"A Stop Sign at the Intersection of History and Biography: Illustrating Mill’s Imagination with Depression-Era Photographs”
Chad M. Hanson
"Photographs scream 'we are real!' 'We live!' Tugging on sentiments and emotion."
Photography can be used as a powerful teaching tool in the Social Sciences. It assists and facilitates discussion by contributing to a stronger presentation of the material at hand. It, also, has the ability to encourage passive students to actively analyze subject matter. Photography has been used, historically, to help students develop a sociological imagination. In fact, using the Journal alone as an example, Hanson found that “between 1896 and 1916 thirty-one articles used 244 photographs as illustrations and evidence.”
Hanson choose the topic of the Great Depression to illustrate the effectiveness of photography to generate dialogue in a classroom setting. From 1933 to 1943, a group of photographers were commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the hardships of economic depression on rural America. Some of the notable photographers engaged in this program included Dorthea Lange, Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, and Russell Lee. The goal of this program was to record instances of poverty, the manner in which this social issue impacted the lives of families and individuals, and to educate the American public about this matter. From a sociologist's perspective, this program was an overwhelming success. Horowitz writes, “... to sociologists who take pictures… Evans must rank on the same level as Max Weber, Karl Marx, and Emile Durkheim.”
The means by which photographs are used in an educational environment has an overwhelming impact on the success of the students’ comprehension of this issue. Hanson, first, engaged his students with dialogue pertaining to the biographies of individual Americans and how their lives were impacted by the Great Depression. Then, when the students viewed the photographs in context Hanson would ensure that they were then given the time necessary to think rigorously about the images. He would allow them an adequate period of time to practice their sociological interpretation of the image, either on paper or with small groups before the conversation was returned to the class as a whole. Hanson found that the key is to allow students adequate time to honestly investigate each photograph. When applied correctly to the classroom, the visual representation of social issues can assist students in developing the quality of mind necessary to develop their sociological imagination.
Hanson found that students in his class gained thorough understanding of the social issue at hand through this process. Students learned to what extent individual and familial lives can be affected by larger social forces like the economy during a depression. The extent to which the students’ comprehension of this issue grew was measured by their responses to photographs viewed in the classroom. These responses included:
“Severe economic depression affects everyone in the family and society, not just the traditional worker.”
“Everything that happens to people is not private; people are shaped by patterns they don't even see.”
“No matter who you are or what your social standing is, we are all affected by society.”
“It is not always people who change society. At times, society changes people.”
“...helped me understand what C. Wright Mills meant by the ‘intersection of history and biography.’”
Although such exercises are useful in engaging students in a classroom setting, more work needs to be done. There is evidence to suggest the political engagement among first-year students is at its lowest level since 1966. In the students’ social lives, there is a tendency not to talk about social issues or public life. Hanson came to the conclusion that sociologists have never faced a greater challenge than in modern society to promoting the sociological imagination.
As students, shouldn’t we expect more from our education system and from ourselves?