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Teaching Visual Sociology

Dr Carol Wolkowitz and Dr Phil Mizen, Department of Sociology, University of Warwick

This case study evaluates an initiative to create a new teaching programme in visual sociology. We seek to create an innovative programme encouraging students to become active producers of knowledge; to enhance our enjoyment of teaching; and to promote the use of visual methods in sociology more generally. Our first step was the construction of a full second-year undergraduate module in Visual Sociology. While the new module builds on some of our existing undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, as well as our own research, the emphasis on student production of visual materials differentiates the module from other

Aims and objectives

The module aims to enable students to do their own research through the production, storage, manipulation, and displayof digital images; to relate such images to wider sociological questions and methods of investigation; and to evaluate their status, value and efficacy as sources of data or evidence.

The module already contributes to the undergraduate sociology curriculum by widening the range of research methods students can deploy, enhancing student ability to undertake research in a reflexive manner, and enabling them to make fuller and better use of visual materials in communicating information in academic and non-academic contexts.  It will also enrich the undergraduate curriculum in the area of cultural sociology, a new specialist stream to be offered by Department from 2006-7.

Design and planning

With the expectation of a first intake of students in 2005-6, we started planning in October 2004. To begin with we confirmed aspects of the syllabus that we had discussed intermittently for some time.

Firstly, we wanted students to be able to learn from the growing body of visual analysis in social science (e.g. Banks 2001, Knowles and Sweetman 2004, Pink 2001, Prosser 1996, Rose 2001) and generally absent from mainstream methods texts. Journals like Visual Studies and the many publications by socially engaged photographers also offer a rich source of inspiration for student work.

Secondly, we wanted to deepen students’ recognition that in sociology information about the social world is inevitably shaped by the research methods adopted. In the case of visual methods, this would mean introducing students to some of the relevant traditions of ‘straight photography’, such as documentary, and giving them practice in relating the content of images to the historical contexts in which they are produced and used.

Thirdly, and most important, the module would provide the opportunity for learning new skills in visual data production, handling and display. To this end students would be required to routinely produce and display images as part of the module to present and discuss their images with each other as the basis of classwork assignments; and to submit them as part of their assessed work.

We took the decision at this point to restrict the curriculum to still digital photography, although we also planned to draw on the rich heritage of analogue photography as background. We took this decision because (1) we thought that the intensive use of a single medium would allow us to develop appropriate teaching experience without being overly ambitious; (2) we anticipated that many students would own digital cameras/phones, thus reducing equipment costs; and (3) training needs would be reduced. At present, therefore, our emphasis differs from other courses we know of, especially the focus on video production in new visual anthropology courses (Hughes-Freeland 2003, Okely n.d., Pink 2003).

We moved into higher gear as we completed the University of Warwick Proposal Form for New Modules, submitting it to our department meeting, undergraduate studies committee, and departmental SSLC in November 2004 (although we had previously obtained the department’s approval in principle) and to the faculty undergraduate studies committee in January 2005. We planned class work assignments and methods of assessment that were closely aligned with course learning objectives (Brown 2001). As with other sociological methods courses, we saw student projects as the main form of assessment, but decided to dispense with an examination in favour of further research-based forms of assessment. Students must submit a ‘portfolio’ of assessed work that involves: an analysis of a single photograph chosen by the student (1500 words); a report on a photo-elicitation interview conducted by the student (1500 words); and a final research project. These assessments are supported by class assignments which require students to produce and analyse two photographic surveys (domestic interiors, work and workers). The overall intention was to provide students with a staged introduction to research-based assessed work.

We recognised that teaching the course for first time would be time-consuming and likely to evolve as the year progressed. Student numbers were therefore limited initially to 24 (two seminar groups) to allow us to respond flexibly and promptly to students’ existing knowledge and skills, and any unforeseen problems.

We invited Chris Coe, the Social Science E-learning Faculty Advisor, to organise practical training in taking, storing and manipulating digital photographs, including workshops on using Photoshop and PowerPoint, and the librarians at the Modern Records Centre to provide what turned out to be an excellent session on the use of picture archives, selecting in advance material the students could analyse. Even at the planning stage our department’s support for student research (Hughes 2005, Neary and Parker 2005, Neary et al 2005) was helpful, in particular the Reinvention Centre’s purchase of eight digital cameras for student use


Our evaluation is based on our reflections generated from a number of sources: diary material; regular tutor meetings; formal student feedback; periodic informal discussion with students; and end of term seminar discussions.

