Social Research Glossary


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home


Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Visual sociology

core definition

Visual sociology refers both to the use of visual images as documentary sources in research and also to a discipline that studies the production, consumption and meaning of visual products of society.

explanatory context

In one sense, visual sociology refers to the incorporation of visual images into social research the material; that is, evidence in the research endeavour.


Alternatively, visual sociology refers to the study of visual images produced as part of the culture, ranging from works of art, through advertisements, films, television, indeed, in theory any visual material including tatoos, machines, architecture, landscapes, fashion and make up.


Visual sociology usually involves somewhat different ways of analysing the images to that employed with wriiten texts or oral recordings. Analytic tools include semiotics, content analysis, art criticism, aesthetics, ethnography, deconstructivism.


Regula Burri (2012) proposed a sociology of images based on a 'visual logic' that consists of three dimensions: visual value, visual performance and visual persuasiveness (see CASE STUDY Visual Logic)


analytical review

Writing in the mid-1990s, Howard Becker (1995, pp. 6–10) outlined the differences between visual sociology, photojournalism and documentary photography. He argued that their 'realms' have been to some extent artificially circumscribed.

Each is tied to and gets its meaning in a particular social context. Photojournalism is what journalists do, producing images as part of the work of getting out daily newspapers and weekly newsmagazines (probably mostly daily newspapers now, since the death in the early nineteen-seventies of Life and Look). What is photojournalism commonly supposed to be? Unbiased. Factual. Complete. Attention-getting, storytelling, courageous…. Photojournalism is whatever it can be, given the nature of the journalism business. They have a coherent ideology, based on the concept of the story-telling image. Nevertheless, contemporary photojournalism is, like its earlier versions, constrained by available space and by the prejudices, blind spots, and preconceived story lines of their editorial superiors (Ericson, Baranek, and Chan 1987). Most importantly, readers do not expect to spend any time deciphering ambiguities and complexities in the photographs that appear in their daily newspaper or news magazine. Such photographs must, therefore, be instantly readable, immediately interpretable....

Photojournalism is constrained, too, by the way editors hand out photographic assignments… [they] never develop a "beat," an area of the city's life they cover continuously and know so well that they develop a serious analysis and understanding of it.... The resulting images will almost necessarily reflect a superficial understanding of the events and social phenomena being photographed…. (Hagaman 1996 gives a detailed account of the situation of newspaper photographers and of the constraints the job imposes on the pictures they make.)

Documentary photography was tied, historically, to both exploration and social reform. Some early documentarians worked, literally, "documenting" features of the natural landscape… Others documented unfamiliar ways of life, as in John Thompson's photographs of street life in London (Newhall 1964, 139)…. [The work of other documentary photographers] was used to expose evil and promote change. Their images were, perhaps, something like those journalists made but, less tied to illustrating a newspaper story, they had more space to breathe in….

What is documentary "supposed to do"? In the reformist version [of documentary photography], it's supposed to dig deep, get at what Robert E. Park …called the Big News, be "concerned" about society, play an active role in social change, be socially responsible, worry about its effects on the society in which its work is distributed. … A photographically chauvinistic view of history often explains the passage of laws banning child labor as the direct result of Hines' work.

In its alternative version, documentary was not supposed to be anything in particular, since the work was not made for anyone in particular who could have enforced such requirements. Sander, who hoped to sell his work by subscription, described it variously as depicting the "existing social order" and "a physiognomical time exposure of German man" (Sander 1986, 23-4). Atget [1992], rather more like an archetypal naive artist, did not describe his work at all, simply made it and sold the prints to whoever would buy them. Today, we see this work as having an exploratory, investigative character, something more like social science. Contemporary documentary photographers, whose work converges more consciously with social science, have become aware, as anthropologists have, that they have to worry about, and justify, their relations to the people they photograph.

