Visual Techniques Applied in Social Research

by Florentina Scarneci-Domnisoru (Volume editor)
©2020 Edited Collection 388 Pages


The book addresses current methodological issues related to the use of visual data in research and to the relevance of the visual techniques for enhancing social knowledge. It illustrates the variety of social topics that can be visually dealt with. The themes that are covered in the book are not only methodological, but also refer to worthy aspects related to community change, identity, perceptions and representations, and emotions. As it is a book on the use of the visual in research, each of the ideas and each of the results presented here is exemplified in images. This makes the volume very easy to follow and understand. It provides useful examples to those who want to use visual techniques in their social research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • About the editor
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I The relevance of visual data in social research
  • II Studying social change through the re-photography technique in a rural Romanian community
  • III Are the volunteers different from non-volunteers? A comparative analysis based on visual data (drawings)
  • IV A visual perspective on adolescent identity
  • V Using the drawing to identify post-retirement identity transformations
  • VI God, as the children of Romania draw It
  • VII Exploring social workers’ perceptions of their marital partners in different family life stages, using visual methodology
  • VIII Studying students’ moral emotions by visual techniques
  • IX Concluding notes: Applications and developments in visual techniques
  • List of Figures
  • List of Tables

Florentina Scârneci-Domnişoru


This book is the result of a project by which I intended to bring visual data within the social research in Romania and to illustrate the relevance of this type of data in the process of scientific knowledge production. In brief, this is the context which led to the materialization of this volume.

At the end of 2016, I published the first book in Romanian that referred to visual data and the ways of collecting, processing, analyzing, and interpreting them. I have expressed then my surprise and regret that, although elsewhere the visual data are increasingly present in social research, in our country they are almost completely ignored.

In 2017, ‘Transilvania’ University of Braşov launched the first grant competition for young researchers to encourage the formation of research teams. That was the moment when the idea of promoting visual research among my colleagues crossed my mind. I planned to make a team, train it, and prepare its members to be independent in conducting research with visual components. Thus, I hoped that, by their help, I could spread knowledge related to the use of images in research and to the idea of using visual data in different projects and studies about the Romanian society. And by this book, I would like to show the conclusions I came to with reference to the advantages and disadvantages of using visual data in social studies and in relation to the significance of visual data in the context of social research.

So I teamed up with seven of my colleagues, all having earned the title of doctor in sociology and holding the position of lecturers or associate professors at the Faculty of Sociology and Communication at the above-mentioned university. I wrote the financing application that was approved (so the book was written and published with financial support from ‘Transilvania’ University of Braşov by the research grant for young researchers No. 8037 from 14.07.2017). This book is the result of the work of each member of the team. I will come to what it contains and to the presentation of the team after I briefly present what we originally intended with this project and what we have achieved.

Therefore, by the project ‘Applying Visual Techniques in Social Research’ I intended to change the fact that the visual is almost inexistent in the studies in Romania and I tried to align the social research from here to the latest methodological developments in the field. I claimed that introducing the visual research ←7 | 8→techniques in our country would enrich the arsenal of social scientists in Romania, and by the results obtained after their application, it would contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the field. The main argument that I offered in support of these claims was that visual data (photography, drawing, or film) are, in many respects, superior to other types of data gathered in the research. For example, they can reveal surprising details and elements that take place too fast to be noticed, they present the reality in a holistic way and they are less selective than the observations, they facilitate the elimination of cultural and linguistic barriers between the researcher and those that are studied, they are more accessible than the academic speeches, they are memorable, they capture the ineffable, they facilitate empathic understanding, and they are evocative (these are only some of the characteristics used in the literature to describe the images). Moreover, visual data are quite easy to collect, and they offer the diversity of data gathered in the research ensuring an important type of triangulation; they represent a fascinating way of collecting data for the researcher and a welcoming attempt of involving the participants more easily in research. In addition, images facilitate the collection of verbal data by interviewing, and the use of visual data in the presentation of the research results makes them be spectacular, exciting, and easy to understand.

Photos have long been used by social scientists all over the world, for example, in researching social and economic inequality, social change, perceptions, studying family history, or some biographical themes, etc. Drawings are frequently used in studies which refer to the description of different experiences the subjects are experiencing (e.g., divorce, emigration, hospitalization, dismissal, incarceration, change of leadership in an organization, etc.), in studies that address sensitive topics (e.g. understanding the disease, description of pain, knowledge about HIV/AIDS), etc. Films are similarly used in ethnographic, ethno-methodological, and cultural studies, in market studies, in the study of poverty, drug use, professional interactions, etc.

