The sociological imagination of Ava DuVernay

The latest issue of the BFI’s Sight & Sound has an illuminating interview with Ava DuVernay, director of Selma, in which she describes her sensibility and approach to directing. The film itself resists a tendency towards hagiography, instead focusing upon Martin Luther King as a ‘leader of leaders’, continually seeking to explore the social and cultural context within which these networks worked together as part of a movement. When asked about a focus upon bureaucracy in the film, DuVernay replies:

I don’t see it as bureaucracy, I see it as my interest in process … the process by which minds are changed and hearts are changed. And part of that is bureaucracy and heavy lifting, and passion. That’s where my interests lie as a filmmaker. “How does this work?” is usually what I’m asking for

While sociology cannot be reduced to this, it nonetheless captures much of interest. When presented with social change, asking “How does this work?” and looking to the processes through which people and circumstances are transformed surely represents the sociological imagination in action: connecting biography and history in a way that helps us better understand both. Selma offers a wonderful example of what this looks in practice and it’s something that would be worth engaging with in the way David Beer describes in Punk Sociology:

Using cultural resources to think through problems, issues, and questions is not uncommon in academic work. It is far from a mainstream approach, but there is a growing body of work that attempts to use literature (Lewis et al., 2008; Carlin, 2010; Taylor, 2008, Daniels et al., 2011), poetry (Abbott, 2007; Brown, 1977; Martin, 2010), film (Diken, 2005; Alsayyad, 2006), TV (Gregg & Wilson, 2010; Penfold-Mounce et al., 2011), music (Beer, 2014), social media (Crampton, 2009), and other types of cultural resources to explore social and cultural phenomena. These works often use such resources to engage the sociological imagination and to think through the analytical issues that are being considered. In these instances fictional and other cultural resources are used to explore actual social and cultural phenomena. This type of work can be seen to be controversial in some respects, but it appears to be the way that cultural forms enable the illumination and reappraisal of established research topics that generates a good deal of enthusiasm amongst researchers. Loc 665

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