What Is Visual Sociology?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 18 September 2019
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Visual sociology is one of several fields of sociology. In general terms, sociology is the study of human groups. As a subfield, visual sociology focuses these studies on visual dimensions and material that human beings produce, particularly on a cultural level. Examples of elements that might catch the attention of a visual sociologist include photographs and documentary films. These elements might be used as research tools or they might be viewed as sociological relics themselves, capable of providing invaluable insight into the values and actions of their producers.

Individuals involved in visual sociology studies value visual devices as research tools. In particular, they hold live video devices in particular esteem, since these tools can provide comprehensive notations and evidence of human interactions. Video outlets also have the advantage of supplying context to human behavior like gestures and voice tones. Several researchers can view the same data, and video may be perused as many times as needed. These factors help give a research undertaking more reliability and validity.

Researchers further value visual sociology techniques because of modern technology. Data can be preserved in various formats. Further, photograph and video editing tools allow aspects of subjects to be enhanced, or paused in the case of video.


Visual sociology researchers also use visual stimuli and imagery to their advantage when gathering research data. For example, the sociologist might interview different individuals as part of a profile on a particular tribe or ethnic group. During the interview, subjects might be asked to reflect on various photographs or videos. These visual stimuli might invoke powerful memories and feelings that are not easily called forth with simple verbal prompting.

In a similar manner, visual sociology considers the past of a group or culture through the group’s visual output. Many groups seek connections and symbols of their way of life through objects that can withstand the test of time, like photographs. Visual reminders of a culture are not limited in this respect, however, but they might also include the following: artwork, architecture, machine designs, movies, advertisements, or even hairstyles and fashion trends. A culture's tangible output can highlight hopes, concerns, and events that shaped the culture's interactions and beliefs. All of these visual objects are thus the sociologist’s paint for a powerful portrait of humanity.

Several organizations around the world promote the aims of visual sociology. These institutions help fund research, host conferences, and produce scientific journals. Smaller regional organizations can seek assistance from larger groups. Such organizations promote society's visual products as both important communication outlets and as valued sources of information.


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