Visual Research: Current Bias and Future Direction


Deborah D. Heisley (2001) ,"Visual Research: Current Bias and Future Direction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 45-46.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 45-46


Deborah D. Heisley, CSUN


One could easily advise a doctoral student that if they want to be taken seriously, they should not play with pictures. Luckily, thirteen years ago, under the guidance of Sidney Levy, Howard Becker, and John Sherry, at Northwestern University, I never received such advice, but instead received support and encouragement in the area of visual research. Out of my interest in visual research came the Autodriving article with Sidney Levy (1991), the photoessay of the Farmers’ Market with Mary Ann McGrath and John Sherry (1991), and involvement with the Odyssey video with Russell Belk, Melanie Wallendorf and John Sherry (1988). There are now quite a few consumer behavior ethnographers who regularly use photography in their work. Russell Belk and Robert Kozinets continue to add breadth and strength to the, dare I call it, "visual movement" in consumer behavior with their videographies.


I could play Devil’s advocate. It is easy enough to criticize visual work. I could refer to the camera as a weapon that creates a barrier to engagement a la Susan Sontag. I could discuss photography and film production, and consumption, as voyeurism a la "CBS’s Summer 2000 hit program "Survivor," which had 51.7 million people tuned into the two hour finale (Flint 2000). In a day where "dialogue" is valued in ethnography above all else, "taking" a photo or video ca be construed to be an evil process.

Historically, there was more to criticize. "Natives" and "objects" from "exotic cultures" were put on display, either literally or with photos or films. The films and photos were often created in a "short-term invasion" or "expedition" into the culture of interest. Around World War I: Malinowski’s work in Trobriand Islands was crucial in launching the movement towards joining life and coming to understand it through participant observation. This required sustained fieldwork and collaboration between the ethnographer and the members of the culture of interest. (This paragraph draws heavily from Peacock 2000).

Howard Becker understood what this meant for visual research 13 years ago when he instructed us not to "take pictures," but to "make photographs." It is important to understand that an ethnographer today must engage the members of the culture of interest as consultants in gaining an understanding of the culture. The photographs or film are not "taken of" the consultants, but are "made with" the consultants.

Like all other methodologies, visual research does have its attendant challenges. And like all other methodologies, a well-trained researcher is aware of and attempts to mitigate the shortcomings inherent in the method. Finally, like all other methodologies, we use it in spite of its flaws because we are able, in fact, to gain and disseminate knowledge with it.


There is a long-standing academic bias against visual work. Mary Strong’s announcement in the March 2000 Anthropology News from Mary Strong is illustrative of this bias.

"SVA [Society for Visual Anthropology] is planning a position statement whereby visual materials such as film and video be considered legitimate scholarly work applicable to tenure and promotion decisions. Statement will appear in a future column. Debate on this subject is welcome." (p. 76).

Why wouldn’t visual work be considered legitimate scholarly work? Because, as Peacock writes in the March 2000 Anthropology News, after the shift from interrogation and display to participant observation and dialogue, the work of anthropology shifted from "eye to ear." As Peacock notes, today "To look is voyeurism, to touch is harassment, while to listen is to be properly engaged" (p. 6).

What makes a product scholarly work? Legitimate scholarly work is theoretically informed and theoretically informative work that is based on the systematic gathering and analysis of data in ways that are consistent with the understandings of a community of scholars. Does visual research fit this definition? Almost. Importantly, to date, while visual work in print form has benefited from peer review, video output in consumer behavior lacks the peer review process.


There seems to be a need to impose hierarchy on entire bodies of knowledge or legitimate methodologies. We know from our information processing colleagues that visual information is cognitively most complex. We also know from our information processing colleagues that learning occurs more easily when information is presented across multiple modalities. Thus, a product that combines the visual with the textual, as these Belk and Kozinets videos do, should be considered superior in disseminating knowledge. However, the academy seems to downgrade, rather then upgrade, a piece of work that embraces the visual. I am optimistic that this very modern notion of textul work being somehow more serious than visual work will soon be discredited. It seems obvious that both are equally valuable. The best method or output should be chosen to address the question at hand or to communicate the message at hand.

Strength comes from diversity. This was not understood even 20 years ago. I hope that scholars become more accepting of the strength that comes from diversity of perspective, diversity of methods, diversity of questions, and diversity of output (film, Internet site, photographs, journal article, books, plays, or poems). Each of these brings richness to our understanding.


Why do scholars resist the visual? Visual media is the only way to disseminate the complexity of visual information.

