Experiments in Visual Sociology

Visual sociology is an area of sociology concerned with the visual dimensions of social life.

Social mobility is defined as movement of individuals, families, households, or other categories of people within or between layers or tiers in an open system of social stratification.

In Urry (2007) mobilities is described as ‘Issues of movement – of people, things, information and ideas – are central to people’s lives and to most organisations. From oil wars to SMS texting, from airport expansion controversies to the decline of walking, from slave-trading to global terrorism, from global warming to teleworking, issues of ‘mobility’ are centre-stage upon many academic and policy agendas’.

Last Friday I decided to conduct a visual sociology experiment with my nieces. The theme I have to explore in my Visual Sociology module is mobilities. It is difficult because I am unsure what the term ‘mobilities’ means nor do I have a good understanding of Visual Sociology either. I have made attempts to understand this better through a wide range readings, however, I still have the same mental block. The module is finishing soon and assessment is approaching and although I still need to gain a better understanding, we are encouraged to experiment with different documentation media and I so decided to jump in.

My idea was to connect the concept of ‘mobilities’ to learning. My interest is in capturing the learning that takes place outside the classroom, where there more space to act independently and take initiative in as this is an approach I’d like to use as an artist teacher. ‘My question was what does learning look like?’. I took from a friends thesis question in a different module. I looked for a situation where I felt that learning was abundant and very visible to my outsider eyes, this happened to be my nieces who are six and eight years old.

My nieces love to make me drawings of camper vans because they know I love them and dream to get one in the future. When I visited them a few weeks ago there were making hedgehogs out of DAS clay. When I saw this, I also thought I would like to make a camper van out of DAS clay, and then I thought why not make one with my nieces.

So on Friday night, I invited them to help me with my homework. I told them I was going to audio record the whole process including the initial conversations. I began to explain briefly what visual sociology was and that I wanted to make a camper van out of clay with them. I asked them if they had a camera we could use to document the process and they said we could use their tablets or iPods. Dalia who is eight suggested that we each make a small model camper van as a test and then all make the one that was most successful, together in big. We each made a small model which I found much harder to do than I expected. Clay in a hard medium to use when you just have your hands and a few tools as it drys quickly and doesn’t like to be moulded too much. The models didn’t look that much like a camper vans but we knew what they were.

The next morning we resumed the activity and this time I tried documenting the process with an analogue SLR camera. I hadn’t used it the night before as there was an error with the camera. I choose black and white film because I had never used it before, I didn’t know how to photos would turn out, I wanted to see what would be emphasised when colour was no longer a factor and what would be lost. At Boots where I bought the film they had the option of a black and white film or a film that could be printed in colour or black and white. I didn’t really know what difference it would make and as I was in a rush and as I wanted to print in black and white anyway I chose the black and white film only. It was an ILFORD FP4 PLUS 125 film 36 EXP film. The error message appeared ‘FEE’ When I loaded it into my camera. I discovered this meant that it wanted me to lock the aperture at 22. With a low small aperture I needed to either use the flash or have a long shutter speed. However, my camera wouldn’t let me increase the aperture, or shutter speed even in manual and so I was limited to use a flash. I hadn’t quite understood that if I used a flash then I wouldn’t need to keep it on a tripod so I photographed the learning building of the camper van at irregular intervals, using irregular angels, and mostly on tripod but the latter few without. This is no doubt a criticism in my methodology. I took the photos to be developed the day I took them (Saturday) and they will be ready to collect tomorrow (Tuesday). Once I have a look at the images I will give me a good insight into how efficient they were at capturing what learning looks like. Or rather can learning be captured with a visual? I have not had the chance to listen to the audio recordings yet. I will listen once I have received the photos. In analysing the audio I will look for the instances where I feel learning, defined by ‘breakthrough moments’ took place. I will also choose pick out the images which illustrate those break through moments. There are a few  tablet and iPhone video recordings I took, I will look at them together and see how they compare.

Ways to improve and develop the project

From this initial experimentation what I’ve found that i’d like to focus on is the ‘unschooled’ or ‘un-institutionalised body’ drawing from Foucault. I would like to document how my nieces hold themselves when engaged in formal learning. Most of the time my nieces are not set specific learning activities at certain times of day like children are in school. So I would focus on the activities that they or their parents consider to be formal learning. This I predict could be drawing, reading, writing or photography for example. I hope to show the  spontaneous movement they do when engaged in ‘formal’ learning. It’s not that children don’t engage in drawing or reading outside of the classroom, but they do it after spending most of their day in classrooms, at desks, immobile. Photography could be a interesting medium. As an experiment I could compare how effective long shutter photography and video are in communicating movement in learning. Slow speed photography would capture all their movements in one frame whereas video would show it separately and it would be harder to gain an overall visual understanding of all the different movements Dalia and Poppy did. It would be restricted to one frame as I’d need to use a tripod so i’d probably have to make it a wide angel to capture the most possible places they went in the space. The other question would be how many photos, would I take? How long would the time frame of the learning activity be? How many different learning activities should I document? Which learning activities? Maybe I could also video the whole activity at the same time and compare. I would just leave the video running and attend to the DSLR. Or I could spend a typical school day for someone of their age, say 9am – 3.15pm and instead of choosing particular activities that the parents feel reflect learning I could take on photo every 60 minutes, or 30 minutes. And in this way gather slightly more metholdogloical data.





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