Visual Sociology: Expanding Sociological Vision
Generally speaking, visual sociology is comprised of various research approaches that can be used to portray, describe or analyze social phenomena. Visual sociologists use photographic evidence for data-gathering, or to study photographs produced in a given social setting.
Visual sociology originated from documentary photography and photo journalistic practices. In turn, these methods of visual inquiry emerged from the realist schools of fine art and portrait photography. These realist schools of art first used photography to document physical settings such as landscapes, as well as social situations.
Paradoxically, photography has been used either to expose the social problems of the proletariat or as propaganda for social control by the state. State and social relations during the 1960s in the United States is a prime example of these forces at work. Photography was used to document the social lives of the counterculture at political demonstrations, the conditions of poverty created by racial and economic inequities, and violence occurring in war zones abroad. Photography was also used by the federal government to produce a romanticized narrative of prevalent social conditions in an effort to increase support of recently introduced welfare programs.
Since the 1960s, knowledge and practice of visual sociology in academia has dwindled. Many modern sociologists are not trained in visual research methods and are not skilled in evaluative photographic research.
There are several key research approaches that can be used to evaluate photographic evidence. They include the scientific, narrative, reflexive and phenomenological research modes.
The scientific mode of research requires the sociologist to look outside their personal experiences for data. Photographs are read in a way that can assist the researcher in understanding cultural definitions within a given society. Details such as nuances in interaction, presentations of self and environmental relationships clue the sociologist in to the cultural use of space. This requires the documentation of an individual or social unit’s material environment. House interiors, housing patterns, farming practices and field conditions are just some examples of environmental factors that can be captured by the photographer. The camera is a vital tool with which to gather information that would normally pass by unnoticed.
The scientific mode of research also allows the sociologist to document larger societal changes such as historical shifts in material environment, social lives of a group and various social phenomenon. This can be achieved by rephotographing material in a particular community or geographic region, drawing from archives or historical collections.
The narrative mode of sociological research depicts social life as a process through social interaction in a given community. Researchers construct visual narratives that define the presentation of individual or collective self in a society.
The reflexive mode of research requires an active relationship between the sociologist, photographs and the subjects photographed. By using the field technique of photo-elicitation; cultural associations, definitions and perspectives can be expanded to include the phenomenology of the subject. This type of field research helps to humanize the subject.
The phenomenological mode of research expresses spiritual, psychological or emotional data about a given topic. These photographs communicate sociological insights in an artistically stimulating manner. They elicit knowledge through the analysis of photographs that have deep personal meaning.
Investigative and field research methods could benefit tremendously by incorporating visual research methods and analysis into sociological inquiry. Photographic evidence can further traditional social research methods by providing material evidence of material environments, nuances in social interaction and details indicative of emotional stress that would otherwise remain unevaluated.