Professor focuses on visual sociology at seminar

Wheaton College Professor John GradyProfessor of Sociology John Grady, a past president of the International Visual Sociology Association, last summer was an invited scholar at the Visual Methods Seminar at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. The seminar provided an opportunity for attendees—mostly college professors and postdoctoral students—to explore the latest developments in visual research and to identify how these can be of use in their own current research. We talked to him about the seminar and his work.

What is the main focus of your research?

While I consider myself a general sociologist—interested in what is happening to society (both domestically and globally) and what should be done about it—I have for the most part focused on visual sociology or the study of images as social information. I am interested in what the study of visual evidence tells us about how society is organized and changes.

Exactly what is visual sociology?

I think the best way of approaching it is to frame the question of what a “more visual” sociology would look like. It would be one that places a premium on careful observation, or going and taking a look for yourself at what is going on. This was the lesson of the old Chicago School sociologists, and it is something we need to recover in our work. All theories and generalizations are at best hypotheses about the world. They always need to be re-examined and tested, and in the final instance that involves somebody going out there and taking a look around, sometimes for years at a time. It follows from that that anything that can help you fix your observations—like a map, or a drawing, or a photograph—should be prized and utilized. It also follows that anything that a society produces—whether as a built environment, a cultural product of one kind or another, or just a trace of human action—should also be fixed in some way for recall and analysis. Thus, just about anything that you can capture with a camera or that other people visualized as part of everyday life—the comics, family movies, advertising and the like—can provide data for most sociological questions.

Tell us about your role at the Visual Methods Seminar. 

There were four of us who were “tutors.” Our job was to introduce attendees to some of the most important methods and issues in visual research. These included using photographs in interviews; analyzing photographic content in media representations like advertising, ethnographic photography and documentary film; using vernacular photography (like home albums, Flickr, and the like). We also consulted with them on their projects, which they presented to the entire seminar on the final day of the nine-day program.

Why are you interested in this particular subject matter?

Visual information and imagery have been long neglected by the social sciences. So my interest is in figuring out what we can learn from objects and practices that we take for granted and, in fact, have not only neglected but also, as it turns out, deliberately ignored. Why this has been the case is pretty easy to understand. Visual images need to be interpreted, and a sociology that wanted to be scientific initially thought you had to avoid interpreting life and instead just look at cold hard facts that could be counted, organized into patterns and analyzed. We now know that all data has to be interpreted, and that early sociologists’ aversion to studying images wasn’t just that it required interpretation, but also that interpreting visual data was too challenging. There’s even more to the story, however. It is easy to reduce people and events to caricatures and “just so” stories when you can avoid observing them in everyday life or in images (usually photographic) of their doings. Sociologists, like other social scientists, talk about the world using models that are based on “ideal types” of behavior and social organization. One of the temptations of this approach is to make our view of the world tidier than it actually is by not muddying up our conceptual generalizations with data that we can’t completely manage. Using visual materials makes it a lot easier to appreciate and account for how society is constantly changing and evolving. For many of us in visual sociology—and I think my fellow tutors would agree with me—the really exciting thing about the “visual turn” in the social sciences is figuring out what image work contributes to our disciplines.

How does it relate to your coursework at Wheaton?

I teach several courses with a direct relevance to the seminar. My course on “Visual Sociology” enables me to explore with students the field as a whole and to investigate various ways of answering research questions with visual data. Over the last twenty years, I have become convinced, for example, that feature-length fiction films and storytelling—because I would now include the breathtaking revolution in serial storytelling on cable television and the like that began with “The Sopranos” through “Breaking Bad”—play a crucial role in making modern mass society imaginable, coherent and even possible. Its sermons and messages are more understandable, penetrating and relevant than anything produced by the clergy, and its dissection of the moral order is far more memorable and insightful than that found in most schooling. Also, I make extensive use of visual materials—and research techniques and findings—in most of my other courses.