We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Otherwise, we'll assume you're OK to continue.

Durham University

Department of Geography

Departmental Research Projects

Publication details

book coverCrang, M. Visual Methods and Methodologies. In: Delyser, D., Herbert, S., Aitken, S., Crang, M. & McDowell L. The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. London Sage; 2010:208-225.

Author(s) from Durham


In this chapter my aim is to suggest that an engagement with visuality is worthwhile, may be even necessary, for qualitative methods in geography. In doing this I want to push the case for these methods when despite sometimes warm words there are relatively few examples of their use. Indeed if one were to look at the methods in qualitative textbooks in geography, then the overwhelming dominance is of linguistic sources – be they written and/or spoken. I will focus upon methods connected to the production of what we might call visual ethnographies. In doing this I want to highlight not a set of techniques, as though they were some items on an a la carte menu, but also paradoxes in the ways visual material is treated in geographical work. That is I want to highlight an ambivalence around visuality and its treatment in geography, and point to some theoretical critiques and slippages. I shall throughout this chapter be trying to position the visual as being used for more than just creating ‘data’ to be brought into accounts. Rather I am trying to suggest it may figure more prominently in finalised versions and as outputs. In this I must confess my complicity as a long time cheerleader for visual research and new forms of visuality without really developing those forms. I shall effectively focus upon photographic and video work. This is not to deny the good work done in terms of other visual methods – such as respondent drawings and maps (see for example Young and Barrett 2001). Partly my aim is to focus on visual media at a time when they are proliferating in society, and thus may form either (and I would argue both) a topic for study and a means for studies. It is also a time when visual ways of knowing have come under intense and refined critique within the discipline.

My starting point is a sense that ‘visual methods’ may almost have been killed off before they were born in qualitative geography by powerful arguments about the problematic elements of visual knowledge – and in geography especially. A variety of visual methods, and especially the long reliance on modes of observational practice in landscape work and visual tropes for truth and knowledge across the discipline, have been criticised for assumptions of detachment and objectivity of knower leading to objectification of the known. Recently the issue of representational knowledge has been challenged tout court – and the visual seems perhaps inescapably bound to the representational. It has become common to hear the refrain that geography is a ‘visual discipline’ – and that this in some sense is a problem or limitation. But often ‘those asserting the occularcentrism of geography, do so only as a prelude to other sensory articulations of knowledge’ (Rose 2003, page 212) to produce what might be claimed as a more rounded version of the discipline. Just as classical anthropology positioned textual approaches against embodied experience (Csordas 1993), so in geography the visual is said to have been opposed to the embodied. Vision is positioned as the problem both in how geographers know and a powerful locus of practice within the discipline. There is much to gain from taking this line of argument seriously and I will work with and through some of these problematics below. And yet, as I browse through geographical journals, I am not exactly overwhelmed by the deployment of visual media. My contention is that we have allowed one sense of visuality, with a troubling past, to rather dominate our critical understanding of what visual methods might comprise or what they might do.

This chapter will begin with a review of some of the classic heritages of visual knowledge in geography, and their politics and legacies. It will develop an account of some of the deployments of visual methods, and different modes of visuality therein. The chapter will examine visual ethnographies that seek to offer an engaged, participatory form of seeing and set it against a more ironic and perhaps even alienated, critical forms of seeing. It will conclude by trying to refigure how we think of seeing as representing rather than a medium of connecting and making present. It will thus ask about the how we might show what is not seen, when it cannot be pictured and how we might think about vision not as the antithesis of touch but through a haptic register.


