Exploring the Visual in Qualitative Research: The use of CAQDAS

  • Ana Isabel Rodrigues
  • António Costa
  • António Moreira


According to Berger (1977), there is a “fundamental connection between visualization and the organization of human existence, of being in the world” (p. 7). Mitchell (1995) has long advocated the presence of a ‘pictorial turn’ where the realm of the visual has been recognized as important as the realm of language (or even more important than) in the study of culture. Mitchell (2015) even approaches images as true objects of investigation, (what he calls an “image science”), in which it might make it possible to approach pictures the same way that empirical sciences approach natural phenomena. Is it possible to work on a method of studying images that overcomes the “two-culture split” between natural and human sciences? Mitchell’s theory allows thinking about the use of the visual element in qualitative research, which is materialized in the so-called “visual movement” (Heisley, 2001). Visual methodologies have always been a reality in behavioural sciences, such as the case of Visual Anthropology (Collier, 1967; Collier & Collier, 1986), but it was only in the 1990s that it extends across social sciences, starting with Harper (2002) in Visual Sociology. The use of visual methods emerged as a field of study defined by Rose (2006, see also Banks, 2007 and Stanczak, 2007) as "Visual Research Methods" (VRM), which is in an initial, but developing phase of qualitative research (Athelstan & Deller, 2013).

A new context, framed by a visual culture paradigm, it is revealed by the researchers who, as we know, are much more sensitive to what surrounds them, especially in qualitative research. Based on this, there is growing evidence that visual methods and visual data mark a shift in qualitative research. A new reality characterized by visual culture requires new approaches, new methods and new techniques. With all these, the element of data analysis emerges as a fundamental issue and the use of Computer-Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software (CAQDAS) packages began to offer similar possibilities for visual qualitative data analysis. Nevertheless, there is a lack of discussion of the practical or technical procedures for analysing qualitative data using software in the social science literature (Silver & Patashnick, 2011), mainly related to audio-visual data analysis. In relation to visual data, Silver & Patashnick (2011) also claimed that, due to their multidimensionality, visual elements can only be described and not transcribed.

Consequently, since this is a recent field of research, this paper emerges from the following needs (Rodrigues, Pedro & Moreira, 2018): (i) to summarize existing evidence concerning visual methods and the use of CAQDAS tools and their increased uptake for visual analysis; (ii) to identify where there are gaps in current research in order to help determine where further investigation might be needed; and (iii) to help position new research activities. Based on these reasons, a Systematic Literature Review (SLR) will help obtain an objective summary of research evidence concerning this topic by producing better quality reviews and evaluations. A SLR plays a vital role both in supporting further research effort and providing unbiased syntheses and interpretation of the findings in a reliable manner.

With this in mind, the purpose of this study is to examine the existing literature on the use of visual methods and data analysis within qualitative approaches in order to truly understand the potential of visual research as a research method.  Based on this, the following questions were used to conduct this SLR:

RQ1: What type of visual research and methods has been used in the qualitative research field?

RQ2: What type of visual data analysis has been used in qualitative research?

RQ3: How have CAQDAS tools been used for visual methods and data analysis and what are their main functionalities?

This paper includes four main components: (1) a systematic review of visual research and visual methods that have been applied in qualitative research, based on pre-defined inclusion criteria. The assumption here is that the literature review can be considered a form of content-analysis (Pinho & Leite, 2014); (2) incorporation and categorization of review findings in the Mendeley database; (3) the use of CAQDAS tools for content analysis to organize and manage data and to code bibliographic categories to make the review process more systematic, faster and reliable (Costa et al., 2017, cited in Pinho et al., 2019); and (4) including an initial conceptual framework about the coordination of Visual Research/Visual Methods/Visual Data/CAQDAS.

This SLR review used PRISMA guidelines and flow chart. The PRISMA guidelines include a 27-item checklist and a four-phase flow diagram with the essential items for transparency in conducting literature reviews (Moher et al., 2009). Eligibility criteria were the following: alignment with current study focus and research questions; published between 1990-2019; published in English; only articles; only in journals; final publication stage; only journals related to qualitative methods were considered. The electronic database considered was Scopus as a starting point and the following search terms were used: ( "visual research"  OR  "visual methods"  OR  "visual data")  resulting in 220 articles and ("CAQDAS"  OR  "QDAS"  OR  "software"  OR  "digital tools")  resulting in 210 articles.

In conclusion, this study aims to present the findings of a SLR about visual research methods, and the use of CAQDAS and their main functionalities for analyzing visual data, based on papers published in qualitative method journals between 1990-2019. Specifically, the study intends to offer more suggestions of new research activities by answering the following questions: “What are the main paradigms and approaches considered in terms of visual-based research?”; “What are the main types of visual methods that have been used and for what purposes?”; “Are they combined with other methods?”; “What type and source of visual data have been used? Photos, videos? Researcher-generated or participant-generated?”. In addition, the study also aims to identify where there are gaps in current research in order to help determine where further investigation might be needed, contributing to positioning new research activities in this field, particularly in the use of CAQDAS in analyzing visual data, and exploring their main functionalities.