Imag(in)ing Violent Conflict

Ieva Zakareviciute (Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich, Germany)

Summary of the Project


For couple of decades conflict researchers study imperative changes in the course of conflict due to high mediatization of war and extension of battlefront into multiple media spaces (cf. Cottlle, 2006; Hoskins & O’Loughlin, 2010). Consequently, the media’s presentation of the conflict not only influences assumptions on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ parties within the conflict, or sometimes becomes an important determinant influencing conflict’s further course (cf. Luow, 2001; MacArthur, 2004), but also it can shape notions and understandings what conflict is per se and what crucial moral categories are associated with it (cf. Lewis, 2005; Hammond, 2007; Mitchell, 2011). Within the dynamics of every conflict, notions of collective threat, suffering, violence, trauma, etc. are instrumental to explaining, representing and motivating for further violent actions. However, violent actions take various forms: structural violence/suffering, actual violence, potential violence. In order to reach definite importance, these notions must be experienced collectively, presented and constructed in public discourse. Here, media play a key role, since very different forms to present structural, actual or potential violence are chosen: either to reach highest appeal or present (trans)cultural notions of victimization, suffering, trauma, threat, etc. In this process, visuals play an essential role because they are emotive, intuitively comprehensible, but semantically ambiguous and symbolically refer to different sort of cultural ideas and identities (cf. Sontag, 2003; Linfield, 2010; Moeller, 1999).

Research Question(s)

This project aims to analyze visual representations of suffering/violence/victimization of two Middle Eastern conflicts (Syria and Israel-Palestine). In doing so, it seeks to:

identify specific patterns in the visual depictions of violent conflicts that signify characteristic meanings and convey recurring visual frames guiding interpretation and evaluation;

uncover the cultural and transcultural backgrounds, enabling the signification of widely, intuitively comprehensible conflict interpretations through visual means;

trace characteristic differences and interactions between social and professional media in their use of visual representations of conflict;

determine the specific roles of the identified visual frames for triggering, facilitating, or obstructing specific dynamics of conflict;

contextualize the use of visual frames in the media against the respective progress of the conflict and target audiences – including the diachronic evolution of conflict representations and perceptions in the media, to measure their relevance within wider media discourse.

Theoretical Framework & Methods

This project traces visual presentations of suffering/violence/victimization in a comparative fashion, over the entire cycle of conflict development, with an inclusive perspective that takes into account not only the actual representation, but also the context of visuals’ construction against the context of cultural symbols and ideas, as well as the relation to targeted audiences meant to appropriate the visually expressed meanings. To do so, it combines strategies of frame analysis with approaches from visual and conflict anthropology.

It adopts comparative perspective by focusing on two conflicts: civil war in Syria and Israel-Palestine conflict. It follows conflict cycles as a timeframe reference in order to trace developments and transformations of visual frames within the course of the conflicts.

Three bodies of distinct theoretical approaches will be employed in order to approach topic from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Firstly, I will rely on framing method to distinguish between consonant, polarized, deliberative, and other relevant patterns of media coverage that emerge through the cyclical process of news production (e.g. Motta & Baden, 2013; Benford & Snow, 2000; Baden, Geise & Baden, 2014). This will enable to find particular recurrent patterns and explicate how specific visual contents are recognized and relate to one another.

Thereafter I will comply with conflict and moral anthropology theories to analyze notions of trauma, suffering, violence, etc. and their changing meanings over the course of conflict within found frames. I will turn to differrent ethnographic accounts (e.g. Aijmer and Abbink, 2000; Stewart and Strathern 2002; Ghassem- Fahandi 2009), analysing how violence is perceived, understood and evaluated within different societies and what cultural meanings are attibuted to it. I refer to cognitive approach (e.g. Halbmayer, 2001; Schwandnern-Sievers, 2001), which considers violence as contingent on its cultural meaning and its form of representation. Notions of trauma and victimhood will be addressed relying on ethnographic studies (e.g. Carpentier, 2007; Fassin and Rechtman, 2009) in order to analyse how perspectives on memory and trauma and their representations across different media and culture create popular narratives ordered to cultural constructions and collectivity building.

