“What was Visual Sociology?”: specialisation and fragmentation within disciplines

There’s an interesting post on the CSIP blog by Michael Guggenheim. Along with Nina Wakeford, he’s convening Goldsmith’s new MA Visual Sociology. The strange formulation in the blog’s title stems from his desire to overcome the visual epithet, such that the terminology of ‘visual sociology’ could be confined to the past. There’s an interesting question here about how terminology can work to codify the stratifications within disciplinary knowledge systems:

Why then does this blog post speak of visual sociology in the past tense? Why not ask: What is visual sociology? (to follow up Noortje Marres’ “what is digital sociology” post?).

Short answer: Because we need to get rid of the “visual” as a denominator of the subdiscipline. By starting an MA in visual sociology I am guilty in perpetuating this unfortunate situation, but, I hope, we may also produce a new generation of students, who can then leave the visual behind.

As in the case of women’s studies, the denominator does not simply announce a subfield that stands next to any other subfield. There is not visual sociology and textual sociology. There is not men’s studies and women’s studies. Women’s studies emerged because disciplines such as history and sociology were men’s studies without saying so in the title. For the same reason, we have sociology, and a special subfield called visual sociology, because for whatever reason, sociology is assumed to be a purely textual discipline (the same situation applies to visual anthropology). “Visual” is considered to be strange, not really sociology, not really scientific, or it is simply forgotten.

In many other disciplines the same situation does not apply. There is no visual astronomy or biology or chemistry. A non-visual astronomy simply does not exist. What would astronomers do without producing visual traces of other stars, planets and galaxies?

It seems important to me that we distinguish the terminology of Visual Sociology (or Digital Sociology) from that of X studies. In each case, we can see an underlying tendency towards the diversification of the knowledge system, driven in part by the ideational arms race within which professional rewards go to those who can combine ideas in novel ways and disseminate them widely through frequent and well-placed publications. But the terminology of ‘Visual Sociology’ will tend to allow this diversification to be reincorporated into disciplinary knowledge systems whereas the terminology of X Studies will tend not to.

By this I simply mean that the work being done under the rubric of ‘visual sociology’ can more easily be related back to sociological work as such. The propositional content of Visual Sociology and, to invent a parallel for sake of argument, Visual Studies might be indistinguishable but the nomenclature of the former entails an orientation towards the beliefs, theories and practices which constitute the ‘parent’ discipline. This makes it more likely that the implications of Visual Sociology (the contradictions and complementarities which obtain at the level of ideas) for Sociology more broadly will actually be recognised, drawn out and argued for by the cultural agents whose activity is required for the reproduction or elaboration of the knowledge system.

In short there are three points which interest me here: (1) the ‘ideational arms race’ driving diversification, (2) the emergence of sub disciplinary specialisms and (3) the emergence of substantive areas of interdisciplinary inquiry. There’s an underlying structural process driving (1) which results largely from the incentive systems operating within the modern academy, as well as the technological reduction of friction which used to impinge upon the navigation of the knowledge system i.e. it’s easier to put elements together in novel ways if you can instantly find them through Google Scholar etc. So I’m proposing that (2) and (3) are socio-cultural trends which enable this diversity to be reincorporated into the knowledge system in different ways: one allows for disciplinary reincorporation whereas the other engenders disciplinary fragmentation.

If we accept that the ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sociologist’ (see the letter to Laurie Taylor by Stephen Mugford reproduced below) and continually reinventing the wheel is a bad thing then these issues of how areas of inquiry are named become much more important than they might initially seem. Yet another recent addition to my list of post-PhD writing projects is to apply Margaret Archer’s often overlooked work on culture to the (re)formation of disciplines in the contemporary academy. In this post and a few others I’ve started to sketch the initial outlines for what this project will entail and I think it offers a powerful set of tools for untangling the complex interaction of structure, culture and agency in the reproduction and transformation of academic knowledge.


I listen to TA as a podcast, so timing and order can be a bit scrambled. So it was that only recently I heard one on ‘intoxication’ from 2012.

I’m writing to you because it provoked in me a serious concern about sociology today which I raise with you below, I hope collegially. (I trust not in some curmudgeonly way).

