The Interpretation of Pictures and the Documentary Method


  • Ralf Bohnsack Freie Universität Berlin



documentary method, interpretation of pictures, iconology, sociology of knowledge, art history, semiotics, formal structure of pictures, comparative analysis


The considerable progress in qualitative methods is directly connected with developments in the field of text-interpretation. On the basis of a thorough reconstruction of their formal structures texts are treated as autonomous domains of self-referential systems. Such a methodological status has been denied to pictures in empirical research in the field of social sciences up until now. The documentary method, based on Karl MANNHEIM's Sociology of Knowledge, opens up methodical access to pictures. Methodologies from art history (PANOFSKY, IMDAHL) can thus become relevant for empirical research in social sciences. Connections to semiotics (BARTHES, ECO) and philosophy (FOUCAULT) are worked out in their consequences for qualitative methods. Thus verbal contextual and pre-knowledge can be controlled methodically in the documentary interpretation of pictures. The reconstruction of formal structure of pictures becomes of central importance in analysis. All of this will be demonstrated by examples from research practice. URN: urn:nbn:de:0114-fqs0803267


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Author Biography

Ralf Bohnsack, Freie Universität Berlin

Ralf BOHNSACK, Dr. rer. soc., Dr. phil. habil., Dipl.-Soziologe, University Professor, Director of the Department of Qualitative Research on Human Development at the Free University of Berlin. Main Areas of Research: Reconstructive Social Research; Sociology of Knowledge; Documentary Method; Analysis of Talk; Interpretation of Pictures and Films; Evaluation Research; Research on Milieu, Generation, Youth and Deviance.




How to Cite

Bohnsack, R. (2008). The Interpretation of Pictures and the Documentary Method. Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 9(3).



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