From September 13-15, I attended the Second International Visual Methods Conference held at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK. Visual methods cover a broad set of social science research tools and approaches, from video documentation to creating data visualizations. One of the most striking themes that surfaced during this three-day conference was a consistent connection drawn between images and technology.

Technology and visual research
Many of these visually-oriented researchers have been using film, video and photography in their work for many years. However, the relatively recent explosion of affordable, accessible digital media equipment has greatly influenced image-based research practices. This was highlighted in the plenary delivered by Carey Jewitt, Professor in Learning and Technology at the University of London.

Her presentation tracked the evolution of visual research from the early photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge in the late 1800s (see featured image) to 21st century post-modern, post-structuralist notions of visual representation and gaze. One of Jewitt’s primary points was that technological innovations allow us to see more and to see differently. Visual technologies are enabling new types of knowledge, especially in medicine and science. Social scientists can and should be using the full range of visual information enabled through these technologies. But it’s not easy.

Eye-tracking Technologies
A presentation on eye-tracking technologies by cultural anthropologist Asko Lehmuskallio from the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT) provided an example of the types of challenges discussed by Jewitt. Eye-tracking equipment records subtle movements of the eye and changes in the pupil to register how people process visual cues and information. The idea is that by tracking where the eye moves, a researcher can understand what is being seen.

This technology has been used in human-computer interaction research by interface designers to determine “hot spots” on a web page, as well as by doctors and technicians in the medical field in order to better understand diagnostic criteria and evaluation. For example, the eye movements of a highly experienced physician are tracked in order to train medical students to look for the right things and the right times.

Sample Image of Eye Movement In Google, PRWeb: Online Visibility from Vocus. Downloaded on 19 September 2011 from

However, as Lehmuskallio pointed out during his presentation, this technology is not without controversy. He explained, “A problem in using data collected with eye trackers for understanding particular gazes is that the devices are…mediating what the body looks at.” In other words, gaze and visual attention are much more complex than what is reflected in the evidence gathered by an eye tracker. We don’t always see what we are looking at. And we don’t always look at what we are seeing.

While issues of gaze, mediation and visual culture might seem opaque to those of us not trained in vision science or cultural anthropology, Lehmuskallio provided a simple, accessible and entertaining example using this video.  What did you see?

The future of visual research
As our cameras get smaller, as digital image resolutions increase, and as methods of dissemination become increasing democratized the role of visual data in our research will continue to change. While the IVM Conference certainly surfaced a huge number of unanswered questions and challenges related to conducting visual research, it also highlighted some really exciting and innovative work.

How do you use visual data in your work in the lab, the classroom or the office? What do you get from this type of information that you don’t get from other forms of data?

Contact Jaime at or on Twitter @Jay_Ess.