What do Google images tell us about rural places?
January 24, 2023
By Shikhar Kashyap
This blog article was originally published by the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.
January 24, 2023
Note: This piece originally ran in The Daily Yonder on December 20, 2022 and is republished with permission
Image credit: Xandr Brown/Unsplash
Imagine you are in a conversation with a friend who is talking about rural India. Assuming you don’t know anything about the topic, where would you go to investigate what “rural India” looks like?
If you are like me, you would probably search Google Images. We do this sort of searching every day.
But what kind of images come up, and what stories do these images tell? Are those stories accurate and representative?
To understand how these images can unintentionally create specific narratives in our minds, I performed a simple comparison between the image results for the search terms “rural America” and “rural India.”
I used the Google Images search engine and examined the first 50 image results (as of 11/09/22) for each search term. I looked at the images and the description text displayed directly underneath the text (without clicking the image) to define the major themes or ideas about rurality that the image (along with the descriptive text) conveyed. The searches created very different portraits of “rural.”
Here is what I found:
First, images of “rural America” tended to show nature or rural buildings and infrastructure. Two-thirds (66%) of the “rural America” images had forests, farms, animals, etc., representing “connectedness to nature,” while 82% of the images contained rural buildings/infrastructure, like roads, barns, homes, street views, etc. (Note that some images fit more than one theme, so the total is more than 100%.) A fifth (20%) of the images showed some sort of action/productivity, and a similar amount (22%) showed innovation, transformation, and change.
The images that came up for the search “rural India” were different. They painted a more nuanced picture of rurality, with people at the forefront of transformative change. First, nearly all the images for “rural India” (96%) had people in them, compared to 20% for “rural America.” Women and women-led self-help groups were much more prominent. Three quarters (74%) of the “rural India” images showed women, compared to 10% for “rural America.”
Some other big differences were that “rural India” images were four times more likely to convey action or productivity (80%) than their American counterparts and more than twice as likely (52% vs 22%) to show innovation in rural spaces.
It’s obvious that these visuals construct different narratives of “rurality” for America and India.
People who search for “rural India” see people leading transformational community change, women self-help groups, and technology. And people who search for “rural America” see traditional rural infrastructure and nature, along with the economic and social decline represented by dilapidated infrastructure and the absence of people.
Half of the cortex of our brain is devoted to processing visual information. Images and the narratives they create shape our perceptions of the world. When images are skewed, our perceptions of people and places can change accordingly. That’s especially true for young students who increasingly rely on Google in their studies.
The dramatic differences between images of rural America and rural India may reinforce misconceptions and stereotypes for both places. We need technology that helps us push beyond simple first impressions, rather than reinforces them. And we all need to watch out for common pitfalls in how we consume information. We need to think critically about what images mean, where they come from, and how they influence our perceptions.
Shikhar Kashyap is an international doctoral student in curriculum and instruction at Virginia Tech. He grew up in Mysore, India. This article grew out of an assignment in a graduate course in rural education with Amy Price Azano, Ph.D., director of the Center for Rural Education at Virginia Tech.
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