The Internet, Policy & Politics Conferences

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford

Felix Fischer: When photographs speak: An Objective Hermeneutical approach to understanding adolescent life in online communities

Felix Fischer

Social media plays an important and vastly growing role in the lives of adolescents and young adults all over the world, since they are generally quite enthusiastic about using social network sites (SNS). Parents, however, seem to be unsure as to whether or not they should be concerned about their children’s SNS usage (involving their interactions). Surprisingly, even German professionals (mostly in the field of social work) believe themselves to be rather uninformed about SNS, as this year’s professional ifoebb-convention (“New Media”) at Frankfurt University has once again revealed. Professionals expressed their concerns, stating that (even though SNS have been around for quite some time) they still feel a sense of having deficits of understanding, in terms of what truly happens amongst teenagers on SNS. This concludes that (at least in terms of Germany), one is in need of an even more in-depth understanding of teenage interaction on these platforms.

As recent studies, both in the USA (e.g. Lenhart, 2015) and Germany (e.g. Feierabend et al., 2015) indicate, the “SNS-landscape” is undergoing quite a few changes: Although Facebook is still the number one SNS, adolescents and young adults increasingly use specialized (app-based) platforms such as Instagram (e.g. US) or WhatsApp (e.g. in Germany) as well. Also, interaction on these platforms is noticeably shifting from text-based to visual communication. Therefore, Instagram has received great attention from adolescents, as well as young adults and only little, however, from scholars (with respect to teenage and young adult habitus) so far. The work introduced in this proposal concerns itself with the important question of how teens and young adults interact with each other through the utilization of photographs on Instagram. This encompasses the notion that photographs have a “language of their own” and that teenagers and young adults understand the concept of how to make use of this asset in terms of communication and identity construction. The proposed assumption fits well into the observation of raising importance of (self-made) visual content, especially on SNS. Consequently, this query is not only one of great societal importance, but one of academic as well, since it emphasizes (what is known in the social sciences as) the “pictorial turn” (Mitchell 1994).

For this research endeavor, the method of Objective Hermeneutics (Ulrich OEVERMANN), with an adaptation for photograph analysis by Roswitha BRECKNER (Segment Analysis; “Segmentanalyse”), was utilized. Excerpts from three case studies (Instagram profiles from US teenagers, ranging in ages from 15 to 18) are discussed. Since this method and its adaptation is rather unknown in media pedagogy and psychology, the proposed article shall also focus on presenting and explaining the method itself, as it may serve as a valuable tool for future undertakings. Objective Hermeneutics allows for the ability to gain a more in-depth understanding of what occurs when adolescents and young adults communicate with one another via pictures. Through the extraction of latent structures of meaning (latente Sinnstrukturen) and objective structures of significance (objective Bedeutungsstrukturen), one becomes capable of understanding what it means to have chosen one action or another. The method utilizes abductive reasoning. It not only works out the “particular” in a case, but also the “general”, as the “particular” builds on it. Therefore, the implications, which can be drawn from the analysis, are those of a broader proposition and, in parts, can be seen as reliable beyond the US teenage habitus.

An important, but when applied to photographs, rather challenging aspect of the Objective Hermeneutic method, is the sequence analytical procedure, which means that each and every protocol of social reality (texts, photographs, etc.) has to be considered in its “natural” procession (e.g. the way we read and write from left to right). With photographs, this may raise some serious issues, as one theoretically perceives a photograph in any given order and almost simultaneously. Nevertheless, Rudolf ARNHEIM (e.g. 1980) and Max IMDAHL (1980) proposed the notion that the “Bildgestalt” (meaning carrying element) constitutes itself through structure. Thus, these picture immanent structures guide and structure our perception. Therefore, BRECKNER introduced the Segment Analysis that focuses directly on the specific characteristics of pictures. In this approach, “segment” stands for a meaning carrying picture element (e.g. figures or motifs). Unlike texts, photographs do not present themselves in written form. Consequently, one must transform what can be perceived into writing. By doing so, an “artificial” succession is created, which puts in order, what was previously perceived rather simultaneously in a seemingly unstructured way. Certainly, this may be one of the more critical aspects of the method, since the viewed is part of an internal and subjective process. Objectivity is obtained e.g. by considering certain “(art) rules”, like the well-known “rule of thirds” (picture composition). Also, analysis should always be performed in interpretation groups so that different views may be taken into account and a large variety of possible interpretation alternatives enhance the interpretation process, beyond personal preferences.

The results of the case studies indicate, so far (assumed that Instagram is understood as a place for teenagers and young adults to present themselves), that a great deal of identity development is taking place on Instagram. With increasing age, typical adolescent topics, as described by Erik H. ERIKSON (1968), James E. MARCIA (1966) and others become more interesting (e.g. dating or future careers). Also, male teenagers differ a great deal from their female companions. On the one hand, boys usually try to appear more masculine by portraying themselves in rather male- associated sports (e.g. US football) or by accentuating masculine appearing poses (e.g. emphasizing muscles). Girls, on the other hand, typically try to be more feminine by using “softer” and more feminine colors in the photographs (e.g. pink, pastel tones, etc.), putting on make-up, taking well lit self-portraits, or by stressing family topics through family portraits and pictures out of the past.

The following key points could be found on Instagram so far (not conclusive): (1) negotiation of one’s identity, (2) differences in sex identities, (3) production of ambivalences through self-presentation and self- disclosure, (4) popularity and reputation as major concepts amongst the older adolescents and young adults, (5) “remembering” vs. “archiving” - initializing a conversation, (6) real friends in a virtual environment and (7) aesthetics as part of self-presentation.


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Oevermann, U., Allert, T., Konau, E., & Krambeck, J. (1987). Structures of Meaning and Objective Hermeneutics. In V. Meja, D. Misgeld, & N. Stehr (ed.), Modern German Sociology (pp. 437-447). New York: Columbia University Press.

Felix Fischer