Book Reviews

Visual Sociology, by Douglas Harper; Doing Visual Research, by Claudia Mitchell, and Advances in Visual Methodology, by Sarah Pink

Roman R. Williams

Originally published on March 12, 2014 in Sociology of Religion.

The potential of visual research methods—image-based techniques used to collect, analyze, and present data—in the sociology of religion is vast, but largely untapped. This comes as a surprise, however, given the visual, symbolic, and material nature of religion and spirituality. Cultural artifacts such as houses of worship, roadside memorials, movies, bumper stickers, clothing, and tattoos are among the many reminders of the presence of religion throughout society. Behind these markers of belief and belonging lie powerful social forces that inform behaviors, practices, and attitudes that are embodied and enacted throughout the many domains of everyday life. Sometimes words and numbers alone are not sufficient to capture important dimensions of religion and spirituality in the contemporary cultural landscape.

The books reviewed in this article offer a starting point for anyone interested in exploring the promise of visual methods for the sociology of religion.

Douglas Harper is a leading figure in visual sociology who began his career in the 1970s, just as visual sociology was beginning to organize into an identifiable field of study. Visual Sociology bears the marks of a seasoned scholar who was there from the beginning: throughout the text, readers will find methodological, theoretical, practical, and pedagogical wisdom anchored in the author’s working knowledge of visual methods. The text is a broad, accessible, and lucid introduction to “the current state of visual sociology” and “how thinking visually leads to new discoveries and insights” (Harper, 56). As such, the book is less of a step-by-step manual for using visual methods and more of an invitation to a new way of seeing.

In Visual Sociology, Harper privileges photographic techniques—e.g., visual ethnography, documentary photography, photo elicitation (PE), and photovoice—and emphasizes important methodological themes including reflexivity, representation, place and space, comparative work, semiotics, and subjectivity. While each chapter is well-documented, the chapters on PE (the use of photos to elicit information in interviews) and photovoice (community-based participatory photography intended to empower marginalized populations by bringing their issues and problems into public view) represent his best effort to review all known examples of these techniques. To my disappointment, however, he misses a dozen or so pieces that use PE to study religion. Even so, these chapters on PE and photovoice offer the best orientation to these techniques currently in print. An appendix helpfully organizes his sources under three headings: photo documentaries, theory and method, and case studies. A chapter on teaching sociology visually and an appendix with sample assignments offer insights and resources for those interested in taking this pedagogical turn.

My main criticism of Visual Sociology is that Harper does not give adequate attention to the topic of research ethics. In my experience, questions pertaining to ethics in (and of) visual research and representation are among the most frequently asked by colleagues and students. Harper, no doubt, is aware of and concerned with research ethics—he has written elsewhere on the topic. By not including a chapter-length discussion in this volume, he missed an opportunity to weigh in on an important topic.

Claudia Mitchell draws from two decades of projects she and her colleagues have conducted in Canada and countries located in sub-Saharan Africa. She emphasizes participatory visual techniques designed to engage communities and offers step-by-step, how-to guidance on using these methods. Doing Visual Research, then, “is about changing the picture and the various approaches to social research that are meant to be in the service of community research, social action or social change” (Mitchell, 14).

Unlike Harper, Mitchell includes a thoughtful and practical chapter on the ethics of visual research in the first part of the book, which includes examples and ample references for further reading. Building on this foundation, she turns to community-based photography and “videomaking” as research methods and tools for social change. A chapter on materiality, meaning, and representation discusses how artifacts may be used to understand the social world and simultaneously present research findings in powerful, though less conventional ways, such as a public installation. In the third section of the book, Mitchell turns her attention to practical questions regarding the interpretation and use of images. Here, she considers strategies for analyzing images, creating data archives, thinking reflexively about the research process, engaging participants and their communities, and influencing policy makers.

