Friday, October 31, 2008

Visual Sociology

“Photography and sociology have approximately the same birth date, if you count sociology's birth as the publication of Comte's work which gave it its name, and photography's birth as the date in 1839 when Daguerre made public his method for fixing an image on a metal plate. From the beginning, both worked on a variety of projects. Among these, for both, was the exploration of society.”

- Becker, H. S. 1974. Photography and Sociology.

Photography has a place in sociology, however, not as the product, but as a part of the process. Sociologists are hungry for data. We crave text to codify. We are bound to empiricism. Empirical observation is mediated by the senses; senses that form the threshold to a world of perception, subjective appraisal. Photography penetrates, provokes, persuades. Though, conversely photography is static, and asks to be scrutinized, to be critically engaged with, to be accepted and/or rejected. Photography is both objective and subjective in its transmissions and receptions, in all six permutated couplings.

To return to my assertion that photography in sociology is most legitimately applicable in the process of gathering information, rather than the lazy act of presenting image as sociological thought. There is meaning wrapped up in the text, but the text is not the sociological meaning. For instance, the work of Znaniecki and Thomas did not end in the presentation of Polish immigrant life texts; those diaries, and images, became the sample to be made sense of. Likewise, the use of photography in the pursuit of sociological knowledge should not be reduced to the use of photography in dissemination of social politics. It is the difference between grounded theory and ideological propaganda.

Becker makes the argument that Sociology ought to join the ranks of natural scientists, historians and anthropologist in the appreciation of photography as a way of documenting evidence. Though, converse to Becker’s assertions, I maintain that photography ought not answer sociological questions, rather it should raise them. Photography should be used to identify the underlying subtext of typical observations. So instead of viewing an image of homeless as an example of homelessness expressed, the image should retain imbedded codes for seeing the issues around homelessness, and should call into question our perceptions of it. What is the condition of homelessness beyond our ethereal constructions? What has an immutable image to say about it?

More importantly, in the pursuit of sociological knowledge, is a study of the appraisal of image by the subject (sample population). Thus, the image recedes in its role as sociological truth, and the lived experience of the individual, or group, becomes the object. Methods of photo-elicited interview, for example, allow participants to reflect on image and make meaning as pertaining to a particular topic of interest guided by the researcher. The expressed experience, the meaning making, of people is a veritable interest in sociological research. Such is the nature of surveys and focus groups. Further, Photovoice is the method of allowing participants to take pictures whose framing says something about personal experience, then conducting interviews guided by the interpretations of one’s own images. There is a closed loop between evidence production and meaning making that distances the researcher and champions the cultural text in the intersection between mimesis and diegesis.

1 comment:

Edie said...

I got here because of your lookbook, and i must say that , even though im not cult or wise enought to understand completely the last text you wrote, i must say, i agree, and i found pretty smart all those things you said. Dont forget photography is more than any term. Its a form of personal art, in wich you can show to anyone with eyes a different perspective of things. Hope you didnt mind i passed by, i was just curious because you passed by my lookbook quite often ( . Bye