Photo-elicitation and its potential for housing studies

Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita reflects on the recent article, Researching Home’s Tangible and Intangible Materialities by Photo-Elicitation, published in the Housing Theory and Society journal, and highlights the potential that photo-elicitation offers housing researchers. 

The method of photo-elicitation – using photographs to elicit comments from participants rather than just asking them questions – was first used by Collier in 1957 in a survey of housing conditions. Because the team members too often ranked differently the same house’s condition according to personal understandings rather than its ‘objective’ state, pictures were taken to develop a robust ranking approach. A passionate photographer and methodologist, Collier compared related traditional and photo-elicitation interviews, noting that the latter elicited substantially more specific information and more emphatic accounts. Participants were more relaxed and interested. Collier also noted that photo-elicitation gave a sense of being there, of visiting in person the places depicted by photos. Additionally, some scholars argue that photo-elicitation stimulates a different kind of knowing as images evoke deeper aspects of human consciousness than words do; and that photos are particularly helpful when breaking participants’ or the researcher’s ‘normal view’ (e.g. by showing historical or aerial views that participants have not seen before; or unexpected activities or spaces that the researcher has not grasped before).

Since 1957, two different approaches have developed, depending on the photos being taken/sourced by the researcher or participants: researcher-generated (RG) and participant-generated (PG) photo-elicitation. It was argued that PG photo-elicitation brings additional benefits, such as giving primacy to participants’ own experiences, transgressing the limitations of researchers’ designed interview outlines and thereby empowering participants to express what is important to them (of course, there is an ongoing debate on the extent to which participant empowerment can be achieved). It was also shown that, by taking photos prior to the interview, the method gives participants space to reflect on the topic, which results in deeper data.

The biggest challenge to PG photo-elicitation is the time demand and effort required from participants, including training or help. The method raises additional ethical challenges as anonymity may be more difficult to preserve, particularly in photos of public landmarks or self-image. Additional ethical issues pertain to other people that may appear in the photos; ethics matters should be carefully addressed throughout the research process.

Questions also arise of what constitute data in PG photo-elicitation, the photos or the words. Without discounting the former, the method privileges the latter. For instance, it was noticed that an ordinary-looking trail captures a multitude of meanings, moving from its concrete condition to the abstract spaces of politics and community life, past and present. Finally, mapping the field, I could notice the method’s growing popularity in the last two decades in many disciplines and its under-representation in housing studies. This is regrettable as the method can contribute new knowledge to housing studies.

Our approach to PG photo-elicitation

In relation to the housing aspirations of younger and older private renters in England and Scotland (you can see our reports here and here), my colleagues and I proposed a new take on the method: we asked 33 participants located miles away to send digital photos, which were discussed over a telephone interview. This technologically-empowered, long-distance approach seems never to have been used before. While its large geographical reach is beneficial, issues of digital and technological exclusion should not go lightly: e.g. we did not reach rural areas where internet coverage is poor; and one participant did not own a photo/telephone camera.

As I was at the forefront of these projects, I was immersed in the sequential steps of recruiting, receiving and examining the photos prior to the interview, and then conducting photo-elicitation. Empirically-grounded and theoretically-inspired, I felt that our methodological approach created a ‘fold’ between the researcher’s ‘here’ and the participant’s ‘there’, metaphorically transporting me into participants’ homes. I examined the pictures received with avid curiosity, zooming-in and observing amazing detail: the titles of the books on the shelves, the cracks in the wall. Yet participants’ words during the photo-elicitation brought to life the objects in the photos to an extent that my sole scrutiny could not. Objects now exuded affects, history, meanings. Participants’ interests and experiences energised our methodological ‘fold’ in which photos introduced their lifeworld and inspired relevant probing by the researcher.

PG photo-elicitation powerfully moved the discussion from the immediate constraints of home’s materialities (e.g. ‘flaky’ walls, broken boilers) to its intangible aspects (e.g. cold, smell, insecurity) further to the structural constraints of the UK’s private renting sector where landlords have legal, market and symbolic power over tenants. Participants’ thick descriptions (Figure 1) and the new knowledge made possible by the method (Figure 2), inspired a new conceptualisation of home as assemblage and helped substantiate the social suffering that low-income private tenants endure. Having seen the photos and having heard the words, I believe that PG photo-elicitation should neither privilege one nor the other as both are inescapably linked. Photo-elicitation has much to contribute to a range of housing questions spanning from the abstract to the concrete, and from the inside to the outside of the home.

Figure 1 – Thick descriptions: hardly inhabitable spaces

Figure 2 – New Knowledge: constructing a sense of home

Dr Adriana Mihaela Soaita is a Research Associate at the UK Collaborative Centre for Housing Evidence.


Date: March 19, 2020 12:29 pm


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