The specialty literature suggests the great potential of visual data in as far as the advancement of social knowledge is concerned, and this has made me believe that the future of this knowledge will be tightly connected to the use of visual data in research. That is why, I have proposed by this project to add the visual techniques in the methodological ‘kit’ of the social scientists in Braşov and to spread their use in the Romanian social studies. And by this book, I try to popularize our attempts to bring Romania’s visual studies to the attention of the international public, to propose novel methodological discussions on the use of visual data in social research, and to highlight the multitude and variety of research contexts where the visual can be applied.

←8 |

Thus, the main objective of the project was the use of visual techniques in various social research situations. I have proposed applying new techniques, novel for Romania, with a view to show their potential and to encourage Romanian researchers to use them. After applying the visual techniques, the project aimed at analyzing the relevance of these techniques for enhancing social knowledge. We wanted to demonstrate, by comparison to the classical techniques used in social research, what kind of information generates the application of visual techniques, how this information differs from that collected by other means, in what research situations the visual techniques are better suited, and if they bring about, by their application, a significant contribution to the comprehension of the phenomena under study.

If the first objective was a new one at the national level, the second aimed at enriching international knowledge. Thus, although in the specialty Western literature there are numerous examples of social research cases where visual data were used, there are very few studies in which the results obtained after the application of the visual techniques are compared with the results obtained from the application of classical techniques in identical or similar research situations.

In order to accomplish these goals, I formed a team where each member was responsible for applying one or more visual techniques in their own research projects. Most team members applied these new techniques in their field of interest and expertise, in projects they had previously worked on with techniques other than the visual ones. Firstly, my colleagues became acquainted with the new techniques, then, they applied them for the first time in their research and, in the end, they compared the newly obtained results to previous results from identical or similar studies in which they applied classical research techniques.

Each team member had their own research objective so that a spectacular variety of situations where we applied visual techniques resulted. Therefore, we have set as objectives: to capture community dynamics in Drăguş village, to identify the specific characteristics of volunteers in the social field, to find out what the defining aspects of adolescents’ identity are, to discover how elderly people’s identity changes after retirement, to identify the way in which preschoolers and early schoolers represent divinity, to discover the manner in which the partner is perceived at different stages of the family life cycle by social workers, and to find out in what contexts bound to school activities students experiment moral emotions – shame, embarrassment, and guilt. None of these objectives has ever been addressed from a visual perspective, either in Romania or abroad (it is only the one referring to adolescent identity that might have approximate correspondence in the specialty international literature).

←9 |

From a methodological point of view, the plan was that each member of the team should choose (depending on the research objectives, participants’ availability, ethical, deontological limitations, etc.) and should apply one or more of the existing visual methods and techniques of data collection. For example, to capture in images the studied ‘object’ – namely, to take photos, to film or, in the impossibility of using the cameras, to draw what they see; to collect already available or provoked visual documents; to perform visual elicitation interviews, etc.

Then, each member of the team had to process and analyze the collected data, for example, by classification (using a priori or emergent categories), by quantification, counting, etc. The processing and analysis operations of the images referred to the content of the images and to the interpretations given by the participants, without the researchers attributing meaning to some of the components of the visual representations (as psychologists usually do). For example, a drawn hollow was nothing else than a hollow or the place where the subject would hide from his/her parents (as he/she confessed in the interview), not a childhood trauma as a psychologist would interpret it. We were interested in the perspective of those under study, in the interpretations that they gave to the elements in the images; we processed and analyzed the aspects obvious to the researcher or the aspects revealed by the subjects in the interviews about images, not the unconscious aspects revealed by any psychoanalysis.

And in interpreting data, each member of the team had to show how they applied, verified, completed, modified, or grounded theories in their own visual study.

The plan, precisely accomplished, was the following: for each stage of the research I organized training meetings with the team members; there were seven school meetings that also referred to the analysis of the visual data by means of NVivo 10 software, to the use of images in presenting the results of the research, and to the observance of ethical and deontological rules specific to image research. After each training session, each member of the team put into practice, in their own research project, what they learnt – they collected visual data, analyzed them, and interpreted them under my direct supervision. The last session was a workshop when we analyzed the relevance of visual data for each piece of research (by comparison to the results obtained in previous similar studies where other types of data were collected by using techniques other than the visual ones). The end of the project was dedicated to writing a chapter in a collective volume by each member of the team. This book includes, besides the introductory chapter, a methodological one written by me where the relevance of visual data in social research is analyzed and seven chapters, one written by each member of the team, describing the studies where they applied the visual techniques.