Teaching the module for the first time was taxing, especially because of: (1) the need to write many new lectures, often involving new materials and techniques; (2) the production of extensive module materials, including selection and reproduction of photographs; and (3) the production of detailed guidelines for assessed and non-assessed assignments. Time constraints meant that we could not explore other planned teaching tools so that, for instance, the module website remained largely unused and attempts to share images through blogging did not progress very far. On the other hand, the organisation of non-assessed work around students’ class presentations reduced time normally spent on marking class essays. Thus, on reflection the decisions to be modest in ambition and to share jointly the resulting demands were good ones.

In delivering the syllabus several issues became apparent. Firstly, the link between the lectures and seminars and the assessment tasks had not been made sufficiently clear to students nor introduced early enough in the year. This was partly because we did not want to ‘frighten them off’. However, it meant that although students were able to apply in their assessments what they had learned, they had not at first understood that they would need to do so or how it would be relevant.

Even so, from early on students told us that they liked learning and applying new analytical skills. Our suspicion is that this process is a more conscious one in our module than in some others, because students so readily perceive the differences between how they use photography and ‘see’ pictures in everyday life and how they later came to ‘see’ and use similar materials analytically. In one feedback session, students spontaneously identified with some glee the moment when ‘the penny dropped’. While satisfying, our feeling is that these moments came too late. Next year we plan to spend more time introducing the assessment tasks from the outset and plan to consider using student diaries as reflexive learning tools.

The use of a portfolio of assessments worked well, especially allowing students to expand on materials and substantive areas considered earlier in the year. For instance, a good number of students went on to use photographs they had ‘discovered’ on our visit to MRC for one of their assessments. These included a photograph (Image 1) from the BP archive which, taken in 1899 in what was then Persia, seems to show an execution. (It is attributed to the then Chief Medical Officer of the Anglo Persian Oil Company, Dr Young, who is recorded as having a passion for anthropology.) The student used the image to explore the role of photography in social and anthropological surveys. A number of other students dug progressively deeper into their own family photographic archives as the module progressed, to explore the relationship between biography, life history and wider social and political questions. The second image shown here (Image 2) was ‘found’ in a collection belonging to a student’s grandparent, and shows her grandmother as a child with her father. Taken in Soviet-occupied East Germany at the end of World War II, the photograph contributed to a moving life history interview exploring the impact of war on the lives of children.

Execution, Persia 1899 BP Archive Grandmother and Great Grandfather, East Germany circa1947
Image 1: Execution,Persia, 1899, BP Archive Image 2: Grandmother and Great Grandfather, East Germany, circa 1947

However, the succession of tasks makes for some difficulties in pacing the introduction of new material. Term 1 was probably overloaded, Term 2 too thin. There was a lot to introduce early in the module -- interpretive vocabularies, practical techniques, and fieldwork methods – so that students could undertake practice exercises and plan their assignments. By the middle of Term 2 students were busy with preparing their assessed work and had less patience for topics that did not directly feed into this process.

The decision to focus on still photography was vindicated. Most students were already familiar with digital photography—some were exceptionally good photographers—and this allowed us to concentrate on the sociology. However, the unevenness of students’ computer and camera skills did mean that our planned workshops turned out to be too simplistic for most but confusing for those lacking basic familiarity. This perhaps suggests the value of some form of streaming for workshops, although this could lead to significant timetabling problems. In future, we intend to assume responsibility for technical training ourselves – although this will require greater input from one of us – to ensure the sociological and technical elements are better integrated.

Student feedback at the end of the Term 2 was very favourable. We were pleased to learn that students were enjoying the curriculum, including teaching on the aesthetic and political significance of photographs, and could vividly remember many of the images shown in lectures. This first intake of students may have had more initial interest in photography than most others, since they were willing to take a gamble on an unknown course, and it will be interesting to see whether this interest is sustained in future years.

Student performance on the module has been very strong, and not only in the level of their assessed work. Students contributed directly to the module through their presentations in seminars, which gave them practice in analysing visual data. The photographs they took and projected in class captured aspects of social life vividly and succinctly and led to interesting and wide-ranging discussions. Students were also very appreciative of one another’s efforts. For many this was their first experience of ‘doing’ research, including accessing and selecting archival material and producing interview and visual data. Taking pictures forced them to observe the social world closely and systematically, to think more carefully about method in social investigation, and to be reflexive about the social interactions producing the images had involved. Of particular interest to the students were the moral and ethical implications of using photographic material in social research. Our feeling is that most students seemed to be able to ‘do’ sociology more expertly and confidently through pictures than words.

