Harper, D. (2012). Visual sociology. New York, NY: Routledge.
The book’s opening with a discussion of visual ethnography followed by documentary photography surprised me. It soon became clear that sociology as science studying social relationships between people embraces visual ethnography because it is found to be very suitable for studies in local or specific cultures. Harper justifies the discussion of documentary photography by arguing that great documentary makers often act as visual sociologists. Thus sociologists can learn from them. Documentary photography unfolds for us a world we still do not know enough of and creates us the opportunity to attribute meaning to the visual material.
Particularly instructive about this book is that Harper develops his own research experience which encourages the reader to think consciously about methodology and methods in their own research. In my view the chapter about photo elicitation is one of the strongest chapters. In contrast to Collier who believed that photo elicitation stimulates deeper and sharper memory Harper is convinced that photo-based conversation will lead to a better mutual understanding. Like Collier, Harper opts for photographs taken by the researcher himself or making use of a professional photographer in photo elicitation. Still, Harper admits that given the situation the activity of photographing can be transmitted to those who form the starting point of the study. As an example Harper mentions the Schilderswijk in The Hague (NL) where the researcher used photographs produced by participants.
In chapter nine, Harper discusses the emergence of photovoice; a group analysis method whereby photography and social action is combined to give answers to the research theme. Photovoice is also known as participatory photography. Using photovoice as method means that a photograph by itself is not important, but has some importance in the life of the person who took the photograph. The problem here is that participants have to learn about photography and analysing. In my view it is remarkable that Harper dedicates a chapter to photovoice without personal experience with this method. As a result there are no fine examples from the author himself to find out how photovoice works in practice. In Harper’s view photovoice is too prescriptive and he feels that too much value is attributed to photographic truth.
The text is very pleasant to read. Although I had expected to find more information about how to use methods within visual sociology, the chapter on photo elicitation is very inspiring and will surely have influence on my work. I consider this book a good reference book.