1. As per the discussion above, scholars feel visual work may be seen as less serious by the academy.

2. Visual understanding is accessible. It allows the "reader," or in this case "viewer," a lot of interpretation. This loss of control can feel uncomfortable and threatening for a scholar.

3. Consumer behavior scholars may lack familiarity with high quality, academic, video product.

4. Scholars are influenced by the general population’s bias toward viewing the written word as being more intellectual than the visual.

5. There is no peer review process in place to legitimize the work.

6. The work is not included in the traditional journal, so it does not benefit from the signaling of quality that a respected journal can confer.

7. It is a lot of work.

Businesses are actively sending researchers out into the world of consumers and cultures with cameras and video cameras in hand in pursuit of understanding (for profits). They are ahead of us in the sense that they understand the value of visual data. However, they are behind us in the sense that the methods they are using are often reflective of the invasion tactics used by anthropologists long ago and since discredited. Meanwhile, we lag behind, punishing valuable visual scholarship, which is done properly, by not recognizing it as a legitimate pursuit. We need to support this work and disseminate both the substantive and methodological findings from it.


What I don’t like about videotape:

1. Videotape is bulky and doesn’t fit in my file cabinet very well.

2. I can’t underline it.

3. My yellow highlighter doesn’t work on it.

4. I can’t write notes in the margin.

5. I can’t easily access a specific part of it.

6. Post it notes are tough.

7. There is no peer review and revision.

8. It does not get into journals.

These issues have been barriers to the use of video in scholarly pursuits.

The situation I just described has profoundly changed, and will continue to do so. The barriers to utilizing visual information are falling. While makin, revising (editing), distributing, storing and accessing films used to be prohibitively complicated to do, this is no longer the case. Technology, particularly digital video cameras and the Internet have changed all of this. Visual information is stored digitally on CD’s, DVD’s, and the Internet. Authors/producers (what will they be called?) are able to display textual transcripts or include voiceovers with video, clips from video, or photographs. With a profound improvement in ease of editing, we must put a peer review process into place. With journals moving to the Internet, if visual scholars put peer review into place, visual work can become commonplace. Viewers/readers are able to underline, paste in notes, and search for and access a specific segment of the video. As the technology continues to develop, all of this will only become easier.

Watching my 11 year old daughter, Taylor, put together a report is, I believe, informative of what the future holds. For her, a report is not complete until she has downloaded at least one visual element from the Internet. Will this generation grow up and abandon the visual? I think not. I hope not. The visual will not be seen as "augmentation" to the textual, but as an integral part of a product. I suppose that it will become standard to produce academic product that is not paper or video per se, but a marriage of the two. The pure textual or pure visual will only be endpoints on a hybrid continuum. The videographies that you saw here today were such hybrids. The major ideas in the papers were communicated with visual information, voiceovers, and by superimposing text over the video. The videos also contained an abundance of visual information that the text could not convey. I believe that in the not too distant future, our current debates on whether video product should be considered for promotion and tenure will seem quaint indeed.


Flint, Joe (2000), "CBS’s Hit Show #Survivor’ Ends Summer Run With Huge Ratings," Wall Street Journal, August 25, p. B7

Heisley, Deborah D. and Sidney J. Levy (1991), "Autodriving: A Photoelicitation Technique," Journal of Consumer Research, 18 (December), 257-272.

Heisley, Deborah D., Mary Ann McGrath and John F. Sherry, Jr. (1991), "#To Everything There is A Season:’ A Photoessay of a Farmers’ Market," Journal of American Culture, 14 (fall), 53-79. Reprinted in Highways and Buyways: Naturalistic Research From the Consumer Behavior Odyssey (1991), ed. Russell W. Belk, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 141-166.

McGrath, Mary Ann, John F. Sherry, Jr. and Deborah D. Heisley (1993), "An Ethnographic Study of an Urban Periodic Marketplace: Lessons from the Midville Farmers’ Market," Journal of Retailing, Vol. 63, No. 3 (fall), 280-319.

Peacock, James (2000) "Eye to Ear and Mouth to Hand," AnthropologyNews, March, 5-6.

Strong, Mary (2000) "Society for Visual Anthropology," Anthropology News, March, p. 76.


"Deep Meaning in Possessions: Qualitative Research from the Consumer Behavior Odyssey," (1988) Written an directed by Melanie R. Wallendorf and Russell W. Belk, Produced by Melanie R. Wallendorf, Russell W. Belk, Thomas C. O’Guinn, Deborah D. Heisley and Scott Roberts, Marketing Science Institute, Cambridge Massachusetts, 38:00.



Deborah D. Heisley, CSUN


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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