Introduction: Visual Sociology

Laura Harris and Paul Jones

This month, The Sociological Review’s digital platforms will be exploring contemporary visual sociology. Visual sociology, broadly understood, encompasses the many different ways that visual materials and associated techniques can be put to use in the illumination of social life. This starting point promises much: if visual sociology serves to open up sociological research to different ways of seeing, knowing, and communicating beyond the text, it perhaps has potential to engage new publics in research collaborations and conversations, to open up inquiry of elements of social life typically overlooked, and to democratise sociological research practices.

Against this backdrop, advocates for visual sociology have extolled the possibilities of what are in actual fact a still-emergent and loosely-defined set of methods.  Amongst many others who have celebrated the empirical and theoretical possibilities of visual methodologies, Gillian Rose, Doug Harper, and Sarah Pink have been extremely influential in establishing the field of visual sociology as it is most typically understood today; on the one hand, their rich work has showcased exactly what sociology stands to gain from engaging with visual forms, and on the other it has carefully unpacked some of the pitfalls and tensions associated with the deployment of visual material in/for social research.

The early works of these thinkers have coalesced into a kind of canon, and while they all – along with others such as Howard Becker and Caroline Knowles – remain intellectually productive, it is now thanks in part to their previous interventions, that a way of exploring society that was once marginal today proliferates. Visual sociology is embedded in undergraduate and graduate university courses in many universities the world over, is represented by a number of international subject associations, benefits from international conferences and meetings, and boasts some dedicated scholarly journals that make the most of the flexibility of new forms of academic publishing. Additionally, it is also fair to say that visual sociology is ‘mainstreamed’ in the discipline in another way too, with research connecting with elements of approaches characterising the subfield regularly appearing as an embedded component of studies in the pages of major journals and books, and in teaching too.

Complicating the potentials noted above, politics concerning authorship, interpretation, as well as the risks of images being de- and re-contextualised, or indeed appropriated, are crucial when using or producing images in research. What’s more, complicated ethical issues surrounding anonymisation open up, and it is incumbent on visual sociologists to account for – and sometimes seek to reject or resist – the kind of uses that their images may be put to, the narratives and agendas that they may be positioned so as to support, etc. In other words, like all methods, visual methods’ democratising potential is something to be carefully navigated, and can not be taken for granted.

Precisely because images afford the opening up communication to broad publics, visual sociology has a particular resonance with respect to The Sociological Review’s stated aim to make sociology public; we are delighted to be able to bring together a group of bright sociologists – many of whom are ECRs – and to showcase their excellent work that we feel pushes on debates in visual sociology. Against this backdrop, this collection draws together some new and emerging scholarship in visual sociology. The overall aim is to enliven the debate by corralling together some new currents, bringing together scholars who – while growing out of the traditions suggested above – are not encumbered by them. This task is in the borderlands of sociological methods, where research practices and creative practices cross-pollinate. Rather than looking to further or continue the canon, we have looked instead to ‘undiscipline’ our visual thinking; to learn and collaborate with our disciplinary neighbours in anthropology or art, for example.

We will be hosting Nathan Stephens-Griffin’s comic, which he authored to communicate a project of careful, critical sociological research of the UK ‘spycops’ scandal. Anna Pechurina and Ken Kajoranta present their visual study of AirBnBs, ‘Unhomely Homes’, and draw our attention to elements of these sites that could have been overlooked. Charlotte Bate’s videos reflect on her experience of wild swimming, capturing the affective experiences of the practice. Maike Pötschulat blogs on urban photography and belonging, making an important methodological point cobncerning the reiteration of place marketing tropes in participants’ photographs, while Rebecca Noone writes on her project where participants were asked to visualise and sketch route directions by pencil, in the age of Google Maps that has affected spatial understandings of its users. Laura Harris reads Susan Sontag’s influential text Against Interpretation from a sociological perspective, while Dan McCulloch explores the relationship between ‘participatory visual methods’ and ‘voice’. Finally, Patricia Prieto-Blanco and Chanelle Manton interrogate the emotional labour of domiciliary care work through visual methods.

Along with these exciting blogs, which we think represent some cutting-edge interpretations of visual sociology, there will be book reviews, and a series of papers from our archive have been made freely available – these papers come from Les Back, Ruth Holliday, Sarah Pink, Gillian Rose, and Jane Holgate, Janroj Keles and Leena Kumarappan. The series can be followed on our social media, following #TSRVisual.

