

  • Perception is interpretation.

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“You’ve got to have a reason”

“Rule 1: Never make a cut without a positive reason.”

— Edward Dmytryk, On Film Editing

  • Apply Dmytryk’s aphorism to every :

    • Cut

    • Frame

    • Shot

    • Choice of media (film stock, video, etc.)

  • Contrast with:

    • Laying down music and cutting to the beat.

    • Deciding you must cut to a new image every x seconds

    • Shooting footage without a clear purpose, shooting everything in master shots, just “getting coverage.”

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Intersecting Aspects

  • Technical

    • Subject is in frame, in focus, and well illuminated

    • Camera, sound, and editing as crafts that support narrative and aesthetic aspects.

  • Narrative

    • Film time is not clock time. It is story time, time is condensed, expanded, elided.

    • Narrative time is configured. Time governed by plot.

    • Plot: drawing a “sense of whole” out of a chronology

    • Characters: agents who both act and suffer

    • Classic Three act structure: beginning, middle, and end

  • Aesthetic

    • Technical craftsmanship does not detract from message.

    • Form and content work together

    • Be especially aware and reflexive of the aesthetic to which you appeal.

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Tufte: Scientific principles of Information design

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Edward Tufte

  • Professor emeritus of statistics, graphic design, and political economy at Yale University

  • Expert in informational design & graphics





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Information Graphics Greatest Hits

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Tufte: clear and precise seeing, thinking, saying

“if displays of data are to be truthful and revealing, then the logic of the display design must reflect the logic of analysis.

Visual representations of evidence should be governed by principles of reasoning about quantitative evidence. For information displays, design reasoning must correspond to scientific reasoning. Clear and precise seeing becomes as one with clear and precise thinking.

— Edward Tufte, Visual Explanations, 1997, p. 53.

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Tufte: Scientific Principles

Displays should be documentary, comparative, causal and explanatory, quantified, multivariate, exploratory.

  • Document sources and characteristics of the data.

  • Insistently enforce appropriate comparisons.

  • Demonstrate mechanisms of cause and effect.

  • Express those mechanisms quantitatively.

  • Recognize the inherently multivariate nature of analytic problems.

  • Inspect and evaluate alternative explanations.

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Documentary & Visual Anthropology

The documentary tradition

Ethnographic film

Image ethics and epistemologies

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The documentary tradition

  • Some of the first films were ethnographic (1890s-1930s)

  • City symphony films (early 20th century)

  • Portable Sync Sound 16mm (1960s), technology gets smaller, more automatic

  • Cinéma verité, direct cinema

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Ethnographic film

  • Positivism & scientific films

  • Observational cinema

  • Anthropology’s Crisis of Representation

  • Reflexivity, beyond observational cinema

  • Ethics

    • Rights of the subject

    • Questions of audience, royalties, etc.

  • Politics and epistemologies of representation

    • The New Ethnography and “New Wave” in Ethnographic film.

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New Ethnography

  • Dialogism, dialogic relationship between ethnographer and informant(s)

  • Ethnographies of the particular (present ethnographer and subjects as specific individuals in specific social contexts

  • Reflexivity

  • Subjects speak for themselves

  • Conscious focus on narrative structure (e.g. Geertz’s “fictions”, anthropological representations are made not found)

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Putting it all into practice

“Home Economics”

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Home Economicsas response to “Crisis of Representation”

  • Choice of subject

    • the domestic and everyday, rather than the exotic other.

  • Subjects addressed, not described

    • No voiceover narration, no explanatory titles

    • Filmmaker’s questions included

    • Real time takes, no “cut away” shots in interviews, whole replies included, not sound bites

  • Authorship acknowledged

    • Reflexivity (inclusion of filmmaker in the frame)

      • “Slow down I want to get the billboards”

    • Clear narrative arc (constructed nature of representation)

    • Montage (portraits and landscapes)

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Home EconomicsPicture/Camera

  • Filmmaker in the frame, but off to the side, not at the center

  • Framing of whole bodies in the environment

  • Set camera up, off to the side, so anthropologist and informant can talk face to face.

