Multimodality and visual methods in Research

In the beginning of September I attended two workshops related to multimodality and use of visual methods. The first one was organised by the Sheffield University and the second one by the ESRC Wales in Cardiff. Both workshops gave me an immense boost on the research activities, and put some creativity into my thinking on methods ranging from the way data collection, analysis and representation could be carried out in more interesting ways. Using multimodality and visual methods also match well with the ethos of my research that as an activity itself wants to represent the values, principles and practice of community development. I’ve used visual tools a lot as a Community Organiser, so it’s not an uncharted territory for me in every respect. The workshops helped put some academic rigour into them though.

In Sheffield we focused on visual methods, and how space is one of the forgotten aspects of meaning. I was particularly interested in the connection between agency and space in the research context. This is fairly relevant for me considering the nature of my research…space, its usage and how its rebuilt are bound to come up as massive issues during my field work. Space as a political and economic sphere of activity is something that can easily be tangled into the social usages. What can and cannot be done? How the economic and political policies may influence the way space is being reconstructed? Reconstruction of space is not the recovery of space and this is where agency becomes an important variable that may determine whether the reconstruction of space also helps to recover the space.

We also did a spot of groups work during one of the sessions and walked around the ICOSS building, taking photos of the building, finding shapes between spaces. Few of the shots I took are below.

Square root handrail

Square root handrail

Kuvankaappaus 2015-9-30 kello 4.43.23

The second day of the workshop began with Solomon Lennox’s keynote on his ethnographic study on boxing gyms. I must say this is by far the most interesting keynote presentations I have ever witnessed and made me start considering performative ethnography as a potential avenue for representation….then again I study disasters and my plan may not pass ethics approval…?

The keynote also included some audience participation, where one of the workshop organisers was asked to join in and “I would like for you to punch me in the face”. She did a pretty good job at it as well. And who said the academic world is dry and boring?

Sparring before the big finish

Sparring before the big finish


Another interesting part of the workshop introduced visual representation of data, graphic and comic books in particular. The presenter introduced us to a programme called Comic Life that can help render your visual material into a story form. The programme can be used on tablets and laptops alike, but I found the tablet version pretty tricky to use…potentially because of my sausage fingers and my general aversion to touch screens. Nevertheless, the programme itself and the outcomes were interesting, giving not only visual but sequential representation of activities and space as well.

I’ve been working on my methodology for a while now and have wanted my methods to not only collect data but be representations of the Community Development process itself, and the workshop gave me some ideas on this. My interviews will hopefully be carried out in two stages with the first part being a traditional sit down interview, followed by a mobile component on the ground. The idea is for the interviewee to take me around the area the organisation is working in, film the walk and ask them to point to spaces and details along the way that they find interesting and meaningful for their work. This not only helps to contextualise the interview data better, but also distorts the hierarchical relationship between myself as the researcher and the subject, which again is a principle central to community development.

Initially I considered the data only as data for my own benefit and had not really thought about how I might present the data in the thesis…it of course has to be done somehow. The comic book workshop gave me an idea of mapping the routes the subjects take, and use the comic book model to create a visual respresentation and a storyboard of the mobile component of the interview. These could be carried out together with the organisations to give them more agency over the results, and also presented to them as a concrete research outcome.

All in all the wokshop in Sheffield was a useful one and progressed my methodology a great deal, making it much more interesting and novel as a result. It also had the effect of making myself more excited about carrying it out, which is always good considering that I am the one who has to do it. While I do enjoy interviewing, in my past research the most enjoyable parts of the research process were the non-conventional visits and meetings I had with people. Working in a Japanese nursery as a teacher for one day for instance was an experience that has been drilled into my memory, and provided an ample source of contextual data for me I would not have been able to gather through just a normal visit to a nursery.


So the following week I travelled to Wales, which was an exciting bit all on its own since I’ve never been there before. Cardiff is lovely and we were lucky with the weather. Below is a spot of Welsh national pride…and a homage to the Japanese rugby team outside the stadium for some reason as well.

Welsh national pride

Welsh national pride


Homage to Japanese rugby...indeed appropriate considering their recent success.

Homage to Japanese rugby…indeed appropriate considering their recent success.


We kicked off the workshop with a short lecture on multimodality after which we started working on the research site. This was a very hands on workshop where you got to do and experience different modes of data collection. I was on the field notes group which was very helpful. I have used field notes in the past but they have tended to slip into the more reflective side already in the note taking period, which may of course complicate and restrict their usage as representations of what is actually happening and be coloured with your own interpretations. So working on field notes was a useful learning experience and to my surprise I actually managed to keep them fairly statemental…that way they also became increasingly detailed.

After the initial field visit to the site, which was the Gorsedd Gardens outside the law courts and city hall in Cardiff city centre, we returned to the university and were put into project groups where each member brought a different mode of capturing data onto the table. My fieldnotes were combined with sound, images, and video. The task was then to discuss what we experienced and took note of and weave the elements together to produce a multimodal representation of the findings. What for us came out most strongly were the social uses of the space and how people may experience it. Our representation ended up being a film with moving and still images and recoreded sound of the various social uses we discovered in the space, with fictional stories being spoken over the video during the presentation of our piece.

Working in groups

Working in groups

Working on our final piece

Working on our final piece


What I mostly gained from the Cardiff workshop was on the field notes, and interestingly enough how sound could be used to record data and weaved into the data representation. I think this made me think more about the contextuality of my own research and the role sound may play in the spaces that I hope to record and capture with my subjects. Remembering that Japan is a fairly loud country in the cities and very silent in the countryside could potentially create interesting soundscapes that could be contrasted with one another. This also led me to reconsider my original idea of simply taking photos of areas and spaces of interest to perhaps using video as well that could capture movement, sound and a fuller picture of the areas that organisations are working in.

I think these two workshops have been some of the most useful ones I have attended since starting my PhD. They have really made me think much more deeply about my methodology, developed it further and opened up more creative opportunities that are available for ethnographic research. As I’ve just landed in Japan, I am already itching to start my field work and start applying these methods in practice, test them, develop them further and make them work fully for my research purposes.



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