Brief background: You and I are pretty well age and disciplinary peers—I did my London Sociology Hons in 1968 and then went to Bristol with Michael Banton, Theo Nichols, et al, finishing writing my PhD while teaching sociology in NZ. In late 1974 I went on to the ANU where I stayed until late ’96. In the period ’79-’96 I was fairly heavily involved in crime and deviance studies, authoring and co-authoring  a range of papers on drug use and policy and also some on restorative justice. This took me into the American Society of Criminology where I met, or re-met in some cases both UK sociologists (Ian Taylor, Jock Young, Mike Presdee*, etc.) as well as US ones (Bill Chambliss, Jack Katz, etc.) Great fun and good times. Pat O’Malley and I organised a ripper session at one ASC on crime, excitement and modernity with Mike Presdee, Jack Katz, ourselves, etc. which was packed to the rafters….

[*I say re-met because Mike and I not only met in Australia, we also, I discovered, went to school together in Gloucester. A sad loss is Mike.)

So if I say that the material in the program was pretty familiar, you won’t be surprised. And of course, if you did not know the area well, it would be a good episode because it covered a lot of ground effectively, the speakers were nicely integrated, etc. I’ve done a fair bit of media work (professional video work, etc.) and I know TA is a well created series.

But what DID worry me, which is implicit in my title, is that I learned almost nothing. It is 20+ years since, for example, I co-wrote papers like:

  • 1994      P.T. O’Malley and S.K Mugford   ‘Crime, excitement and modernity’ pp. 189-211 in Gregg Barak (ed) Varieties of Criminology,  Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
  • 1993      Social change and the control of psychotropic drugs—risk management, harm reduction and ‘postmodernity’, Drug and Alcohol Review,  12: 369-375
  • 1992      P. Dance and S.K. Mugford   ‘The St. Oswald’s Day celebrations: ‘carnival’ versus ‘sobriety’ in an Australian drug enthusiast group’,Journal of Drug Issues, 22(3):591-606
  • 1991      With P. T. O’Malley   ‘Heroin policy and the limits of Left Realism’,  Crime, Law and Social Change: An International Journal,  15: 19-36.
  • 1991      P. T. O’Malley and S.K. Mugford   ‘The demand for intoxicating commodities: implications for the ‘War on Drugs’  ’,  Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order, 18: 49-75.

My point is not that these folks did not cite, or seem to know, these works. Rather, these pieces were part of a much larger corpus written by people like Presdee and Katz and others, which explored all the conceptual and theoretical issues that were raised in much the same way but the corpus as a whole seems to be completely missed.

And so all the (to me) familiar themes came out. Yes, antidrug use campaigners miss the pleasurable side of drug use. Yes, Bakhtin and carnival are relevant ideas. Yes, drug abuse is best described as the “the use of drugs I don’t use by people I don’t like”. Yes, getting written off is an ambiguous thing—fun but dangerous. Et cetera.  And all presented as if somehow this was new or surprising, when it had all been said before (and very likely before I and my mates said it too—we may equally be guilty of exactly the same problem.)

I would hope that after 20 odd years out of the game, I would hear something new, something that made me think, “Oh, wow” and not “Uh, huh.”  In other fields of enquiry things are moving apace. Leave aside the natural sciences with myriad breakthroughs (from Homo Floriensis to the Higgs Boson), cognitive science and psychology and their cognates are all rocketing along. Every time I listen to a podcast in one of these fields (and in some of them I am quite well read so this is not just a naïve effect) I hear new and intriguing stuff.  And there is some new stuff in sociology, especially around network research, where I DO get the wow effect.

It worries me, however, to hear people rediscovering things for the nth time and solemnly discussing them as if they are new. And I think that maybe what we see here is a real warning about the discipline. What do you think?

Maybe I am just suffering from ‘nostalgia aint what it used to be”? But I don’t think so.

Collegially yours,


2 responses to ““What was Visual Sociology?”: specialisation and fragmentation within disciplines”

  1. Mark,
    Apart from being flattered by the citation, I am also interested in the area. I am going to offer a much more mundane point than some you raise but I will link it back both to some older sociology (hence the ‘eternal spotless’ problem ) and also to some interesting psychology.
    In a recent Health Report on (Australia’s) Radio National, they covered a really interesting study that relied on what they called video reflexive ethnography.


