Visual Sociology as Public Outreach

People walk across Circular Quay in Sydney on a sunny day

There are many things that some people may take for granted because we are habituated not to notice, or because there’s simply no room for us to question the things we see every day. Who can we ask about trees that we pass on the way to work? Why are does one particular species grow in certain places? Can we make better use of its properties? Sure we can look things up on the internet, but how might a biological scientist explain the world around us?

What about sociological phenomena: how do people queue on the escalators at your local train station? What about the silences in group conversations: who speaks, who is quiet, how are bodies organised around the table, and what might this tell us about culture, gender and class? When you go to a gallery, is there a fair representation of artistic excellence, or are certain groups left off the canvas? 

Visual sociology describes methodology sociologists use to collect visual data, as a way to interpret or analyse social phenomena. This includes creating photos, videos, comics, art and other visual media in order to illustrate theoretical and methodological concepts. Alternatively, visual sociology can involve asking participants to create these visual data to represent their experiences or worldview. Visual sociology can also be used to convey research insights, to support delivery of policy and public program improvements, and create social change.

Let’s see some examples of visual sociology.

Visual sociology

Visual sociology is a minor field that is rarely taught in mainstream courses. There is an organisation dedicated to it, and they host a journal, but this practice is not something I was exposed to until after I left academia.

Suddenly I had to communicate social science ideas to government and community groups who think visually. They can’t read peer reviewed papers. They would get my reports to read, but they also needed visual representations to help them better understand. The visuals helped new audiences see problems and answers in new light, and helped them ask better questions as a result.

Sociologists, like other educators, rely on photos, illustrations and videos to teach. Then again, other than using traditional graphs, tables, charts and (in some cases) computer simulations, sociologists are not encouraged to routinely generate their own photos, videos or other multimedia to use as data.

The way in which sociologists and other scientists see the world provides a unique perspective to help other people question what they take for granted. This includes the trees in their neighbourhood, or why standing still in public is considered so weird, or why people (me!) freak out when they see tiny spiders in their home, and so on. I’ve been using Instagram to do a series on visual sociology, as well as Vine, along with the graphics and videos I make for my blog and other science communities with whom I volunteer. 

Hosier Lane, Melbourne

There is a lot of other visual science on Google+. One of the truly innovative aspects of Google+ is that there are some excellent Science Communities, Science Sunday and the community that I co-moderate, Science on Google+ (check out the series curated by Professor Rajini Rao, #ISeeTheWorldWithScience). Not to mention the many dedicated scientists who post excellent material and make themselves available for discussion and questions.

For another example, see how visual sociology is used to raise awareness of dementia.

See more of visual sociology:

Have you taken photos or made videos of everyday phenomena that you can explain using visual sociology?

5 thoughts on “Visual Sociology as Public Outreach

  1. Thanks Rajini. I agree that we need to do more with #ISeeTheWorldWithScience  It’s one of my favourite parts of our community because the discussions are so insightful, especially when community members start giving their own clues. Thanks for the encouragement on bringing my Instagram visual sociology here – I will start soon!


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