Roman R. Williams

Originally published on May 8, 2015 in Seeing Religion: Toward a Visual Sociology of Religion.

A rationale for studying religion visually

On a hot afternoon in London, England, during the 2013 International Visual Sociology Association annual meeting, three other contributors (Catherine Holtmann, Philip Richter, and Timothy Shortell) and I presented early versions of the work contained in this volume. During the question-and-answer time following my presentation, I was asked a rather straightforward question that I found pragmatic, thoughtful, and challenging: “Why study religion visually?” Over the year since my initial to answer to this question, I have returned to it as a way to organize my thoughts about visual methods in the sociology of religion—I suppose one could think of this volume as an attempt to answer that question. It is a question that invites book-length treatment and my brief answer here is incomplete. Even so, proposing a short set of answers to this question seems a tidy way to echo back the insights found in earlier chapters. It is my way of making the case for a visual sociology of religion.

1. Common lines of inquiry

First visual research and the sociology of religion have much in common. Daguerre was busy fixing images to metal plates during the same year (1839) Comte’s Cours de Philosophie Positive, in which he coined the term sociology, was in press (Becker 1974). With these tools (photography and sociology), Durkheim (1995) built one of the pillars upon which the social scientific study of religion now stands, Elementary Forms of Religious Life, even though many—if not most—sociologists may have never considered this fact (Kreinath 2012). As interesting as these somewhat ironic features of the subdiscipline’s past may be, recovering this heritage is not a substantial reason for a visual sociology of religion. Instead, a better starting point for answering why religion should be examined visually is found in the shared interests of visual research and the sociology of religion. Here, I will briefly consider two: culture and human behavior.

“Visual research in the social sciences,” Pauwels observes, “predominantly has material culture and human behavior as its subject and—when visual representations are being produced—as its ‘referent'” (2011:8; cf. Wagner 2011). If religion is anything close to the “system of symbols which acts to establish powerful pervasive and long-lasting moods and motivations” described by Geertz (1973:90), then material culture and human behavior may well be the stock-in-trade of sociologists of religion. Penny Edgell’s (2012) recent invitation to a cultural sociology of religion underscores these common interests. Visual research, then, maintains a common interest in culture and human behavior consonant with the social scientific study of religion.

Religion and spirituality are cultural, material, and embodied. Religious ritual interactions involve bodily copresence, barriers to outsiders, the mutual focus of attention, and a shared mood (Collins 2004), all of which require the senses, relying on the visual, and involve a kind of give-and-take among participants. The outcomes of rituals produce symbols of social relationships. As such, images permeate religious culture and “operate as vehicles of communication between the human and the divine,…visualize the parameters of individual and communal identity,…embody recollection,…[and] construct and posit worlds of meaning” (Morgan and Promey 2001:14). Sociologists ought to consider the social life of visual objects such as these (see Rose 2007:216 ff.). Not only is religion materially present in the houses of worship around the world, international migrants (among others) bring traces of religious culture and practice into neighborhoods, where the taken-for-granted boundaries of local cultures may be enforced, unknowingly transgressed, and/or consciously challenged. Religious and spiritual understandings inform the cultural repertoires of some and are absent from the toolkits of others. As people draw upon this interpretive framework to make sense of the world, religion is enacted in formal and informal settings, shows up in the front stage and back, is drawn upon to create memory and meaning, and is used to address social problems. Visual techniques for probing the interior worlds of research participants (Hogan and Pink 2012), where cultural toolkits are found, are transposable to investigations of religion and spirituality.

Standard words-and-numbers techniques have proven helpful in the study of religion and spirituality, and should by no means be discarded. “Visual methodologies can provide insights that are not available through other methods, but they can also complement,corroborate and/or challenge non-visual methodologies” (Ball and Gilligan 2010). The interests in culture and behavior shared by visual sociology and sociology of religion present an opportunity to bring theory and method to bear on common lines of inquiry in new and productive ways. The application of new methodologies to questions (old and new) about culture and human behavior may offer fresh insights on religion and spirituality in the contemporary world.

2. Visual methods are valuable at every stage of research

Second, the opportunity presented by visual research techniques in the sociology of religion is not a simple appeal to novelty or to taking the methodological road less traveled. As volume contributors demonstrate in a variety of ways, visual methods are valuable at every stage of the research process: collecting, analyzing, and presenting data. Photographs offer a visual record of work in the field and videography adds layers of movement, sequence, time, and sound to the data. My work, for example, uses participant-produced images in photo elicitation to investigate religion in everyday life (Ammerman and Williams 2012; Williams 2010, 2013; Williams and Whitehouse Forthcoming 2015). To do so, these studies invited participants to photograph the people, places, objects, and activities that are important to them. The photographs generated by this broad set of instructions always fascinate me. Equally interesting are the conversations that follow when I ask research participants to tell the story behind the image. As I have discussed elsewhere, these images and the stories behind them frequently turn out to be answers to questions that I may have never known to ask. This sentiment is not limited to photo elicitation: whatever the technique, the act of collecting still and motion images involves practices that stimulate the sociological imagination during fieldwork by encouraging a disciplined way of seeing. Likewise, the camera is an extra set of eyes during fieldwork—eyes and ears in the case of a video camera—that record details for later analysis. In this age of inexpensive, high quality, user-friendly equipment, the adage ‘the pen remembers what the mind forgets’ may need to be updated for visual researchers.