Atherton, M. 1997 'How to Write the History of Vision: Understanding the Relationship between Berkeley and Descartes', in D. Levin (ed) Sites of Vision: The Discursive Construction of Sight in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Aufderheider, P. 1993 'Latin American Grassroots Video: Beyond television', Public Culture 5: 579-92.
Barndt, D. 2002 Tangled Routes: Women, Work and Globalization on the Tomato Trail, Lanham, MD.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Bate, D. 1992 'The Occidental Tourist: photography and colonizing vision', AfterImage 20(1): 11-3.
Becker, K. 2000 'Picturing a Field: Relationships Between Visual Culture and Photographic Practice in a Fieldwork Setting', in P. Anttonen (ed) Folklore, Heritage Politics and Ethnic Diversity, Stockholm, Sweden: Botkyrka Multicultural Centre.
Bennett, T. 1988 'The Exhibitionary Complex', New Formations 4: 73-102.
Besio, K. 2007 'Depth of fields: travel photography and spatializing modernities in northern Pakistan', Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 25(1): 53 - 74
Biemann, U. 2002a 'Remotely Sensed: a topography of the global sex trade', Feminist Review 70: 75-88.
— 2002b 'Touring, Routing and Trafficking Female Geobodies: A Video Essay on the Topography of the Global Sex Trade', Thamyris 9: 71–86.
Biernoff, S. 2005 'Carnal Relations: Embodied Sight in Merleau-Ponty, Roger Bacon and St Francis', Journal of Visual Culture 4(1): 39-52.
Bourdieu, P. 1990 Photography: A Middlebrow Art, London: Polity Press.
Burns, P. M. 2004 'Six postcards from Arabia: A visual discourse of colonial travels in the Orient', Tourist Studies 4(3): 255–275.
Cappello, M. 2005 'Photo Interviews: Eliciting Data through Conversations with Children', Field Methods 17(2): 170-182.
Çelik, Z. 2004 'Framing the colony: Houses of Algeria photographed', Art History 27(4): 616-626.
Çelik, Z. and Kinney, L. 1990 'Ethnography and Exhibitionism at the Expositions Universelle', Assemblage 13: 34-59.
Crary, J. 1990 Techniques of the Observer, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Csordas, T. J. 1993 'Somatic Modes of Attention', Cultural Anthropology 8(2): 135-156.
Desmond, J. 1999 'Picturing Hawai'i: The "Ideal" Native and the Origins of Tourism, 1880-1915', positions: east asia cultures critique 7(2): 459-501.
Dodman, D. R. 2003 'Shooting in the city: an autophotographic exploration of the urban environment in Kingston, Jamaica', Area 35(3): 293–304.
Edwards, E. 1996 'Postcards -- Greetings from another world', in T. Selwyn (ed) The Tourist Image: myths and myth-making in tourism, London: John Wiley & sons.
Foster, H. (ed) 1988 Vision and Visuality, Seattle: Bay Press.
Gómez, R. 2003 'Magic Roots: Children Explore Participatory Video', in S. White (ed) Participatory Video: Images That Transform and Empower, London: Sage.
Gregory, D. 2003 'Emperors of the Gaze: Photographic Practices and Productions of Space in Egypt, 1839-1914', in J. Ryan and J. Schwartz (eds) Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, London: I.B.Tauris.
Guba, E. and Lincoln, Y. 2005 'Paradigmatic Controversies, Contradictions and Emerging Confluences', in N. Denzin and Y. Loncoln (eds) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research, 3rd Edition, London: Sage.
Harper, D. 2002 'Talking about Pictures: a case for photo elicitation', Visual Studies 17(1): 13-26.
— 2003 'Framing photographic ethnography: A case study', Ethnography 4(2): 241-66.
Hetherington, K. 2003 'Spatial textures: place, touch, and praesentia', Environment & Planning A. 35(11): 1933-1944.
Holliday, R. 2000 'We've been framed: visualising methodology', Sociological Review 48(4): 503-22.
Jay, M. 1993 With Downcast Eyes: The denigration of vision in twentieth century French thought, Berkeley, CA: California University Press.
Jenkins, O. 2003 'Photography and Travel Brochures: the circle of representation', Tourism Geographies 5(3): 305-28.
Jenks, C. 1995 'The Centrality of the Eye in Western Culture', in C. Jenks (ed) Visual Culture, London: Routledge.
Kamberelis, G. 2003 'Ingestion, Elimination, Sex, and Song: Trickster as Premodern Avatar of Postmodern Research Practice', Qualitative Inquiry 9(5): 673-704.