    In simple terms, these guys filmed everyday routines in hospitals and then played the material back to participants. In many cases they were both amazed and appalled by what they saw, with some saying things like “this is not the sort of place I want to work!” At a practical level, I find this really intriguing. Even more intriguing, I cannot find yet anyone referencing this stuff except for other folk inside the same silo (medical practice safety improvement). I chased around and found some interesting stuff by Sarah Pink, but drew a similar conclusion: a wonderful method with rich possibilities for applied work, but no penetration into the wider world. Yet this screams out to be a technique that could be used in an array of places.
    Standing back, what do we learn by seeing the ‘gap’ between the retrospective ‘accounts’ that people offer of the events (directly and uniquely in stories and generally and broadly by survey responses) on the one hand and the video itself on the other?

    Well, again I will dredge back. An all time favourite article I used to use for teaching was Morris Zelditch ‘Some Methodological Problems of Field Studies’ American Journal of Sociology Vol. 67, No. 5 (Mar., 1962), pp. 566-576. Zelditch made the simple point that there were horses for courses in sociological methods and (among other things) that while people could tell you what the norms were, they were much worse at telling you accurately what actually occurred. Indeed, I’d go further: we need to see that all ‘account based’ methods (interviews, surveys, etc.) are on shaky ground if they assume that they tell us about events as opposed to confabulated reconstructions, reconstructions which are created out of material at hand, much as Levi Strauss argued that myths were bricolages. Numerous issues crowd in: memory is never a tape recording and is altered as the story is retold, the story itself being shaped both by self serving biases and by ‘narrativity’. That is, the demands of good narration shaping the chaotic events. For a really striking example of this, one can compare an account of a crazy ride through an Iraqi city with a Marine strike group in the Gulf War as given by the embedded journalist (Evan Wright Generation Kill) and the young marine CO (Nathaniel Fick One Bullet Away). Indeed, Fick says when they finished careering through the town and stopped to gather their wits, every Marine remembered a different battle ride ….

    And of course, pace CW Mills from over 70 years ago, narratives themselves draw on local ‘vocabularies of motive’. (Mind, if you are lost in some post Modern relativist mist where there is no real and only the lingering traces of the linguistic turn, I suppose this doesn’t matter. Forgive the sarcasm—working with people who fly fast jets over the Middle East or sail warships to pick refugees out of the Indian Ocean diminishes patience with some arguments…) so the simple point here, which dovetails well with your argument I think, is that there is no visual sociology. Rather, there is sociology and an array of methods, some of which create data that others don’t. If we are interested in what people do (as a precursor to wondering, with Weber, what they think their actions mean) video might be an especially spiffy thing to use.

    At a deeper level, I think the ‘gap’ takes us back to the dichotomy that runs right through the social sciences between the more rational and cognitive phenomena (in current parlance System 2) and the more emotional, nor rational and automatic elements (System 1). Even the august model of good old Parsons—the AGIL scheme—echoes this with A and G being more linked with System 2 and its effects and I and L with system 1… What I liked about the hospital stuff was it picked up on all the sub cognitive aspects of system 1 activity (managed below ‘consciousness’ of the cerebral kind) and then lobbed it back, through the visual cortices and into system 2. I think there is something really important here for breaking down the sociology vs. psychology vs. cognitive science silos.

    So, Mark, a bit of a ramble but maybe some interest. 


  2. rather a lot to digest in one comment! 🙂 entirely agree on the cog/psych/soc silos – cautiously disagree on vocabularies of motive point because i don’t accept a sharp dichotomy between events and confabulated reconstructions. i think it’s both/and (i.e. there are real events but we’re always reliant on epistemically partial accounts of them in our empirical access to them – however we can move beyond the empirical) rather than either/or.

    “a wonderful method with rich possibilities for applied work, but no penetration into the wider world. Yet this screams out to be a technique that could be used in an array of places.”

    this is the question that’s coming to obsess me – why do some assemblages of ideas/techniques circulate wildly while others don’t? some truly awful concepts (e.g. ‘fateful moments’) circulate widely across disciplinary boundaries whereas others stay locked in their cultural locale. i don’t have much of an answer to this question but i’m increasingly clear on its contours – the ‘eternal sunshine of the spotless sociologist’ can be seen as a continual forgetting and remembering only made possible because so much knowledge fails to circulate adequately (or be received fairly) beyond its immediate academic environment.

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