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 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
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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

5.12.1 Introduction
5.12.2 Types of image analysis Images in themselves Images in their social context Images as documentary evidence in social research

5.12.3 Sources of images and their uses
5.12.4 Ethnographic type analysis of images Context and interpretation Acquiring and selecting ethnographic images Photography as reality?

5.12.5 Semiotic analysis of images
5.12.6 Reconstructing iconological meaning
5.12.7 Visual ideology


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'. Aesthetics recognises a distinction between form and content. 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 Types of image analysis

Section 5.2 outlined various purposes of document analysis in general and the following sections focuses on how visual images are analysed. The following sections are about the analysis of the image as evidence rather than, in the case of video, analysis of the verbal content of a video interview. It is the image (not any words or story) that is the focus of attention.

Analysis of the video verbal content would be covered by the analysis of in-depth interviews (Section 4).

Analysis of images faces the same issues of trustworthiness and representativeness of the evidence and interpretation and reflexivity of the researcher as any other data analysis. As with any other document, external evaluation of the credibility of the source is an important first step (Section 5.3)

Top 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)

Top 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 (apart from Marxist 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.

Art history, in the second decade of the 21st Century tends to favour an approach that goes beyond strict aesthetics and delves into what the artist intended, while lossely situating it in the broad historical context. This psychologistic art history, trying to read the artists intention is exemplified in Andrew Graham-Dixon's Art of Germany, a three-part documentary television series, first shown on BBC4, 29 November 2010 to 13 December 2010.

For example reviewing Caspar David Friedrich's iconic landscape, 'The wanderer above a sea of mist' (Figure 1), painted in 1817–18, Graham-Dixon calls it the 'the defining image of Germany in the Romantic age'; he asks:

but what does it represent? …Could it be a rallying cry for insipient German nationalism? Is it a great celebration of the purification of the German land, their emptying out of foreign threat and hostility? [Following the Napoleonic Wars] On the other hand, it could be another expression of the German Romantics' spirit of nature worship…or could [the wanderer]… be in the throes of deep spiritual religious experience? Or could it be the opposite? Is it an image of alienation?

Figure 1: Friedrich: The Wanderer

Top 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 (sometimes referred to as visual sociology). However, there are examples of image analysis in social science (early work primarily in anthropology) and these are discussed below.

Images as evidence face the same epsitemological issues that confront other forms of social eveidence. An essentially positivist view is that they should be neutral documentation of three-diemnsional reality rendered in a two dimensional form. A phenonemological perspective suggests that the images are vehicles for exploring meanings. A critical social research approach regards images as evidence that needs to be historically located and which aid the ideological deconstruction and reconstruction of 'reality'.

The debate about whether photographs reflect reality is a recurring theme throughout Section 5.12.


5.12.3 Sources of images and their uses

Images may be pre-existing, such as art collections, photo-library archives, photographic collections, film libraries and so on. These can be used as documentary evidence in similar fashion to the use of secondary written sources.

Alternatively, they may be newly created works by the researcher (or the research subjects) and as such are similar to primary written sources. Newly created images either by the researcher or by the research subjects might include placing cameras in places where one would not put a researcher: where it is dangerous, or where a person would be unwelcome, or simply to remove the observer effect from particular situations, for example, studying social behaviour among school children on a playground. (This is not dissimilar to the use of camera traps in wild life documentaries.) Visual recording technology also makes it possible to slow down or speed up scenes, to repeat or zoom in on detail. It allows the researcher to study infrequent events without having to wait around for hours, or to see different angles of the same event, through multiple cameras.

Another primary image source is to provide the research subjects with cameras who are then responsible for making photos or movies within parameters determined by the researcher, which are subsequently analysed either by the researchers or the participants, or both (this is sometimes referred to as photo voice). For example, in the 1960s, Sol Worth and John Adair (1972), asked six Navajo men and women to make their own films about their lives, which resulted in a view very different from that made by anthropologists (El Guindi, 2000, p. 479).

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. Indeed, the array of images on social media platforms is vast and instead of observations of the world through the eyes of a single observer, this enormous repository constitutes second-hand observation of the world through the eys of innumerable observers—observers who have recorded and considered the footage worth keeping and making public.

There is one other use of images in social enquiry and that is the use of images to prompt responses (similar to probe questions in in-depth interviewing). As such the image is not the object of the research but the tool to generate a reaction; and the reaction is the object of the research. However, this photo interview technique is still rarely used in social research. It sometimes referred to as photo elicitation, first described as a method by John Collier (1957, 1967) although it had been used informally in social research prior to that. Photographs or film are an intrinsic part of the interview in which subjects are askd to to discuss the meaning of the images. The images may have been created specially by the researcher with the idea of using them to elicit information; they may belong to the subject, for example family photographs, or they may be derivd from secondary sources. The interviewee's comments or analysis of the images is usually video (or audio) recorded.


Next 5.12.4 Ethnographic type analysis of images