The Impact of Visual Images on Non-U.S. Citizens’ Attitudes About The United States: A Q-study in Visual Public Diplomacy

Written by Dennis F. Kinsey, Syracuse University and Olga Zatepilina, Appalachian State University


Combining our interests in both public diplomacy and operant subjectivity, in this study we explore the extent to which images impact individuals’ perceptions, attitudes and opinions about foreign countries. Specifically, we examine how individual consumers of visual imagery feel about the United States when they look at photos of its people and places. In addition, we try to understand what kinds of visual images trigger more positive thoughts about this country.

Although the role of visual images in public diplomacy has been acknowledged by scholars and practitioners (Cowan and Arsenault 2008; Lord 2006; Nye 2004), the degree to which visual communications affect people’s understanding of a foreign country has not been explored extensively. Nor have the ways of effectively employing visual communications been addressed in the public diplomacy literature.

Nevertheless, several communication scholars have looked at the visual aspects of such concepts as national image (Edwards and Winkler 2008; James 2006; Kamalipour 1999; Kennedy 2008); propaganda and ideology (Cloud 2008; Davis 2005; Hariman and Lucaites 2007, 2008; Michalski and Gow 2007); media and strategic communications (Hariman and Lucaites 2007; Kennedy 2008; Michalski and Gow 2007); and political rhetoric (Edwards and Winkler 2008; Erickson 2008). Hariman and Lucaites (2007) observed that photojournalism can shape our understanding of foreign affairs.

Insight in subjective perspectives about the United States and its people could make U.S. public diplomacy efforts more competitive in today’s marketplace of visual communications. We employ Q methodology to test what kinds of pictures are perceived representative of the United Sates and what sorts of emotions those pictures evoke about America among people of different cultures.

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