Project Brainstorming: Visual Content Analysis

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This semester, my elective course is COM 798: Visual Content Analysis. The CRDM PhD requires a minimum of two research methods courses, and this one will satisfy the quantitative methods requirement. I’m carrying over a qualitative methods course from my Master’s degree, Rhetorical Criticism, with Dr. Carolyn Miller, though I expect to take another qualitative while I’m here to beef up my skills for my dissertation. Besides – the projects for those courses can accomplish some part of my dissertation writing, so why not take them and get valuable feedback?

Our first meeting for VCA is this evening, for which I’ve already read the introductory chapters of three methods textbooks. Even though we haven’t even had a class meeting yet, I’m already thinking about my semester project that I will do. The sooner I start thinking about it, the better – every project that I do now can contribute to my dissertation later on, and I’d hate to waste a project on something that can’t aid in some way/shape/form, even if it’s just acquiring necessary background information on a subject. But what to study?

I’m really interested now in environmental issues and see these issues as pressing for our society for a long time to come. Many people do not understand how quickly we need to start changing our wasteful habits, consumption patterns, and addiction to oil, among many other things, if we want to survive on the Earth for many generations to come. I’ve been thinking for this project about analyzing campaign materials for environmental organizations to see what type of information is being disseminated, how these orgs. are doing it, what specific visual content is used, and how well written text and visuals work together to solidify the message. Obviously, I can’t look at all those issues in one semester’s project, so I’ll have to work on narrowing my ideas and choose the research question that can best be answered by the type of analysis that I am doing.

Visual content analysis, being quantitative in nature, works best when the researcher has a large number of artifacts to analyze and is looking primarily at the content of the images (hence the name) – and not an underlying meaning or interpretation of the message being sent. Features of the images are rendered into codes, and the codes are counted and tallied for analysis of frequency, presence or lack of presence, and co-existence, to name a few options. Right away I think that accumulating images from several different environmental organizations is feasible because this method lends itself to working with a large body of evidence. Narrowing it down to what type of messages – for instance, deforestation, oil, wildlife, water conservation – and selecting an appropriate sampling method are issues to consider before finalizing the topic. Audience consideration is a must, and at this point, I’m leaning toward materials targeted at skeptics/people who have yet to take action to help the environment. The rhetorical strategies will be more obvious and impactful, I think, than those targeted at those who are currently involved/invested in the issue. Also, I should note that I’ll acquire all of the materials from the Internet, so it’s possible to look at messages from organizations not only on their own websites, but also advertisements and social media campaigns, as those sources might have a greater audience than the main websites themselves. The latter sources may also be a better way at seeing how groups target those who have yet to take action, as presumably those who regularly visit the websites of the groups are more involved or aware and are not going to those sites to decide whether or not to take action (unless maybe directed from an ad or Twitter update? I can see this becoming an issue for me already). 

So, for some examples… The Nature Conservancy has several campaigns going on right now that could serve as good material for study. They have an extensive web site, and I’ve seen their ads around the web. Also up for consideration: TreeHugger (almost exclusively a web site, though), The Sierra Club, The World Wildlife Foundation, Greenpeace, Earthfirst, United States Environmental Protection Agency… there are so many organizations dedicated to the cause. I think I’d like to narrow my focus to some of the bigger groups, as they presumably have more resources to dedicate to awareness and promotional materials. I also think that I will focus on groups who have an American audience – maybe not exclusively, but a majority, to narrow my project into something more manageable and, hopefully, generalizable.

So – what campaigns are you familiar with that may be worth studying? Any groups that I’ve missed in my short list that are worth looking at? What campaigns have the most interesting materials to study?

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