April 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 4

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Sociology, Visually

Douglas Harper, Duquesne University, harperd@duq.edu

This public sculpture from Reykjavik, Iceland, is a visual statement that leads to sociological questions. The heroic figure from the 1930s combines visual themes of war, patriarchy, religion and nation. It raises the question of what and how societies valorize social types and how they reinforce national and cultural ideologies. (Photo: D. Harper)

Now is an extraordinarily creative time for visual sociology due to new thinking about what it means to see (and not to see!), to record the visual dimension of social life, and to think about imagery in society. As a field, visual sociology has a history dating back to at least the 1970’s1, an organization— International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA)2, and an international presence. The fact that few ASA members belong to the IVSA suggested that a brief introduction might be in order.

Most simply, the visual approach invites new ways to understand and study common topics in sociology. For example, in the study of religion it is common to explore how religions are institutionalized, including bureaucratization, histories, belief structures, and the like. All these are useful sources of understanding; but looking at and recording what one sees adds knowledge that cannot be gained in any other way. Religions may inhabit grand buildings that took centuries to build, or reused storefronts. Their visual relationships with their settings will reveal a great deal about communities, social organization, and change. Worship can be described with familiar concepts such as statuses, roles and, role performances, but it is quite another thing to study the actuality of worship via a visual (and audio) record. Finally, institutionalized religions express their identification with the sacred in visually different ways: adding minarets to a mosque in Europe will change its role in the lives of people who use or define the mosque from the outside. Explored in this way, the visual aspect of existence, whether recorded in photographs, films, or even drawings (David Macaulay’s drawings of the imagined building of a gothic cathedral in medieval France is an example) leads to new understandings. I am not suggesting that images become simplifications of written ideas or replacements for complex arguments but rather that they serve as an amplification and elaboration—a gestalt.

Visual sociologists see photographs and other visual material as both factual and subjective: an object reflected light onto our digital sensors, film negatives, or retinas, but the way the image is made or interpreted makes it subjective, constructed, and unique. All sociological data have this dual character, but in the case of visual material the interplay between the objective and subjective is particularly rich.

How Does Visual Research Happen?

Visual methods are, at their core, reflexive. The image-directed interview or photo elicitation (PE) may be the most incisive form. In the PE interview the interviewer and the interviewee discover the limitations of their assumptions and cultural knowledge as they explore meanings of images they study together. The resulting discussion challenges the interviewer-as-authority model of the typical interview. The more fundamental reflexivity of the visual approach reminds us that we are actors in the social worlds we study; photographic images reflect their authorship as much as the subject matter they record.

All sociological data have this dual character, but in the case of visual material the interplay between the objective and subjective is particularly rich.

Visual sociology includes the recognition that visual surfaces of society offer new subject matter. For example, a recent study examined whether contemporary Romans see the symbols of fascism in the buildings, murals, streets, and even neighborhood design leftover from a discredited era, and what they think about them if they do.3 In this case the visual texts of a city link seeing to collective memory. Virtually any visible surface is potential subject matter; from landscapes to comic books; from architecture to advertisements.

Two new issues have captured the imagination of visually oriented sociologists. The first involves new possibilities of digitized forms of visualization. Of course, sociologists have long been interested in the visualization of quantitative knowledge; Charles Joseph Minard’s depiction of the path, time, temperature, and battle losses of Napoleon’s army in the Russian campaign of 1812 (drawn in the 19th century) is often praised and emulated by sociologists. Digital technology, however, is now awakening the sociological imagination in novel ways. An example is Stanford University’s Spatial History Project website,4 which presents an interactive map of Northern Italy, showing discrete events that took place from 1943 to 1945. These include records of the age and gender of victims of the Italian Holocaust, the location of their arrest, and number arrested. Moving across the Italian landscape through time thus reveals the spatial and temporal organization of terror. The display of information leads to questions and answers that one would not have recognized without the visual dimension. It is this process of seeing information and data in relationship to each other that gives rise to new questions and understandings.

Finally, visual sociology includes the study of the social power of images. Images were once monopolized by the church (in the West, in any case); they eventually escaped the cathedral for the art gallery, the printed page, and eventually the private sphere; they are now ubiquitous in the cell phone camera/YouTube world we inhabit. Images influence how power, political processes, collective imaginations, and resistance are woven into the fabric of social life. The surveillance systems of the state (admittedly only partly visual) are confronted by the observing public, armed with cell phone cameras and the world wide web. Thus the image has simultaneously become a potent source of control and liberation.

Visual sociology is an invitation to critically and imaginatively integrate seeing into sociology. It is a creative, stimulating, and exciting way to think about society to do research and to teach sociology. 

Douglas Harper is Mellon Professor of Sociology at Duquesne University and President of the International Visual Sociology Association. His recent book, Visual Sociology (2013, Routledge), is the first comprehensive overview of the field.


  1. Howard Becker’s 1974 article “Photography and Sociology” published in Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communication 1 (1), 3-26, is often seen as the seminal moment for the field.
  2. The International Visual Sociology Association was established in 1986 and has sponsored conferences throughout the world since that time. The journal of the organization, Visual Studies, in its 27th volume. Visit the website at http://visualsociology.org
  3. I Simboli del fascismo nella Roma del XXI secolo, cronache di un’ oblio. 2014. Douglas Harper and Francesco Mattioli. Aciraele-Roma: Bonnano. (“The symbols of fascism: Reports of an oblivion”). In Press.
  4. www.stanford.edu/group/spatialhistory/cgi-bin/site/index.php



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