Doing Visual Sociology in Graduate School
Karen Gregory, November 14, 2007
A few years ago, Howard Becker spoke in the sociology department at the Graduate Center. After his talk, which emphasized “doing sociology well”, I asked him how one should go about becoming a visual sociologist. He told me, in about as few words, “just do it.” As sound as that advice is for almost all graduate work, at the same time many graduate students who are interested in “just doing” visual work in the field of sociology encounter a number of obstacles that I would like to begin to address in this post. Hopefully, this will serve not only as an introduction, but will get a conversation started.
Perhaps the first issue that students encounter is an issue of disciplinary boundaries. Since no one answer exists to the question “what is sociology?” the confusion seems all the more great when one asks “wha is visual sociology?” And, this is probably the first question anyone will ask you when you mention the words. Unlike the obvious distinctions created by the words “political”, “economic”, or “Marxist”, placing the word “visual” in front of sociology seems to confuse the listener. Suddenly, the sociologist who can usually take pride in “imagining” the machinations of the social world is blinded by this simple (yet, often problematic) word. Howard Becker and many others have already tried to address the uncomfortable position that visual analysis and visual production have in the field of sociology and you can see for reference Becker’s “Visual Sociology, Documentary Photography, and Photojournalism: It’s (Almost) All a Matter of Context“, Doug Harper’s “Visual Sociology:Expanding Sociological Vision“, or John Grady’s “Becoming a Visual Sociologist” for an introduction. These are just a start of growing body of literature (in fact, these are what we might call “the classics”) and almost everyone who refers to their work as “visual sociology” will tell you that it’s a new field and that we are all contributing to its creation. Okay, sure. Nonetheless, there are a couple specific claims on the table that our work will need to address and I think those issues can be simplified into the very broad categories that underpin all sociological work: theory, methodology, and disciplinary gate-keeping.
One: A Photo is Just a Photo
The word “visual” raises for most savvy sociologists a number of interesting, contentious, and unresolved theoretical issues. Martin Jay’s Downcast Eyes is just one attempt to explain the historical and social contexts that gave rise to these academic issues, but at the end of the day most humanities are still struggling with what “the visual” entails. Studies of consciousness are still hard pressed to figure out where our eyes stop and our minds begin. You might ask “do you even need eyes to see?” Oliver Sacks, as well as several blind photographers, like Alice Wingwall, suggest that may not always be the case. Perhaps what we call vision is only one part of a dynamic body-mind process, something Mark Hansen refers to as “haptic vision”? Assuming you get past this fairly large first issue, other issues remain: What can things called “visual” do or say? What can they help us know about the world? What epistemological contributions can they make to the field of sociology?
Well, for most people who take images seriously (photographers, videographers, filmmakers, artists, art lovers, media makers, designers, advertisers, scientists, doctors, not to mention war-mongers, the police, the State, even you as you read these words on a computer screen all come to mind…), the contribution of the visual to our understanding of the world and ourselves is, for the most part, obvious. The image is information. The average sociologist probably wouldn’t disagree with you. They merely take that information for granted. The world appears or has already appeared (whither Heidegger) and the role of the sociologist is to interpret what appears within established frameworks, vocabularies, and literatures. We contribute to existing knowledge of the social world. So, whether or not the information of the image qualifies as what the academy has traditionally called “knowledge” goes right to the heart of the matter. Namely, if you work visually how can you address the epistemological problems images raise?
Two: A Photo is Never Just a Photo
Since most sociologists have at least some philosophy under their belts, as well as (whether they like it or not) some understanding of the what the postmodern turn was all about, the question of knowing is a real quagmire. Our eyes (apparently, although if Hansen and other new media theorists are right, why are we still blaming the poor orbs?) have been mucking up what we “know” since the beginning of time. They trick us into believing that the shadows on the wall are real and a very short tour of the references sociologist quickly make in their heads might go like this: Our eyes become the vectors by which our darkest and dirtiest (ir)rational desires bubble up through the Freudian topology, forcing us to look through the keyhole (where we almost always find a naked woman “to gaze” upon) and mistakenly label what we see as “he”, “she”, “it”, or (if we look in the mirror) “me”. In doing so, we reduce the world to an object that is subjected to what postmoderns found to be a relatively problematic system of language and in essence, we subject the world to the logos, or the knowledge of man (no pun intended.) The Frankfurt School saw this as laying the groundwork for complete totalitarianism and much of history bears out the aggresive relationship between capitalism’s advancement and the ability to see, label, categorize, “know”, and manipulate resources. It has been an unfortunate history. Therefore, when sociologists fear the word “visual”, whether they are actively engaged in theoretical work or not, they are often reproducing an academic culture that has existed for the last fifty years and which was heigtened as phenomenology and structuralism gave way to post-structuralism and criticism. As a result, you can probably find a great number of dissertations devoted to illustrating (although not in images) how particular social and historical arrangements enable a concept to enter the public/academic discourse. Unfortunately, the work that has been done here on vision, visuality, and the relationship between the image, information, and knowledge is still mired in a (often post-Marxist) criticism that is unsure of what to do with new technologies and the increasing prevelance of image and media production. An anxiety lingers despite the medium you choose to work in and a common response to anxiety is to shut down. Sociology has a bad case of anxiety in this regard. Although new media theorists and some sociologists such as Patricia Clough are trying to find a way forward, given the existing theoretical history, the road is still not clear. Also, bear in mind that most sociologists are still mostly interested in numbers, let alone critiquing the knowledge those numbers produce.
A Photo is a Letter?
So, images raise problems and the problems bleed from the theoretical to the methodological (and by extension, ethical) very quickly. In this regard, almost all of us probably agree. However, what these problems (and the all-too-often historical cases) suggest we should do with images and how we can intellegently live with them, is an issue that remains contentious and unresolved. This is only in part a methodological issue for sociologists. If we travel two doors down to anthropology or pyschology will find methods books and training manuals, as well as a long history of visual work. If we scratch the surface of this issue, we realize that almost all academic methodologies, even the current “visual methods” are still word-bound practices. As academics, we write. We write about what our work means and we write about how we do our work. When we work with images we seem to get into the business of translation, caught between two worlds. We try to develop “visual vocabularies”, but we are still not sure how an image can really live on its own. We might incorporate images into our teaching or illustrate an article or books with a couple photographs, but for the most part we are word-bound conversationalists who manage to pin words down on pages and, for the most part, we like it that way. It’s very hard to put a photograph in your bibliography.
So, why waste time looking at images or, worse, making them? Especially at a time when you are supposed to be learning the ropes of the discipline, filling up your bibliographies with more references, your CV with more publications, and generally proving your worth (there will have to be another post on political economy of graduate school)? In academics, the person with the most books wins. The person with the most photographs is still wishing they had a place to hang their photos. I don’t think there is one answer to the “why do it” question. Most people you talk to who call themselves “visual sociologists” just seem interested in images, they have something like a passion, and they may not be sure why. Good sociologists among us will let them know that their personal interest is social and that it is no coincidence that visual sociology is occuring at the same time as the “democratization” of technology is occuring and that in the same way the worlds of art, journalism, music, television, politics, and science are being forced to adapt (open themselves and then quickly assimilate, categorize, and make productive) to the ubiquitity of technologies and their creative outputs, sociology will also eventually need to re-set it boundaries. The question that remains for me is, not why (I want to) or how (there are many how-to books), but where to position my work so that it is taken seriously? In this regard, I do think we make the road by walking.