The Stereoscopic Eye

Inessential views of art and photography.

Starting notes on the visual and social inquiry

*Originally published in 2015, here.

In 2005, Douglas Harper argued for an Integrative Visual Sociology, which enables an empathetic understanding of sociological questions, as opposed to a more pattern-analysis-based, macro conceptualization of sociological questions. The main features of this new approach are:

  • Work with traditional assumptions and practices of sociological fieldwork and analysis
  • Photographic work led by theory. The exploration of a sociological idea underlies the visual work. The visual work and the sociological idea are in dialogue through a constant reflection on how the sociological idea can be better explored.
  • Reflection and appropriation of visual strategies typical of popular communication forms such as advertising. Photo-montage and photo-collage are outlined as powerful tools for reflection.

The rise of Integrative Visual Sociology comes from a post-modern understanding of sociology, whereby truth is conceptualized as always partial and photographs are always an interpretation, which is subjected to change. A new focus is set on the relationships between researchers and participants. Data gathering is replace with data co-construction and collaborative methods of inquiry.

Taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827.
Taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 or 1827.

This understanding of Visual Sociology is the product of a historical development of the use of the visual (mainly photographs) for sociological inquiry. Both photography and sociology emerged at the same time. They are both related to the rise of the Bourgeoise, the industrial revolution and the idea of democratization. Although photography was commonly used as a medium of social scientific knowledge production in its early days, soon sociology abandoned visual methods of research in favour of numerical data and abstract representations. Meanwhile, documentary photographers were exploring social problems in a similar way as sociological field-workers. Early examples are the works of Eugene Atget, Lewis Hine, Jacob Riss and the Clonbrock collection in Ireland. Documentary photography seemed to be contributing to social change and sometimes to state control. The work of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans for the Farm Security Administration is an example of the later. The sociological questions that the work of FSA was set to answer were: how does the great American (USA) Depression look like? How have Neal Deal policies impact on the life of Americans (USA)?

This is one of the photographic sequences published by Mead and Bateson.
This is one of the photographic sequences published by Mead and Bateson.

In 1942, anthropologists Mead and Bateson incorporated photography to their study of Balinese culture because words weren’t suitable enough to describe some of their findings. They both had extensive knowledge of Balinese culture thanks to both their theoretical engagement and their time in the field. They took thousands of photographs, which they later grouped by categories before creating visual sequences. “Balinese Character” remains a step-stone in Visual Sociology/Anthropology. The main lesson learned was the possibility of using photographs as part of the observation process. In Mead’s and Bateson’s work, photographs functioned as a reflection of reality. Today, we perceive those photographs (and any other) as an interpretation of reality. Do you see the difference?

A photograph extracted from “The Americans” by Robert Frank

Sociologists had been keeping an eye on documentary photographers for few decades when the sixties in all their counter-culture glory erupted. Often, Robert Frank’s work “The Americans” is considered pivotal for the posterior development of “Visual Sociology”. However, Frank wasn’t a sociologist, he was a photographer. As explained by Harper, in 1974 Howard S. Becker gave the emerging discipline a distinctive and profound rationale. Visual sociologists ground their images in the theory, while documentary photographers work often with intuition. Becker also defended an understanding of credibility, validity and reliability of visual work in sociology based on sociological factors and sociological working modi. According to Harper, a main difference between visual sociology and visual anthropology is that the later understands the image as a mediation between the subject and the researcher and places the focus of inquiry on the nature of visual representations.

Photograph by Patricia Prieto-Blanco

Visual sociologists use the visual as a method of social inquiry. The production of visual outputs is subjected to the exploration of sociological questions. Images depend on theory. However, visual sociologists need to learn how to work with images and how images work before they can embark themselves in a visual project. That is why visual sociology is inherently an interdisciplinary field and the reason why in this course we will be looking at both visual sociology and image studies materials. We will reflect on what an image is, what images want and also on the relationship between images and text.

What is an image?

Hint: there is no single definition.

Visual Studies is also an interdisciplinary field in which images are approached from an informed and critical view, “(…) which includes an awareness of a wide range of image types, uses and contexts” (Manghani, 2013:xxii).

From Benjamin to Berger and the recent inclusion of film, journalism and photography in the curricula of second level education in many countries, it seems we need to be visual literate to function in our contemporary world.

We need to be able to read images emblematically and symptomatically, in terms of the most fundamental questions of social life. This means that critical theories are nedded, theories that are themselves visual, that show rather than argue” (political theorist Susan Buck-Morss quoted in Manghani, 2013: xxvii).

References (other than the links!):

Harper, Douglas (1998): “Visual Sociology: Expanding Sociological Vision”, The American Sociologist, Spring 1998, Vol.19, Issue 1, pp.54 -70.

Harper, Douglas (2005): “An Argument for Visual Sociology”, John Prosser (ed.), Imaged-based Research: A Source Book for Qualitative Researchers, Routledge, pp.20-34.  

Manghani, Sunil (2013): Image Studies. Theory and Practice. Routledge.


One comment on “Starting notes on the visual and social inquiry

  1. Pingback: SOC513 - Visual Sociology (Guest Edition) - The Social Breakdown

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on August 7, 2021 by in Visual Sociology and tagged , , .

Enter your email address to follow The Stereoscopic Eye and receive notifications of new posts by email.


%d bloggers like this: