“What was Visual Sociology?”: specialisation and fragmentation within disciplines

There’s an interesting post on the CSIP blog by Michael Guggenheim. Along with Nina Wakeford, he’s convening Goldsmith’s new MA Visual Sociology. The strange formulation in the blog’s title stems from his desire to overcome the visual epithet, such that the terminology of ‘visual sociology’ could be confined to the past. There’s an interesting question here about how terminology can work to codify the stratifications within disciplinary knowledge systems:

Why then does this blog post speak of visual sociology in the past tense? Why not ask: What is visual sociology? (to follow up Noortje Marres’ “what is digital sociology” post?).

Short answer: Because we need to get rid of the “visual” as a denominator of the subdiscipline. By starting an MA in visual sociology I am guilty in perpetuating this unfortunate situation, but, I hope, we may also produce a new generation of students, who can then leave the visual behind.

As in the case of women’s studies, the denominator does not simply announce a subfield that stands next to any other subfield. There is not visual sociology and textual sociology. There is not men’s studies and women’s studies. Women’s studies emerged because disciplines such as history and sociology were men’s studies without saying so in the title. For the same reason, we have sociology, and a special subfield called visual sociology, because for whatever reason, sociology is assumed to be a purely textual discipline (the same situation applies to visual anthropology). “Visual” is considered to be strange, not really sociology, not really scientific, or it is simply forgotten.

In many other disciplines the same situation does not apply. There is no visual astronomy or biology or chemistry. A non-visual astronomy simply does not exist. What would astronomers do without producing visual traces of other stars, planets and galaxies?

It seems important to me that we distinguish the terminology of Visual Sociology (or Digital Sociology) from that of X studies. In each case, we can see an underlying tendency towards the diversification of the knowledge system, driven in part by the ideational arms race within which professional rewards go to those who can combine ideas in novel ways and disseminate them widely through frequent and well-placed publications. But the terminology of ‘Visual Sociology’ will tend to allow this diversification to be reincorporated into disciplinary knowledge systems whereas the terminology of X Studies will tend not to.

By this I simply mean that the work being done under the rubric of ‘visual sociology’ can more easily be related back to sociological work as such. The propositional content of Visual Sociology and, to invent a parallel for sake of argument, Visual Studies might be indistinguishable but the nomenclature of the former entails an orientation towards the beliefs, theories and practices which constitute the ‘parent’ discipline. This makes it more likely that the implications of Visual Sociology (the contradictions and complementarities which obtain at the level of ideas) for Sociology more broadly will actually be recognised, drawn out and argued for by the cultural agents whose activity is required for the reproduction or elaboration of the knowledge system.

In short there are three points which interest me here: (1) the ‘ideational arms race’ driving diversification, (2) the emergence of sub disciplinary specialisms and (3) the emergence of substantive areas of interdisciplinary inquiry. There’s an underlying structural process driving (1) which results largely from the incentive systems operating within the modern academy, as well as the technological reduction of friction which used to impinge upon the navigation of the knowledge system i.e. it’s easier to put elements together in novel ways if you can instantly find them through Google Scholar etc. So I’m proposing that (2) and (3) are socio-cultural trends which enable this diversity to be reincorporated into the knowledge system in different ways: one allows for disciplinary reincorporation whereas the other engenders disciplinary fragmentation.

If we accept that the ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Sociologist’ (see the letter to Laurie Taylor by Stephen Mugford reproduced below) and continually reinventing the wheel is a bad thing then these issues of how areas of inquiry are named become much more important than they might initially seem. Yet another recent addition to my list of post-PhD writing projects is to apply Margaret Archer’s often overlooked work on culture to the (re)formation of disciplines in the contemporary academy. In this post and a few others I’ve started to sketch the initial outlines for what this project will entail and I think it offers a powerful set of tools for untangling the complex interaction of structure, culture and agency in the reproduction and transformation of academic knowledge.


I listen to TA as a podcast, so timing and order can be a bit scrambled. So it was that only recently I heard one on ‘intoxication’ from 2012.