Lastly, I will turn to variety of visual studies methods for more thorough analyzes within frames, to look at and beyond actual image and contextualize its cultural background of production and audiencing. In particular I will employ approaches of visual content analysis (e.g. Krippendorf, 2003; Rose, 2001), visual semiotics (e.g. Leeuwen, 2001; Noth, 2011) and visual discourse analysis (e.g. Tonkiss, 1998; Mitchell 1996; 2005). I will rely on visual studies (e.g. Collier et al., 1986; Pole, 2004; Hockings, 2003; Pink et al., 2004; Thomson, 2009) to analyse how war images are being culturally constructed in its both ways, what is seen and how it is seen.

As for the first methodological step I will rely on theoretical saturation approach to select a confined media sample (researching among transnational, local (conflict sites) and social media). Thereafter I will employ framing theory and conflict and moral anthropology theories to establish relevant frames, and apply visual methods for an in-depth qualitative analyses within frames. Then, images will be coded according found indexes within the frames and quantitative analyses will be carried out. Finally, research findings will be cross-compared with other research studies within INFOCORE project.


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Benford, R. D., & Snow, D. A. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology, 26, 611-639.

Carpentier, N. (2007). Culture, Trauma, and Conflict: Cultural Studies Perspectives on War. United Kingdom: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

Collier, J., Collier, M., Hall, E.T. (1986). Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method. The USA: University of New Mexico Press.

Cottle, S. (2006). Mediatized Conflict: Developments in Media and Conflict Studies. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Fassin, D., Rechtman, R. (2009). The Empire of Trauma. An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood. United Kingdom: Princeton University press.

Geise, S. & Baden, C. (2014). Putting the Image Back Into the Frame: Modeling the Linkage Between Visual Communication and Frame-Processing Theory. Communication Theory, 24 (4), 1-24.

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Halbmayer, E., (2001). Socio-cosmological contexts and forms of violence: war, vendetta, duels and suicide among the Yukpa of north-western Venezuela. In Schmidt, B.E & Schroder, I.W., Anthropology of Violence and Conflict (pp. 49-76). The USA: Routledge.

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Lewis, J. (2005). Language Wars: the Role of Media and Culture in Global Terror and Political Violence. England: Pluto Press.

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Luow, E. (2001). The Media and Cultural Production. London: Sage.

MacArthur, J. (2004). Censorship and Propaganda in The Gulf War. New York: Hill and Wang.

Mitchell, W. J. T. (2011). Cloning Terror. The War of Images, 9/11 to the Present. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (1996). What do Pictures Really Want? Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.

Moeller, S. D. (1999). Compassion Fatigue: How the Media Sell Disease, Famine, War and Death. Great Britain: Routledge.

Motta, G., & Baden, C. (2013). Evolutionary Factor Analysis of the Dynamics of Frames: Introducing a method for analyzing high-dimensional semantic data with time-changing structure. Communication Methods and Measures, 7 (1), 48-84.

Noth, W. (2011). Visual Semiotics: Key Features and Application to Picture Ads. In Margolis, E. & Pauwels, L., The Sage Handbook of Visual Research Methods (pp. 298-316). London: Sage.

Pink, S., Kurti, L., Alfonso, A.I. (2004). Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography. New York: Routledge.

Pole, C. (2004). Seeing is Believing? Approaches to Visual Research. The UK: Emerald Group Publishing.

Rose, G. (2001). Visual Methodologies: And Introduction to Researching with Visual Materials. London: Sage.

Schwandern-Sievers, S. (2001). The Enactment of “Tradition”: Albanian Construction of Identity, Violence and Power in Times of Crises. In Schmidt, B. E. & Schroder, I.W., Anthropology of Violence and Conflict (pp. 97-121). The USA: Routledge.

Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Tonkiss, F. (1998). Analysing Discourse. In Seale, C., Researching Society and Culture (pp. 245- 60). London: Sage.

Methodological Reflections

Methodological Potentials

Chosen visual methodology framework – of broadening the scope from mere content analysis to one including visual semiotics, visual discourse analysis, iconography, etc. – opens possibilities for greater analytical insights. Contrary to traditional visual communication researches that commonly study either frequenting or media biases, this research design helps to conduct more in-depth analysis and to answer question what visual forms modern conflict adopts.

Methodological Challenges

The complex nature of research design makes it rather challenging to combine all anticipated approaches and methodological tools within one study. Additional challenges will arise when chosen research methodology will be applied to quantitative data analysis.

Methodological Limitations

Among others, major methodological limitation lies in the quantitative nature of the research design that takes rather holistic approach collecting the data sample and makes it problematic to focus on separate cases.

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