Doing Visual Research offers an excellent starting point for imagining how visual methods might be fruitfully employed, for example, in congregational studies, needs assessment, or in relation to social problems faced by marginalized or voiceless populations—topics at the intersection of religion and immigration, poverty, minorities, (in)justice, and violence come to mind. Stimulating the impulse of engagement is among the strengths of the book. Other strengths include its balanced presentation of community-based photographic and videographic methods, and a focus on research practice. While I appreciate the way Mitchell draws from her own (vast) experience using visual methods, her use of the same or similar examples in different chapters seems repetitive. Her chapter on analyzing photos, subtitled “A Textual Reading on the Presence of Absence,” only scratches the surface of the analytical possibilities. Focusing on presence and absence is indeed helpful, but this approach seems anemic in comparison to the robust and thoughtful treatment of other topics in the
book. To her credit, readers are warned early in the book that the section on interpreting and using images does not offer “hard and fast rules for analysis, [instead] the various chapters . . . suggest a broad framework for what can be done with visual images” (Mitchell, 6).

Sarah Pink’s edited volume Advances in Visual Methodology extends the conversation about visual methods from Harper and Mitchell’s contemporary lay of the land to what lies on the horizon. The book is edited by an experienced visual ethnographer, written by an interdisciplinary group of contributors, divided into five parts, and organized around carefully selected topics. The volume begins with a survey of key theoretical, technological, practical, and ethical issues. Practice is the focus of the next section of the book. Here, contributors explore how visual research methods may be employed to examine the practices of research participants and researchers alike. Part 3 is concerned with the so-called spatial turn in the social sciences and raises questions about “how people perceive, create, and map their material localities and web platforms, and how they live the worlds that bridge these online/offline contexts” (Pink, 95). Next, ways of doing visual sociology with and for communities and groups that are typically the objects of sociological inquiry are explored. In this section of the book (Part 4), contributors explore the contested territory found at the intersection of scholarship, art, and intervention. Interdisciplinary nature of visual methodologies, an important theme woven throughout the book, is given careful treatment in the final section of the book. Pink helps to tie chapters together through brief introductions to each section of the book and in several places, individual contributors are in conversation with one another.

The strengths of Advances are many. Andrew Clark’s chapter on visual ethics is a must-read. In it, he extends the conversation beyond institutional review boards, moral pitfalls, and practical matters to a discussion of the situated nature of research ethics within “epistemological approaches, specific research contexts, and in relation to researchers’ and participants’ own moral frameworks” (Pink, 18). Chapters by Elisenda Ardévol and Sarah Pink explore the vast potential for visual/virtual ethnography on the internet and invite readers to consider not only the intersection of visual techniques and internet research, but also raise interesting questions about place, space, and identity. Christina Grasseni’s ethnographic participatory mapping technique holds great potential for understanding religious communities. Finally, a chapter by Susan Hogan co-authored with Pink on visualizing interior worlds will be of particular interest to sociologists of religion.

Advances challenges conventional notions of scholarship and contests disciplinary boundaries, but it does not give adequate consideration to the implications of blurring these borders. Risks exist for those who take the unconventional path in a system that rewards recognizable forms. Blurring the boundaries between art and scholarship, for example, may be aesthetically pleasing, innovative, and even achieve some academic goal or social change, but may seem less compelling than peer-reviewed articles on one’s vita as tenure and promotion approach. Perhaps the hinterland is best left to those inoculated against such dangers. The challenges posed by conventional forms of visual sociology will be sufficient for most.

The books by Harper and Mitchell will appeal to undergraduates, graduate students, the curious, newcomers to the field, and experienced researchers who wish to imagine ways they also might employ visual research methods in the social scientific study of religion. Harper’s Visual Sociology is written for an audience with some familiarity with sociology and qualitative research methods. In Doing Visual Research, Mitchell issues an invitation to those interested in a more applied, engaged, or otherwise participatory approach to doing visual research, one geared toward social change. In contrast, Pink’s Advances in Visual Methodology considers and presses beyond the contemporary boundaries of visual research practice and is intended for an audience familiar with visual research techniques.

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