I’m writing to you because it provoked in me a serious concern about sociology today which I raise with you below, I hope collegially. (I trust not in some curmudgeonly way).

Brief background: You and I are pretty well age and disciplinary peers—I did my London Sociology Hons in 1968 and then went to Bristol with Michael Banton, Theo Nichols, et al, finishing writing my PhD while teaching sociology in NZ. In late 1974 I went on to the ANU where I stayed until late ’96. In the period ’79-’96 I was fairly heavily involved in crime and deviance studies, authoring and co-authoring  a range of papers on drug use and policy and also some on restorative justice. This took me into the American Society of Criminology where I met, or re-met in some cases both UK sociologists (Ian Taylor, Jock Young, Mike Presdee*, etc.) as well as US ones (Bill Chambliss, Jack Katz, etc.) Great fun and good times. Pat O’Malley and I organised a ripper session at one ASC on crime, excitement and modernity with Mike Presdee, Jack Katz, ourselves, etc. which was packed to the rafters….

[*I say re-met because Mike and I not only met in Australia, we also, I discovered, went to school together in Gloucester. A sad loss is Mike.)

So if I say that the material in the program was pretty familiar, you won’t be surprised. And of course, if you did not know the area well, it would be a good episode because it covered a lot of ground effectively, the speakers were nicely integrated, etc. I’ve done a fair bit of media work (professional video work, etc.) and I know TA is a well created series.

But what DID worry me, which is implicit in my title, is that I learned almost nothing. It is 20+ years since, for example, I co-wrote papers like:

  • 1994      P.T. O’Malley and S.K Mugford   ‘Crime, excitement and modernity’ pp. 189-211 in Gregg Barak (ed) Varieties of Criminology,  Westport, Conn.: Praeger.
  • 1993      Social change and the control of psychotropic drugs—risk management, harm reduction and ‘postmodernity’, Drug and Alcohol Review,  12: 369-375
  • 1992      P. Dance and S.K. Mugford   ‘The St. Oswald’s Day celebrations: ‘carnival’ versus ‘sobriety’ in an Australian drug enthusiast group’,Journal of Drug Issues, 22(3):591-606
  • 1991      With P. T. O’Malley   ‘Heroin policy and the limits of Left Realism’,  Crime, Law and Social Change: An International Journal,  15: 19-36.
  • 1991      P. T. O’Malley and S.K. Mugford   ‘The demand for intoxicating commodities: implications for the ‘War on Drugs’  ’,  Social Justice: A Journal of Crime, Conflict and World Order, 18: 49-75.

My point is not that these folks did not cite, or seem to know, these works. Rather, these pieces were part of a much larger corpus written by people like Presdee and Katz and others, which explored all the conceptual and theoretical issues that were raised in much the same way but the corpus as a whole seems to be completely missed.

And so all the (to me) familiar themes came out. Yes, antidrug use campaigners miss the pleasurable side of drug use. Yes, Bakhtin and carnival are relevant ideas. Yes, drug abuse is best described as the “the use of drugs I don’t use by people I don’t like”. Yes, getting written off is an ambiguous thing—fun but dangerous. Et cetera.  And all presented as if somehow this was new or surprising, when it had all been said before (and very likely before I and my mates said it too—we may equally be guilty of exactly the same problem.)

I would hope that after 20 odd years out of the game, I would hear something new, something that made me think, “Oh, wow” and not “Uh, huh.”  In other fields of enquiry things are moving apace. Leave aside the natural sciences with myriad breakthroughs (from Homo Floriensis to the Higgs Boson), cognitive science and psychology and their cognates are all rocketing along. Every time I listen to a podcast in one of these fields (and in some of them I am quite well read so this is not just a naïve effect) I hear new and intriguing stuff.  And there is some new stuff in sociology, especially around network research, where I DO get the wow effect.

It worries me, however, to hear people rediscovering things for the nth time and solemnly discussing them as if they are new. And I think that maybe what we see here is a real warning about the discipline. What do you think?

Maybe I am just suffering from ‘nostalgia aint what it used to be”? But I don’t think so.

Collegially yours,


Categories: Higher Education

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