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 10 June, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


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 Aesthetics, art criticism, art history

5.12.1 Introduction

This section deals with the analysis of visual representations, rather than words. It explores how images are used and analysed as data in social research. There is also an overlap with the analysis of the image as a created product in its own right – a work of art. Works of art are social constructions that in themselves are the subject of critical analysis as well as 'evidence' in social research. In a similar way to the exploration of discourse, in which some approaches explore the content of the discourse (and in critical approaches situate it socially and historically) while others, notably conversation analysis, examine in detail the structure of the conversation itself, so the analysis of images explores not just what the content of the image conveys about a situation but also, mainly through versions of aesthetic theory, analyses the construction of the image itself.

Aesthetics is the study of visual appearance. It considers the way an art work is executed, its subject matter, composition and form, as well as the intention of the artist, the symbolism encapsulated in the work and, in critical forms of aesthetic analysis, when it was created and how it relates to the social and political of the time. Some approaches to aesthetics compare art works to idealised forms of  'beauty' and 'balanced composition'. Aesthetic theory is the basis of art criticism.

As such, aesthetics is not a research method or approach but the basis for making judgements about the merit, impact and value of works of art.

5.12.2 Analysing images

Section 5.2 outlined various purposes of document analysis in general and the following focuses on how visual images are analysed. Images in themselves
Images, including photographs, paintings, video (cinematic depiction rather than story) or any other cultural object, can be analysed as items in themselves. (Note that images or works of art are also encompassed by some uses of the word 'document' or 'text' ). That means that the images are analysed for their composition, their execution, their impact as works of art in their own right (using aesthetic theory)  and as such are the focus of conventional art criticism. Such art criticism usually also considers the dominant artistic theories and the extent to which the art work represents or challenges dominant approaches. For example, early Impressionist painting is normally analysed as a challenge to the highly-finished, studio-produced and classically composed salon art of the 19th century. Before analysing images it would be worth doing an external check to establish the nature of the document (see Section 5.3) Images in their social context
Some analysis of images also takes into account their social context: the historical, political, economic and scientific context in which the image was produced. This wider context extends conventional art criticism beyond concerns with form and stylisation. It takes the art work out of the realm of aesthetics and art history (a historical analysis that looks mainly at the evolution of style) and raises questions about how these wider social factors impinged on the production of the art work and vice versa. Images as documentary evidence in social research
Social, political, business and health researchers of all kinds have tended to use observation of people, speech (conversations, interviews, oral testimonies) or written documents (questionnaire forms, statistical data, secondary written sources). Few researchers have made use of visual images as social research evidence. Image analysis has been undertaken in the past and this is explored below. With the ubiquity of recording devices and the ease of making images, for example, photographs and videos on smart phones that large proportions of the population carry on a daily basis, the potential for images to provide evidence for social research has increased enormously.






Next 6.1 Introduction to discourse analysis