    • Keep the equipment in the background

    • Create casual atmosphere, kitchen conversations

  • Juxtaposition of interview (portraits) and montage of the build environment (landscapes)

  • Hand-held shots of home interiors, emphasize domestic, everyday life.

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Home EconomicsSound

  • Inclusion of long takes presents subjects as “expert witnesses”

  • Music played in model home sequences is the actual music played in the models.

    • “Hard” cuts on audio in these shots.

  • Music played in scene of low-income housing was actual sound from the footage.

    • “Hard” cuts on audio in these shots.

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Home Economicsethics & politics of representation

  • Key informants saw final cut of film before they were asked to sign release forms

    • Goes against what they teach at the Cinema School. It’s risky and can backfire, but also builds trust.

  • Permission to film models and construction site came from the housing developer

    • Workers not asked to sign a release

  • “Guerrilla filmmaking”

    • Billboards shot without permissions

    • Low income housing in long shot, reflects social distance between filmmaker and these subjects

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Home Economicsas a work in the Anthropological Tradition

  • Examines the ideals and norms of homeownership

  • Explores specific cultural meanings of home

    • “What the native thinks he’s up to” (Geertz)

  • Seeks to show the logic and validity of a particular way of life

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Home Economicsas Cultural Critique

  • Homeownership in contemporary American society is often achieved at the expense of the very values a home is said to represent.

    • Informants as expert witnesses who testimony show both the values and meanings of homeownership and the ways those values are undermined by commuting, work, and other structural forces of the society.

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Applied (in some way)

Know your subjects

Reflexivity (backgrounded)

Shoot whole events

Support film with documentation

Seek feedback from subjects

Seek feedback from sample audiences

Distribute film properly

Publish guide/monograph to distribute with film

Not Applied

Reflexivity (foregrounded)

Make an uncut version for scholarly research

Make royalty agreement with people filmed

Shoot whole events (focus was on discourse, not events)

On-going commitment to indigenous population

Home EconomicsAsch’s Ethics of Ethnographic Filmmaking

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Documentary Motion Pictures

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  • Crew or one-man band?

  • Practice. Video tape is cheap.

  • Choose a cinematic subject

  • Audience, genre, format, medium

    • The more you know about the final destination, the better you can shoot for it.

  • Camera (and other equipment) size and “footprint” in relation to filmed event and logistics “in the field,” or “on location.”

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  • Focus, exposure, and composition

    • These all need to be intuitive

    • Auto-focus: “set and hold”

    • Play with focus, exposure, composition.

    • Fold out LCD screens are great for composition, but no use for exposure or focus.

    • Frame your subject tightly enough so it’s clear where the viewer should look. Crop out moise.

  • Use a tripod whenever possible

    • Camera movement can be hard to intercut.

    • Other benefits? (Face to face communication)

    • If shooting handheld, bone-to-bone contact or shoulder brace?

  • Good sound (professional mic)

  • Always shoot for real.

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  • Let takes run long, heads and tails

  • Log and label all footage on the spot

  • Let moving objects exit frame before you cut

  • Practice as though tape were cheap, shoot as if it were very expensive.

  • “Hang around and shoot a lot of film.”

    • Invisibility via ubiquitous presence (of camera)

    • Don’t try to sneak shots!

    • Do put tape over red “camera rolling” lights

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  • Creating film time and space

  • What one thing are you trying to say?

    • Images denser and more concrete than text.

  • Story and character

  • Build your story in sound and image (rather than voiceover and inter-titles).

    • The clearer your aims in shooting, the easier this is to do in the editing room.

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America by Numbers

Garage Photos

Associate Professor, Studio Art, U.C. Irvine

Miles Coolidge

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Michael Wesch

  • YouTube video by Anthropology Professor


  • Wired Rave Award


  • Entirely word-driven

  • Cut to music