Kearnes, M. 2000 'Seeing is Believing is Knowing: Towards a Critique of Pure Vision', Australian Geographical Studies 38(3): 332–340.
Kindon, S. 2003 'Participatory video in geographic research: a feminist practice of looking?' Area 35(2): 142-153.
Levin, D. 1997 'Keeping Foucault and Derrida in Sight: Panopticism and the Politics of Subversion', in D. Levin (ed) Sites of Vision: The Discursive Construction of Sight in the History of Philosophy, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Liggett, H. 2003 Urban Encounters, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lippard, L. 1999 On the Beaten Track: tourism, art and place, New York: The New Press.
Lomax, H. and Casey, N. 1998 'Recording Social Life: Reflexivity and Video Methodology', Sociological Research Online 3(2).
Markwell, K. 2000a 'Photo-Documentation and Analyses as Research Strategies in Human Geography', Australian Geographical Studies 38(1): 91-98.
— 2000b 'Seeing is Believing is Knowing: Towards a Critique of Pure Vision: a Rejoinder', Australian Geographical Studies 38(3): 341–343.
Markwick, M. 2001 'Postcards from Malta - Image, consumption, context', Annals of Tourism Research 28(2): 417-438.
Matless, D. 1992 'Regional Surveys and Local Knowledges: The Geographical Imagination in Britain, 1918-39', Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 17(4): 464-480.
McIntyre, A. 2003 'Through the Eyes of Women: photovoice and particpatory research as tools for reimagining place', Gender, Place & Culture 10(1): 47-66.
Pink, S. 2001 'More Visualising, more methodologies: on video, reflexivity and qualitative research', Sociological Review 49: 586-99.
Prochaska, D. 2000 'Exhibiting the Museum', Journal of Historical Sociology 13(4): 391-438.
Rogoff, I. 2000 Terra Infirma: geography's visual culture, London: Routledge.
Rony, F. T. 2003 'The Quick and the Dead: Surrealism and the Found Ethnographic Footage Films of Bontoc Eulogy and Mother Dao: The Turtlelike', Camera Obscura 18(1): 128-55.
Rose, G. 2003 'On the Need to Ask How, Exactly, Is Geography "Visual"?' Antipode 35(2): 212-21.
Russell, C. 1999 Experimental Ethnography: the Work of Film in the Age of Video, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Said, E. W. 1978 Orientalism, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Said, E. W. and Mohr, J. 1986 After the last sky : Palestinian lives, London: Faber and Faber.
Sekula, A. 1995 Fish Story, Dusseldorf: Richter Verlag.
Sontag, S. 1977 On Photography, London: Penguin Books.
Stephen, A. 1995 'Familiarising the South Pacific', in A. Stephen (ed) Pirating the Pacific: images of travel, trade and tourism, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing.
Taylor, C. 2006 'Hard, Dry Eyes and Eyes That Weep: Vision and Ethics in Levinas and Derrida', Postmodern Culture 16(2).
Thede, N. and Ambrosi, A. (eds) 1991 Video the Changing World, New York: Basic Books.
Thomas, N. 1995 'The Beautiful and the Damned', in A. Stephen (ed) Pirating the Pacific: images of travel, trade and tourism, Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing.
Trinh, T. M.-h. 1990 'Documentary Is/Not a Name', October 52: 76-99.
Turner, T. 1991 'Social Dynamics of Video Media in an Indigenous Society: The Cultural Meaning and Personal Politics of Video Making in Kayapo Communities', Visual Anthropology Review 7(2): 68-76.
Underwood, C. and Jabre, B. 2003 'Arab Women Speak Out: self-empowerment via video', in S. White (ed) Participatory Video: Images That Transform and Empower, London: Sage.
Vasselu, C. 1998 Textures of Light: Vision and Touch in Irigaray, Levinas and Merleau-Ponty, London: Routledge.
White, S. (ed) 2003 Participatory Video: Images that transform and empower, London: Sage.
Wright, C. 2003 'Supple Bodies: The Papua New Guinea Photographs of Captain Francis R. Barton, 1899-1907', in C. Pinney and N. Peterson (eds) Photgraphy's Other Histories, Durham: Duke University Press.
Yegenoglu, M. 1998 Colonial Fantasies: Towards a feminist reading of Orientalism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Young, L. and Barrett, H. 2001 'Adapting Visual Methods: action research with Kampala street children', Area 33(2): 141-152.

Department of Geography