Visual sociology... is almost completely a creature of professional sociology, an academic discipline, and a poor relation of visual anthropology (Collier and Collier 1986), which has a somewhat cozier relation to its parent discipline; in the anthropological tradition, which required investigators going to faroff places to gather skulls and linguistic texts, and dig up archeological materials as well as gather conventional ethnographic materials, making photographs was just one more obligation of fieldwork. Since visual imagery has not been conventional in sociology since its beginnings, when it was more tied to social reform, most sociologists not only do not accept that obligation, they see few legitimate uses for visual materials, other than as "teaching aids." It is as though using photographs and films in a research report constituted pandering to the low tastes of the public or trying to persuade readers to accept shaky conclusions by using illegitimate, "rhetorical" means. In short, using visual materials seems "unscientific," probably because "science" in sociology came to be defined as being objective and neutral, just the opposite of the crusading spirit which animated the early muckraking work, itself intimately tied to photography (Stasz 1979)....What visual sociologists would have to do to compel the attention and respect of their discipline….To do that, they would have to show that their visual work furthers the enterprise of sociology, however the mission of the discipline is defined.

Having made these distinctions, it remains to say that the boundaries between them are increasingly blurred, as the situations in which people work and the purposes for which they make photographs increasingly blend two or more genres.


Exploring the genesis of the sub-discipline of visual sociology, Harper (2000, p. 149) wrote:

Howard Becker's interest and work in visual sociology...encouraged the beginning of an sub-discipline. Jon Wagner's Images of Information (Wagner, 1979) offered the first visual case studies to the sociological community. Within a few years, the International Visual Sociology Association (IVSA) and the journal Visual Sociology had come into existence, and with frequent meetings in Europe, the IVSA has helped encourage the development of visual sociology in the US and abroad. IVSA conferences in Europe subsequently led to the publication of three edited collections (Boonzajer Flaes, 1989; Boonzajer Flaes & Harper, 1993; Faccioli & Harper, 1999) that demonstrate commonalties in visual thinking in several countries and academic traditions.

That being said, visual sociology, both in the sense of field studies using imagery (the primary focus of this article) and studies of the visual texts of society, retain only a precarious institutional foothold in the US This remains due to the methodological conservatism of American sociology generally, and the subsuming of much of the subject of visual sociology (the study of visual texts) under the rubric of cultural studies, especially in Great Britain.


associated issues

See also



related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 5.12


Atget, E., 1992. Atget Paris, Paris, Hazan.

Becker, H.S., 1995, 'Visual sociology, documentary photography, and photojournalism: it's (almost) all a matter of context', Visual Sociology, 10(1–2), pp. 5–14.

Boonzajer Flaes, R.M. (Ed.). 1989, Eyes Across the Water: Essays on visual anthropology and sociology, Amsterdam, Spinhuis.

Boonzajer Flaes, R.M. and Harper, D.A. (Eds.). 1993, Eyes Across the Water, II: Essays on visual anthropology and sociology, Amsterdam, Spinhuis.

Burri, R.V., 2012, 'Visual rationalities: towards a sociology of images', Current Sociology, 60(1), pp.  45–60.

Collier, J. and Collier, M., 1986, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a research method, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press.

Ericson, R., Baranek, P.M. and Chan, J.B.L., 1987. Visualizing Deviance: A study of news organization, Toronto, University of Toronto Press.

Faccioli, P. and Harper, D. (Eds.), 1999, Mondi da Vedere. Verso una sociologia più visuali, Milano, Franco Angeli.

Hagaman, D., 1996, How I Learned Not To Be a Photojournalist, Lexington, University Press of Kentucky.

Harper, D., 2000, 'The image in sociology: histories and issues', Journal des anthropologues, 80–81, pp. 143–60.

Newhall, B., 1994, The History of Photography, New York, Museum of Modern Art.

Sander, A., 1986, Citizens of the Twentieth Century, Cambridge, MIT Press.

Stasz, C., 1979, 'The early history of visual sociology' in Wagner, J. (Ed.) 1979, Images of Information: Still photography in the social sciences, pp. 119–36, Beverly Hills, Sage Publications.

Wagner, J., 1979, Images of Information: Still photography in the social sciences, Beverly Hills, Sage.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z Home