Visual data in the form of still and motion images, as well as the verbal and numeric data that accompany them, are also advantageous during analysis. Photos and videos complement field notes and may reveal details overlooked during fieldwork. Comparisons of neighborhoods, personal or corporate practices and routines, and the contents of images, for example, reveal the nuances, contested boundaries, and presence (or absence) of religion and spirituality in everyday life. The potential of video in preserving not only a visual record, but also sound and the passage of time should not be overlooked. Constructing and exploring data in visual forms such as maps have been shown to produce valuable clues to solving the puzzle of congregational adaptation to re-urbanization and gentrification. The data generated by photo elicitation pairs visual evidence with interview transcripts, making possible comparisons between populations while considering the content of participant-produced, found, or researcher-produced images. A content analysis of these images also may yield important insights (e.g., Nardella 2012). By asking what a particular social problem looks like—in this case, women in abusive relationships—images are allowed an important role in stimulating the sociological imagination toward interventions and social change. Images are helpful in theoretical work. And as images are analyzed, researchers have the opportunity—indeed, responsibility—to develop strategies for navigating the moral and ethical questions raised during and as a consequence of their research.

Images also enrich the presentation of research findings. It is often said that a photograph is worth a thousand words. This is only true, however, if it becomes part of a conversation. In the case of presenting research findings, images must become something more than an illustration. In the hands of a visual sociologist, photographs, videos, and other visual materials are treated as data, evidence with which to make an argument, and information that helps a scholar in the task of explanation. These images, in turn, help an audience understand and experience information, to see religion and spirituality in ways that words or numbers alone might not be able to reveal. As Holtmann and Nason-Clark put it in their chapter, “images can make abstract scientific concepts more concrete.”

3. The potential of visual research for engaged scholarship

Third, visual research methods also should be used to study religion because these tools engage researchers, participants, and audiences in compelling ways. Visual research techniques have the ability to shift the researcher-subject relationship. As a research strategy becomes less regulated by the researcher, and her/his authority and more agency is yielded to a participant, the relationship between the researcher and subject takes on a new quality. Photo elicitation intends this effect. Instead of a typical interview, where researchers and participants meet face-to-face, a conversation about the photos an informant made takes place shoulder-to-shoulder. “If the PE interview goes well the person being interviewed sees himself or herself as the expert, as the researcher becomes the student. The photo becomes a bridge between people who may not even understand the extent to which they see the world differently” (Harper 2012:157). The shift in relational dynamics is even more pronounced when the research participant produces the images for the interview. By asking participants to photograph society and culture from their vantage point, they are no longer passive subjects. Instead, they become co-investigators, “fieldworkers who reveal answers to questions researchers might never have asked” (Ammerman and Williams 2012:126). This is what Cipriani and Del Re refer to as ‘surrender and catch’: taking off the researcher’s blinders, taking the posture of a learner, allowing the research participant to teach, and by good fortune to comprehend what is happening.

An important example of participatory and collaborative research is Sarah Dunlop and Pete Ward’s (2012) study of young Polish immigrants and second-generation youth in Plymouth, England. Their work incorporates photovoice (see Mitchell 2011; Harper 2012; Powers, Freedman, and Pitner 2012) as a way to empower a relatively voiceless group to tell their story and express their concerns through photographs.1 Photovoice “entrusts cameras to the hands of people to enable them to act as recorders, and potential catalysts for change, in their own communities. It uses the immediacy of the visual image to furnish evidence and to promote an effective, participatory means of sharing expertise and knowledge” (Wang and Burris 1997:369; cf. Wang and Redwood-Jones 2001). A photovoice project culminates in a public exhibition kicked off by a gallery-like opening night, which brings together participant-photographers, community members, public officials, and other constituencies to begin a conversation.

The intent of the exhibition in photovoice, of course, is not simply to relate research findings. Instead,like other forms of participatory action research, the public display of images (still and motion) envisions social change. Lynn Schofield Clark and Jill Dierberg (2012) use digital storytelling to engage youth groups in thinking about and presenting their identity through video. Christina Grasseni’s (2012) ethnographic participatory mapping technique holds great potential for understanding religious communities. Kelly Snowden and Tom Segady (2013) use photovoice to explore sacred space among congregations in Texas, United States. In this volume, Cipriani and Del Re use participatory videography to tell the story of the Holiday of Holidays to present a working model of peaceful coexistence and engagement that they hope others will explore. Likewise, Holtmann and Nason-Clark use images and videos of brokenness and restoration online to convey important information about religion, domestic violence, hope, and healing. In my estimation, engaged forms of visual scholarship like these hold great promise—perhaps the greatest promise—for the sociology of religion.

