A Literature Review to Evaluate the Choice and Use of Visual Methods

  • Helen Pain School of Social Sciences University of Southampton, United Kingdom


Visual methods are accepted tools for qualitative research and are increasingly used in a wide range of disciplines, such as sociology, psychology, geography, and health care. A literature review was undertaken with the aims of understanding why visual methods are chosen for use in research, reviewing any evidence regarding outcomes arising from those choices, and reflecting on the role of visual methods in these outcomes. Searches conducted from 2000-2010 across multiple bibliographic databases yielded 109 research papers that cited reasons for their choice of visual method. These were reviewed using a method tailored to the review’s purpose but also informed by a narrative synthesis approach. The reasons given were collated and analysed inductively, with two categories of reasons emerging: those principally related to enrichment of data collection or presentation and those concerning the relationship between participants and researchers. Support for these reasons is reviewed and the ethical implications regarding choice of method are discussed. This article concludes that support for the use of visual methods to enhance data richness is strong, but more research is needed to facilitate a better-informed choice of method. There is some support for using visual methods for purposes connected with relational aspects between researcher and participants, but the visual media’s contribution derives mainly from the ability of images to facilitate and enrich communication thus enhancing the data. The enrichment of data and an approach to participants that is affirming and empowering are intricately connected in the attainment of relationship-focused outcomes.

Author Biography

Helen Pain, School of Social Sciences University of Southampton, United Kingdom
formerly Research Assistant with the National Centre for Research Methods, now retired