Related Fields: Visual Sociology Research Paper Starter

Related Fields: Visual Sociology

(Research Starters)

In the widest sense, visual sociology involves the use of photography and film as tools and/or subject matter for sociology. The metaphoric guideline for social science and philosophy in the latter half of the twentieth century was the so-called linguistic turn. Toward the end of the 1990s, another major shift occurred, known as the iconic turn. The world is no longer text, as implied by the linguistic turn, which suggested that all information and cognition could be rendered and reduced to textual information; rather, it is pictures. Sociology has begun to heed this intellectual shift toward accepting the mutual dynamics of the social construction of pictures and the pictorial construction of the social.

Keywords Body; Doxa; Film; fMRI; Habitus; Iconic Turn; Idolatry; Linguistic Turn; Nature/Culture; Panopticon; Phenomenology; Photography; Semiotics; Tattoo


Visual Sociology


The philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein can be considered the foundation for the focus of the humanities and social sciences on language. Before him, and before British logicians such as Bertrand Russell and American thinkers such as John Dewey, the majority of influential scholars in Europe and the United States received interdisciplinary training that involved studies in philosophy and physiology. Therefore, the focus of this earlier generation of scholars was strongly directed toward the body, its expressions, and its functions, including above all the relationship between vision and cognition.

Whether in the works of Germans such as Hermann Helmholtz and Wilhelm Wundt, American Transcendentalists such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, or early Pragmatists such as William James and Edmund Burke Delabarre, such scholarship and use of metaphors and analogies betrayed a strong debt to visual perception and its study. With Wittgenstein, Russell, et al., the focus shifted. In the mid-1960s, American philosopher Richard Rorty edited a collection of landmark essays that focused on this transition. This collection, The Linguistic Turn (1967), became the guideline for a program that would steer the humanities and social sciences for decades to come. Hermeneutics, originally made fertile for philosophy in a long clerical tradition of exegesis of the Bible by Schleiermacher (1768–1834), became a new leading method for the social sciences and philosophy thanks to Martin Heidegger and his student Hans-Georg Gadamer, whose seminal Truth and Method (1960) became an interdisciplinary bestseller and guide for generations.


In France, hermeneutics was discussed and improved intensively by Paul Ricoeur and turned into an ethical movement by Emmanuel Levinas. The method of Deconstruction was then launched by Levinas's disciple Jacques Derrida. Around the same time, the works of historian Michel Foucault and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu relaunched an interest in the body that culminated in the 1990s with the iconic turn, which is still moving ahead today.

Of central interest is the role of the work of the founding father of American Pragmatism, Charles Sanders Peirce (1839–1914). Textual hermeneutics initially claimed Peirce within the linguistic turn, but Peirce's work on semiotics—the study of signs—can also be used to work in favor of the scholarship of the iconic turn. Peirce focused on the sign as a relation between entities:

  • The sign itself always represents. That is its function.
  • The object can be considered to be the entity that is the subject matter represented by the sign and referred to by the interpretant. This is the meaning of the sign; its truth-condition, so to speak.

Peirce also considered different classifications of signs. The most famous distinguished between icon, index, and symbol. An icon is a sign that has a quality of its own, while an index must have some real connection to its object. A symbol designates a rule that lies with the interpretant.


In the most general of meanings, both photography and film can be understood to be the method or the subject matter of visual sociology. Photography and documentary filmmaking can be instrumentalized for sociological research. The filming or photographing of typical behavior, culture festivities, and rituals has been a method for ethnographic and anthropological research since the technology's inception. With the turn of these disciplines toward studying contemporary Western society and culture itself, even sociology has added these methods to its toolbox. But cultural products such as photography in art and journalism, as well as television and movie productions, have come under scrutiny in recent years by sociologists. Most prominent among these is the International Visual Sociology Association (, which instigated a variety of visual projects and publications while holding institutionalized conferences and summer-school programs on visual sociology methods.

Further Insights

Science originally applied the use of filmmaking to physiology. Etiènne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), best known for his work in fatigue research, built a "photographic gun" that he used to record the movements of animals in order to study in detail the different phases of motion. He later began to shoot short movies and became one of the founding fathers of modern cinema. Another expert in fatigue research, the German Hugo Muensterberg (1863–1916), wrote one of the first critiques of the art of filmmaking, a book on the psychology of moving pictures called The Photoplay (1916).


The iconic turn owes a lot to the work of Erwin Panofsky (1892–1968). Panofsky was an art historian whose work became a major influence on French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002). Bourdieu's interest in sociology was sparked to some degree by his reading of the work of Max Weber as well as by the time he spent in Algiers, both as a lecturer and as a member of the French occupation under the reign of De Gaulle. His ethnographic research undertaken in Algiers was supported by his use of photography as a sociological tool. Bourdieu managed to show that social facts inscribe themselves into the body and can be identified in posture, movement, and practices that adhere to their own social logic.


To describe this level adequately, Bourdieu referred to the concepts of habitus and doxa, thereby clearly involving his education in classic philosophy and classic sociology in the process of theoretical concept formation. The habitus is a concept that describes the set of dispositions an individual incorporates from the responses he or she receives from the surrounding members of society to his or her actions. The habitus represents the "objective social patterns" inscribed into the subjective being and body of the individual. It bridges the gap between objective and subjective reality. Social reality is divided into different fields, such as the field of cultural production or that of economic life. Each field has its doxa — its implicit preference structure as inscribed in the individual. The physical aspect itself, the body inscribed, is thus the object of a sociology that relies on visual perception. Bourdieu thus reintroduced visual analysis into the sociological canon.


Michel Foucault (1926–1984) has also emphasized the role of the body in social and historical analysis. In one of his most famous books, Discipline and Punish...

(The entire section is 3339 words.)