Everyday life has become increasingly visual because of the new technologies and digital platforms that are available to create and share visuals. Many of these visuals are crime-related. However, criminological and legal research still seems to be mainly verbal or written, though exceptions do exist. In a recently published book on fear of crime I wrote a chapter on these exceptions.
Fear of crime is a broad (umbrella) concept and refers to, for example, the fear of becoming a victim of crime, threats to feelings of safety, perceived risk and avoidance, and constrained behaviour. Numerous studies have examined fear of crime, its prevalence, correlates, consequences and interventions, employing methods like surveys and interviews. An example of a question that is often asked is “how worried are you about being mugged and robbed” or “How often do you avoid certain places or situations for fear of harassment or violence”. In my chapter, the question is which visual methods are used in the data collection phase of studies on fear of crime and what the advantages of these methods are according to the researchers. Visual methods can refer to new technologies, such as the use of smartphones or virtual environments, or to older methods, such as photographic stimuli, drawing or sketch mapping.
To find the exceptions, I systematically searched different electronic databases, guided by a protocol. In addition to the systematic search, I used search strategies such as snowballing and manual searching. Only articles that discussed primary empirical research, with respondents, using quantitative and/or qualitative methods with a visual component during the data collection phase were included. The concept ‘fear of crime’ as well as ‘visual methods’ were operationalized in a broad manner. I found over 100 studies on fear of crime in which visual methods were employed.
Next I had to analyse them and present them in a clear, meaningful way. It took time to collate and synthesise the visual methods used in research on fear of crime: time to read, re-read and digest what I had read. Over time, I realized that the different studies that all used some sort of visual method, whether qualitative or quantitative, differed with respect to the role and influence that the respondents had regarding these visuals. After several rounds of re-reading and coding, and comparing constantly, I concluded that four types of studies could be distinguished, based on the respondents’ influence on the contents, format, publication and circulation of the visuals.
Four types of studies could be distinguished, based on the respondents’ influence on the contents, format, publication and circulation of the visuals
The first type of studies asks respondents to react to visual stimuli that the researcher has selected. In addition to a verbal stimulus, photographs stimuli, drawings or maps are presented to the respondent. In the second type of studies, respondents can adapt or interact with researcher-generated images, usually maps and virtual environments (VEs). In other words, respondents can alter or influence what they see or what the visuals look like. Thirdly, in some research respondents, youth as well as adults, are asked to create their own visuals. Most often these visuals consist of photographs and drawings. Finally, the fourth type that gives most influence to respondents, involves collaboration with the researcher(s) in the creation, use and dissemination of the visuals. Often, such research projects incorporate a mix of visual, creative and more traditional methods. Several examples can be found in the work of Mitchell and her colleagues, who have done different projects using a variety of visual and arts-based approached in countries all over the world.
What are the advantages of these methods according to the researchers? Not all studies that I analysed provided information about the advantages. Studies of a collaborative nature hint at the empowerment of participants and effecting social change. Other authors point out that the visual methods lead to data enhancement in several ways. New technologies and past experiences pave the way to experiment with visual methods in (criminological) research.
New technologies and past experiences pave the way to experiment with visual methods in (criminological) research
Picture: Photograph of one’s own room in a shelter, made by participant (see Vanderveen, 2008)