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Visual Sociology

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California State University, Dominguez Hills
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Soka University Japan - Transcend Art and Peace
Created: April 12, 2003
Latest Update: April 13, 2003

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Jacob Riis photo, City of New York Museum
Jacob Riis
Bandits' Roost, c. 1890
Hand-colored glass lantern slide
The Jacob A. Riis Collection,
Museum of the City of New York

Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism: Art or Sociology?

In this essay I want to review Howard Becker's definition of visual sociology and provide some access to visual sociology as it now exists. Becker's primary interest is as a sociological researcher, and so he uses the terms of methodology and research, objective research, which can be duplicated and validated by others. I am most in sympathy with his description of visual sociology, but I recognize that my concerns are more to convey messages, backed by solid theory, than to add to the theory of positivist science.

I will also talk about Jon Prosser's writing on the ethics of visual sociology. Again, a perspective based on "doing" formal sociology, albeit qualitative sociology.

I have a very different interest in visual sociology. I see visual sociology as a means of bringing to awareness certain traits and facts of the social reality of our lived experience without tripping over the hazards of words otherwise needed to get us there. I have done a series of paintings of South Africa in which barbed wire play a major role. Sometimes the rolls of barbs stand out in stark and brutal power. Sometimes I soften them, as I focus on the suburbanized normalcy of what appears behind them. And sometimes I zero right in on the sign that tells those of us who know to look closely enough in the beautiful environs of the Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe that the fence is electrifies, barbs and all.

I don't have any ethical qualms about bringing home these images, no more than I have about bringing home the wonderful souvenirs of the people I learned from and met. Sometimes I use the camer or the camcorder for this. But mostly I use my trusty inkpen and watercolors. And when I come home and teach with these images, I call it sociology. It is sociology. I do not claim it as a positivistic approach, but I do claim it as an illocutionary approach to understanding the world in which I live. Mine is an intensely personal perspective, but it's that perspective I trust enough to share. I will be open to other perspectives. But I find the need for visual narrative, which I think gives flesh to our objective analyses.

The Jacob Riis photo of a New York slum street circa 1900 says more than I could ever articulate in writing. The mere sharing of that sight, the vision of laundry fluttering across the minimal bit of sky, with the dandified dress of the men in the forefront, with the more commonly dressed folks on the stoops and peering from the windows, says more about population density than several demographic essays would impress upon the dilettante reader. The use of photographs, from then and now, of drawings, of comics, offers us a visual anchor on which to center our readings and study. Especially as I try to reach out to the broader lifetime learning community, such images, such art work matters.

And once trained to see in this manner, I hope to be able to teach you to find similar sights in your own situatedness and record them for their power of expression, with a camera, with pencil, pen, or oil paint, as you wish. The photographs we study here are beautifully done by talented men and women who developed their skills as artists or journalists. But the very recording and sharing of such visual moments is an important component of illocutionary understanding. While I was painting the barbed wire series, I kept aching to go out on a drive around my own city, to discover what had always remained out of consciousness in the past - the barbed wire and other symbols we use to keep the Other out. You may not be Sander or Riis or Atget, but a throw away camera can capture the same visual sense, and shared, it becomes part of our understanding of each others' lived experience. That's sociology.

Noitce the importance that Becker gives to a practical end: "The latter two projects were, in fact, massive and monumental and in some deep sense impractical, that is, not tied to any immediate practical use." (Speaking of Sander's German social types and Atget's studies of Paris.)

Discussion Questions

  1. Does the Jacob Riis photo at the top of this file help you to imagine a scene in a New York slum around 1900?

    Consider the different states of dress observable. Consider the clothes strung across the street and their effect on the light and the general appearance of the street? What clues are there that this might be a slum?

  2. Would you expect a slum area on the edge of any large city today to have similarities with Jacob Riis's photo?

    Would there be clothing strung across the street today? There sure was in Shanghai when I was there last Spring. Were the streets still narrow, crowded? Yep.

  3. How could we translate the last two questions into a sense of the progress in standards of living over the last century?

    What other photos would we need to determine whether the clothes strung over the street represent a class element? What about laundry machines in the US and in China. Did I go in search of such photos? No. I didn't have the energy. One of the problems of travel.


    Please read as much of the material as interests you, and I'll add to my own explanation and discussion questions for the others soon. jeanne April 13, 2003.

Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individual Authors, April 2003.
"Fair use" encouraged.