←10 |

Subsequently, I present each chapter of the book and each of their authors. I will mention what each chapter deals with (the objectives of the study, the methodology, what it brings new, and the conclusions of the research) and what is the previous expertise of the authors in the topic under research.

The first chapter, the one about the relevance of visual data in social research, is written by me. I am an associate professor, and I have been teaching for 15 years courses on qualitative research methods and techniques. Lately, my interests have also focused on qualitative visual data. Consequently, I also teach a course on Visual Sociology in Communication and Public Relations Program, and I am preparing one course on Techniques for Image Analysis and Interpretation for the Digital Media Program. As I have stated at the beginning of this introduction, in 2016, I wrote the first book in Romania on visual research: Visual Data in Social Research published by Cluj University Press Publishing House. I also published in internationally recognized journals – an article on the visual representation of the social structure in Romania and a visual essay by which I tried to describe in images what it means to live with an incurable disease. In the first study, the participants were asked to draw the representatives of the social classes (‘Acceptable and Unacceptable Sources of Inequality in Romania, A Visual Study,’ published in TRAMES - A Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, vol. 19, no. 4, 2015), and, in the second study the participants were asked to take photos of aspects of their everyday lives (‘Photovoice: Adult Patients of Hospice Braşov (Romania) on What it Means to Live with Cancer’, published in Visual Communication, vol. 16, No. 2, 2017). I also participated in international conferences organized in Romania and Canada where I presented the results obtained in the studies where I collected, analyzed and interpreted visual data.

I showed in the first chapter – ‘The relevance of visual data in social research’ why visual data are valuable in research. I tried to prove that they are not less important than the textual or numerical data, that sometimes they are even indispensable in social research, that they have amazing features that in many situations make them superior to other types of data; that they offer various and less complicated ways of collecting them by applying innovative, creative data collection techniques, that they can be subject to the same processing, analysis and interpretation methods and techniques that are used for textual data without the necessity of adapting or inventing new ones; that visual data can be used not only in descriptive studies but also in explicative ones either for testing hypotheses or for generating hypotheses (or even theories); that they make the presentation of research results more accessible, easier to understand, and that they allow access not only to scientific knowledge but also to other types of knowledge. I tried not to overlook the difficulties inherent in the use of visual data in research, and each ←11 | 12→of the advantages and disadvantages presented was exemplified with images or descriptions of real visual research situations (most of the examples come from the very studies presented in the other chapters of this book).

The second chapter, the one about the study of change in a rural community in Romania, is written by Codrina Csesznek. Codrina has been an associate professor since 2008; she is interested in studying (local and ethnic) communities and their community development mechanisms. She teaches courses on the Sociology of Community Development, Community Development Strategies, and Sociology of Interethnic Relations. She defended her PhD thesis entitled ‘Social Networks of Local Elite in Harghita and Covasna Counties’ in 2006 at Bucharest University, and she defines herself as a qualitative sociologist. She had her book Ethnic Communities and Local Elites published in 2007 at ‘Transylvania’ University Publishing House in Braşov and two illustrated volumes related to the rural community that became the subject of study for this book, too: ‘Drăguş. Images of a Romanian Village’ at C2 Design Publishing House in Braşov and ‘Studies and Confessions about Contemporary Drăguş’ at Cluj University Press Publishing House. Equally, in the book Italy-Romania. L’esperienza completa della migrazione, published in 2014 in Italy at Kurumuny Publishing House, Codrina presented the results of studying the return migration phenomenon to Drăguş community. She had articles published on the civic engagement in local communities, on the role of the ethnic economy in local development, on the assessment of needs in these communities, on the experiences of foreign tourists in Transylvania’s rural area and others. Similarly, Codrina also participated in several international conferences in Italy and Romania where she talked about rural communities and social change.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2020 (January)
visual sociology visual data drawings photographies visual research
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2020. 388 pp., 202 fig. b/w, 16 tables.

Biographical notes

Florentina Scarneci-Domnisoru (Volume editor)

Florentina Scârneci-Domnişoru is an associate professor at ‘Transilvania‘ University of Brasov, Romania, in the Social Sciences and Communication Department and has a PhD in sociology. Her research and teaching focus on qualitative methods, identity and visual sociology.


Title: Visual Techniques Applied in Social Research
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