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Department of Geography

Staff Profile

Publication details for Professor Mike Crang

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

Abstract

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.

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