Sociology & The Camera

Bonnie A.
21 min readAug 28, 2022
Photograph by Bonnie Alderfer

“It is often noted that sociology and photography were born during the same decades in Europe, and, as products of the same social events, one would expect cross-fertilization between what was, in fact, a new way of seeing (photography) and a new lens of interpretation (sociology).” (Harper 1998:55)


The camera and early sociological works were conceived around the same time in order to capture social reality, yet they have rarely worked in parallel. Many scholars have suggested that this is not a coincidence, but rather evidence that these are two tools that are helpful for framing different aspects of the social world (Harper 1998; Becker). In light of these suggestions, this paper attempts to explore the topic and potential uses of visual sociology as it has been discussed in various health and social science literature. As each day ushers each of us further into a digitalized and visually-inclined mainstream, this topic seems ripe for re-exploration. Thus, this paper is an exploration of multiple aspects of visual sociology: a brief history of the relationship between visual materials and sociology, how visual methods have been conceived and employed, and reviews a number (and is by no means exhaustive) of studies using various visual methods. In conclusion, this paper argues that photographic technologies have the potential to reinvigorate and broaden the sociological enterprise.


What is Visual Sociology? When did it begin?

Visual sociology is a highly misunderstood sub-field in the sociological discipline. The confusion surrounding this concept is a combination of its erratic use historically, ill-definition, lack of consistently in use and rigor, and persistent emergence of new (and largely unrecognized as such) visual methods. Another reason that there is no concrete picture of what visual sociology is may be attributed to the fact that the wider sociological discipline is also in a similar state of ill-definition (Becker 2004). Reflecting these issues, one dominant definition for visual sociology is:

Visual sociology is a collection of approaches in which researchers use photographs to portray, describe, or analyze social phenomena (Harper 1998: 55).



Bonnie A.

If we don’t tell our stories, who will? Co-founder of Polaroids @instantdreamlight