We were also pleased to note that many of the students included in their assessment portfolio images they had made for the module. One student, for instance, undertook a visual ethnography of a small slaughterhouse to explore the relationship between workers and animals in the production of meat. Shown here (Image 3), one of her images of a dead pig being shaved was used to emphasise the capacity of photography to capture what are sometimes the intangible qualities of social relations and, in this case, to emphasise was she argued to be the respect that workers show for the animals they encounter in the course of their work. Other students undertook visual ethnographies researching, for instance, a homeless shelter, a high street clothing store, a suburban street, a gay bar and a community network, while other students explored the value of re-photography or photographic surveys in examining the visible manifestations of social change. Others still incorporated their own photographs into research projects drawing upon traditions of qualitative interviewing.

Slaughter man shaving a dead pig, Naomi Alsop, 2006Image 3:Slaughter man shaving a dead pig, Naomi Alsop, 2006

This might be the place to say how much the module (and we as tutors) benefited from the enthusiasm and interest of the students. It was a relief to discover that they mostly relished their role as ‘guinea pigs’ and enjoyed our learning with them as we went along. This suggests that as university teachers we should not be put off from offering new modules by the fact that not everything can be ready or our skills perfected beforehand.

The one consistently negative aspect of student feedback was with regard to Library resources. We resisted ordering multiple copies of new texts before knowing which would be most useful, but the result was that the library was not as well stocked as it could have been. Also the Library practice of storing expensive photography books separately discouraged students from seeking them out.

Teaching the module has also contributed to our own professional self-development. We have both published research using visual methods, but started the module with very different practical skills. One of us has a City and Guilds Level II in photography and experience of taking photographs as part of ethnographic research, the other has undertaken courses of study in photography at the Tate Modern concentrating more on interpretation than practical skills. Nonetheless, we were both impressed by how much the use of visual materials enhanced our teaching experience. In particular displaying images in lectures using PowerPoint lent itself to a more interactive style of lecturing. We also became much more aware of the embeddedness of digital technologies in social practices, and in particular the ways that visual materials are used in academic research and presentations. We also came to realise that the use of one form of digital media increases the use of others, and how interconnected they are. Partly due to these observations we decided to make research on the social impact of digital media a more explicit part of the syllabus.

The development of the module has tended to legitimate the place of visual sociology in the department. To our delight one of the department’s MA students (whom we had introduced to visual sociology as an undergraduate) has gone on to found a British Sociological Association study group in Visual Sociology. Its founding conference is scheduled to take place atWarwick in the summer term of this year.

Continuation activities

We will continue to teach this undergraduate module, amending it in line with the experiences outlined above. With students’ permission we will use the material they produced as part of displays at Open Days and Graduation festivities, as well as presentations about the module to interested faculty in the University.

We are now planning for a postgraduate variant where we will experiment with teaching video production before introducing it to the undergraduate module. We have already applied for and been granted funds for training and equipment from the new Teaching Innovations Fund. This will also help us to improve our technical skill base in the production and manipulation of still imagery. We have also become more confident about extending our own research using visual methods into new directions.


As a general rule it would seem that lecturers wishing to create modules that introduce students to the use of new technologies and/or which adopt new approaches in theory and method need to do so slowly and carefully, so that course development can be undertaken within the time and resources available. The rewards of doing so, our experience suggests, can be significant both for tutors and students, particularly where students are encouraged to design, carry out and present their own research projects. But we have also found that students’ independent research needs to be accompanied by lectures, seminars and tutorials that offer guidance on how to make sense of the analytical opportunities opened up by the incorporation of still photography into social research. In doing so, the means are also provided to introduce students to the work of other social researchers using visual methods in a range of substantive fields.

Finally, this module is part of a wider aspiration of the Sociology Department to offer modules that enable students to experiment with different ways of researching society and presenting research results; for instance, an undergraduate module on the sociology of the story was introduced in the same year. One of the features of both modules is the possibility for circulating student work more widely in the department, through publications and/or exhibitions.


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Citation for this Article
Wolkowitz, C., & Mizen, P. (2006)Teaching Visual Sociology. Warwick Interactions Journal 28. Accessed online at:
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