Our Instagram Residency continues with Paul Sng’s ‘Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience’ taking over our feed. This project is about identity, injustice, and inequality and features portraits of people who have found hope amidst the bleak recent history of UK policy. We will be posting 16 portraits from different photographers, including quotes from the sitters and Paul’s blog post will introduce his residency. Follow us on thesociologicalreview.

Across this innovative collection of work, we will have a mix of participant-generated and researcher-generated visual outputs, as well as a group of extremely sharp theoretical explorations. In the collection we have consciously tried to not elide ‘visual’ with ‘photographic’, nor to foreground either moving or still images. The digital series has a purposefully loose notion of visual sociology, with the aim to amplify some quite fresh voices in the debate, and to showcase some ways in which visual sociology today is in dynamic conversation with the methods that early visual sociologies anticipated. The collection benefits from the dexterity of digital platforms, which offer today’s sociologists countless ways to entangle the visual in their research practice and outputs. The ‘visual’ is made meaningful and operative afresh in each new project – we simply hope you engage and think with them.

Laura Harris is a Digital Engagement Fellow at The Sociological Review. She has written a PhD in the Sociology of Art in collaboration with Bluecoat, Liverpool’s centre for the contemporary arts, using a filmmaking-as-fieldwork method. She tweets @LauraMaHarris

Paul Jones is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, and the Digital Editor of The Sociological Review. His research usually addresses architecture and capitalism, and he tweets @Jones01_P

Photo credit: Bobby Beasley. Taken from the book Invisible Britain: Portraits of Hope and Resilience, edited by Paul Sng

3 thoughts on “Introduction: Visual Sociology

  1. Interesting…..have started exploring visual pedagogies to deliver sociology modules, including visual assessment. Also, the use of short films (10-15 minutes) to disseminate research.

  2. Although the attention to our craft by the ASR is most welcome, this would hardly be an “introduction to visual sociology, but more of a quick peak at a few things of which the authors seem to be more or less enamored. For those who wish to engage with the practices of products of those who claim the title of Visual Sociologist I suggest a thorough reading of the journal Visual Studies (at one time Visual Sociology), some attention to the International Visual Sociology Association’s web presence (https://visualsociology.org), as well as the Visual Sociology Research Committee of the International Sociological Association which published its own introduction to Visual Sociology in 2017 (Sociopedia.isa, DOI: 10.1177/2056846017121). On a person note, the ASA’s Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews recommended, perhaps mistakenly, my own Seeing Cities Change: Local Culture and Class as an urban sociology text. I think it important to first understand the discipline before ‘undisciplining” our visual thinking; and it should be also noted that visual sociologists have long been learning and collaborating with our disciplinary neighbors in anthropology, media studies, art, etc…. examples which would be found in our conferences, journals, articles, books, et alia. I should also note the the IVSA has long been engaged in public sociology having pioneered the employment of a multitude of visual approaches, especially collaborations, in the development of its creed. However, the idea that a canon (a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged) for visual sociologists exists somewhere serves more an heuristic than practical value.

  3. Although the attention to our craft by the ASR is most welcome, this would hardly be an “introduction to visual sociology, but more of a quick peak at a few things of which the authors seem to be more or less enamored. For those who wish to engage with the practices of products of those who claim the title of Visual Sociologist I suggest a thorough reading of the journal Visual Studies (at one time Visual Sociology), some attention to the International Visual Sociology Association’s web presence (https://visualsociology.org), as well as the Visual Sociology Research Committee of the International Sociological Association which published its own introduction to Visual Sociology in 2017 (Sociopedia.isa, DOI: 10.1177/2056846017121). On a personal note, the ASA’s Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews recommended, perhaps mistakenly, my own Seeing Cities Change: Local Culture and Class as an urban sociology text. I think it important to first understand the discipline before ‘undisciplining” our visual thinking; and it should be also noted that visual sociologists have long been learning and collaborating with our disciplinary neighbors in anthropology, media studies, art, etc…. examples which would be found in our conferences, journals, articles, books, et alia. I should also note the the IVSA has long been engaged in public sociology having pioneered the employment of a multitude of visual approaches, especially collaborations, in the development of its creed. However, the idea that a canon (a general law, rule, principle, or criterion by which something is judged) for visual sociologists exists somewhere serves more an heuristic than practical value.

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