4. The digital realities of contemporary life

Fourth, contemporary digital realities invite the visual study of religion. Images are everywhere, and everyone—from school-aged children to professionals schooled in digital media production—is making them. Digital cameras are commonplace, especially in Western societies, and standard equipment in cell phones. These devices record countless photographs and videos, which are disseminated across media sharing platforms such as Flickr, Picasa, Instagram, and YouTube. Chances are, more people carried a camera to church last Sunday than carried a Bible. These digital realities are what Cipriani and Del Re refer to as “global technological competence,” the widespread availability of user-friendly, media-making technologies to everyday citizens. Barriers that once prohibited (cost, availability, ease of use, competence, etc.) the use of these technologies to collect data are now dissipating.

These new digital realities also extend to visual analysis and the reporting of research findings. Data analysis software is keeping pace with the interest of researchers in tapping into these new media realities. Many popular qualitative data analysis packages such as ATLAS.ti, Nvivo, and MAXqda allow researchers to code an image or portion of an image and to retrieve that datum with similarly coded transcript excerpts and other images. Researchers with aspirations of making a documentary film will be pleased to find that tools such as Apple’s iMovie and Microsoft’s Movie Maker are low or no cost and user friendly—Del Re and Cipriani’s Haifa’s Answer was edited using Final Cut Pro. Publishing houses are also on board with the need to integrate images into traditional print and electronic formats. Major professional journals that publish sociology of religion articles in English (e.g.,Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Review of Religious Research, Social Compass, Journal of Contemporary Religion) have been known to publish images. The journal of the International Visual Sociology Association, Visual Sociology, maintains a high standard of quality, is willing to publish images in color, and has accepted several articles that focus on religion.

5. Correcting myopic views of religion

A final reason to study religion visually is related to Ravindra Mohabeer’s insight that people “are not interested in things that they cannot see no matter how important these things are” (2014). To place his statement in its proper context, Mohabeer was presenting a paper on the concept invisibility at the 2014 annual meeting of the International Visual Sociology Association. As he set the stage for events that took place in his neighborhood, he described his efforts to sell his house and his suspicion that prospective buyers were not always interested in the upgrades to the infrastructure of the house—wiring, plumbing, etc.—they could not see, that he personally had made. His remark was that “invisibility of infrastructure is a gateway to ignorances [sic.] that produce expensive and complicated problems over time” (2014). As someone recovering from his own year-long remodeling project, which involved attention to details many people will never see or appreciate, his thoughts resonated with me.

Although religion was not featured in Mohabeer’s talk, his insight may be extended to the concerns of this book: people do not care about what they do not see. For a long time in the social sciences, religion was thought to be disappearing—I suspect some hoped this was the case. During the mid-twentieth century, secularization theory became the default setting of many within the academy. Predictions such as Peter Berger’s statement in the New York Times (1968) popularized the idea that “[b]y the 21st century, religious believers are likely to be found only in small sects, huddled together to resist a worldwide secular culture.” While Berger (1999) has revised his thinking on secularization, the cultural residue from the social process that regarded, and as a result rendered, religion as invisible remains. Many remain skeptical about the role and significance of religion in the world today. Others have little or no experience with religion or religious people; they have been socialized not to see religion—or at least not to see it as important.

Visual methods are useful in helping people see features of social life and culture that may otherwise be invisible, such as religion and spirituality. The notion of peaceful coexistence in Israel among Jews, Christians, and Muslims, for example, may seem an impossibility. Cipriani and Del Re’s documentary film Haifa’s Answer, however, allows one to consider visually what makes coexistence plausible. Images bring the unfamiliar into view, are useful in explaining social phenomena, and constitute a kind of evidence that may be used to sustain an argument. Not only do images help audiences see religion by adding rich layers of information to the products of visual research, visual media also carry the freight of emotional valence, the power of an image to move its viewer. Images must not be used uncritically; their power must be evaluated and kept in check. While some visual evidence is better left unseen, as Janet Jacobs emphasizes in her chapter, much of what is seen by the researcher may be used to communicate in meaningful ways. As audiences unfamiliar with sociological insights encounter visual work on religion, they may learn to see and understand its place in society and culture.


While these reflections on the work contained in this volume may gather together some of the reasons religion should be studied visually,they are not the final word on the promise of visual research techniques. Likewise, this volume is neither comprehensive nor complete. From the start, my intention was to initiate a conversation about religion and visual research methods. This modest contribution is a step toward a visual sociology of religion, a collection of work intended to stimulate the sociological imagination. Much ground remains to be covered. I hope this volume provides a point of entry that will orient newcomers to visual research, inspire methodological innovation, and enable researchers and their audiences to see religion in new ways.


1 A brief video about photovoice produced by the University of South Carolina offers a nice introduction to this technique:

Works cited

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———. 2013. “Constructing a Calling: The Case of Evangelical Christian International Students in the United States.” Sociology of Religion 74(2):254-280.

Williams, Roman R. and Kyle Whitehouse. Forthcoming 2015. “Photo Elicitation and the Visual Sociology of Religion.” Review of Religious Research.

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