Rethinking visual ontologies when dealing with large video data sets

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by Abigail Hackett and Lucy Caton

Increasing numbers of childhood and education researchers are experimenting with small, portable and wearable video cameras in their research with young children. These kinds of technology offer the promise of increasingly detailed research data about children’s embodied explorations of the world. This is particularly pertinent for young children, who seem to experience the world in strikingly sensory, embodied, mobile and non-linguistic ways.

The type and volumes of visual data generated by portable, wearable video cameras present quite specific challenges to educational research. Video data generated from small, portable and/or wearable video recording devices can produce:

  1. Particularly large quantities of video data, for example through continuous recording of an entire event. If a participant wears the camera, it is unlikely to be turned on and off at key moments, but instead record everything.
  2. Footage often shot from strange angles, sometimes making it difficult to interpret or watch. Watching this kind of video data can be time-consuming, confusing, or produce feelings of nausea. Coupled with the large quantities of video data that can be produced, how can a researcher best begin to watch, rationalise, code or sort?
  3. Video data often generated in the absence of the researcher, or showing views that the researcher has not herself seen ‘live’. Previously, it has been popular for childhood researchers to use handheld video cameras, to make small snapshots or short pieces of video recording of something they were also ‘there’ for in real life. Pink (2009) for example, describes how re-watching her video data evokes memories, “enabling us to re-encounter the sensorial and emotional reality of research situations” (p.121). When children wear video cameras, or when small video cameras are passed to others in order to film, watching the video data back afterwards is not a process of re-encounter for the researcher.

Taking these three points together, the unique features of this kind of video data might point towards the need for careful consideration of visual ontologies that underpin this work, and in turn, alternative approaches for researchers engaging with and analysing this data.  De Freitas (2016) critiques the tendency for video data practices in educational research to be applied without reflection or reference to philosophical or historical work in film and media studies. She traces how early scientific cinema conventions continue to underpin education research video practices. These dominant discourses, de Freitas argues, render a human body as a series of motor mechanisms that can be coded and used to generalise and standardise how children ought to perform within the classroom space. Thus de Freitas challenges us to re-think the human body in radically new ways, where the body is no longer about performance, but has the potential to become something else in co-existence with other forces, intensities and matter.

The video data generated using wearable or portable video cameras with children is often characterised by movement – sometimes intense and frenetic movement. In response to the tendency of traditional multimodal transcript to foreground time over space, several researchers have developed innovative approaches to multimodal transcribing of video data that represents elements of movement through space (e.g. Cowan, 2018; Kelton et al, 2018). Generative as they are, these approaches are still grounded in selection of which elements or parts of the video data are most useful or pertinent to be represented in the transcript. That is, we could say, they rely on a representational logic that asks – how can we best understand or rationalise what is happened in this video? In an opposite, complementary approach, there is now a body of video based research scholarship that asks; what does this video do? What alternative possibilities or new directions for thinking might it open up?

How  this kind of question might be used practically to deal with large quantities of video data is another challenge. In other two blog posts, we have described approaches we have experimented with in response to this challenge (see Walking maps; Video data sensing)

We are not proposing that approaches such as walking maps and video data sensing should replace traditional multimodal transcription in all cases. However, we do think that overlooking the possibilities of video data to surprise, disrupt and disorientate (as well as, of course, to sometimes clearly reveal), would be a missed opportunity. In the face of a proliferation of increasingly sophisticated technologies to capture children’s behaviour, particularly movement in place, there is a need for careful consideration of the ontologies and assumptions underpinning how we engage with, sort, discard and interpret this data. Rather than mastery, or trying to capture something as close as possible to the original experience, we urge researchers to continue to experiment with how researcher-as-viewer of this kind of video can open up to new possibilities for thinking about or imagining children. In this way, perhaps technology does not need to be used to ‘capture’ children’s lives more and more completely, but to “free ourselves up so that we might see and think children otherwise.” (MacLure et al, 2012, p.467).

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Cowan, K. (2018) Visualising young children’s play: exploring multimodal transcription of video-recorded interaction, PhD thesis, Institute of Education, London, UK.

de Freitas, E. (2016) ‘The moving image in education research: Reassembling the body in classroom video data.’ International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 29(4): 553-572.

Kelton, M. Ma, J. Y. Rawlings, C. Rhodehamel, B. Saraniero, P. and Nemirovsky, R. (2018) “Family Meshworks: Children’s Geographies and Collective Ambulatory Sense-Making in an Immersive Mathematics Exhibition.” Children’s Geographies, 16 (5): 543-557.

MacLure, M., Jones, L., Holmes, R. and MacRae, C. (2012) Becoming a Problem: Behaviour and reputation in the early years classroom. British Educational Research Journal, 38 (3), 447-471,

Pink, S. (2009) Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage.


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