Mass observation

The current exhibition of photographs from the Mass Observation Archive at The Photographers Gallery in London is about to come to an end after 2 months. For someone who has equal interests in the visual and the social, the exhibition ticked all my boxes and I found it fascinating, so much so that I managed to squeeze in two visits during its run.

What struck me was the way the curators seamlessly blended the photographs of the anonymous observers and glimpses of the social captured by more well known photographers such as John Hinde.

In fact I was so struck by the exhibition that I ended up researching into how to become one of the observers myself. With luck, they were (and still are) recruiting for Males aged 16-44 so I filled in the forms and this week had an email confirming that they are happy to add me to their list of correspondents. I am particularly excited by this because I think the value of the data that the achieve captures is immeasurable for really understanding how changes in society actually impact upon peoples lives.

visual sociology

Conversations in the restroom

Words adorning toilet cubicles is something that becomes as predictable as the lack of toilet paper you will find within them. It is rare, however that you see counterarguments to a piece of graffiti, especially a well thought out one.




Who are we to judge if they are empowered?

This blog comes about in light of reading a thought-provoking paper  by Richard Williams entitled ‘The collaboration as empowerment claim: The case of visual social research’. Initially I almost didn’t read it given that it was behind a paywall and Sociology Compass is not a title my library subscribes to. I’m glad I took a gamble based on the abstract, however, as it raises some interesting issues.

Williams highlights the disparity in the way the benefits of the research relationship are conceptualised by examining two visual studies in light of a framework of ideal collaboration.  For the researcher, he argues that there are tangible, measurable benefits associated with publications, outputs and other elements that enhance a CV. For the participants, however, they are often termed as being “empowered”, something of a slippery intangible concept and that is often assumed opposed to evaluated. He argues that this empowerment is also framed from the researchers perspective in terms of how they view that the project has empowered the individual, or group they have been studying. 

The main line of one of Williams’ arguments is for me incredibly important and one that does need further thought: How can we understand the ways in which the participants have been empowered? 

Williams’ highlights that ‘there is no room within the academic social structure for the research subject to express their opinion about empowerment’ (p.526). I think this is an important point to address in terms of how we frame the research relationship. It is expected that qualitative researchers make clear their own positioning to the research but there needs to be a place for the participants to do the same. A researcher wouldn’t make a claim within their analysis not backed up with evidence from their data therefore why should they be able to make similar claims in regards to the claims they make about empowerment? I think this debate opened up by Williams’ is an important one and something that needs to be considered by any researcher claiming to ’empower’ their participants through a participatory model of research. Williams’ is right, the current dissemination structures of journals do not allow for incorporation of the voices of participants. In fact, Les Back often highlights this concern through his attempts to add a participant as a co-author on a paper and how problematic it was for the editors to understand that she didn’t have a research affiliation.

There are two possible ways to address this. One is for editors, reviewers and academics to start addressing the issue through ensuring that published papers do address this issue and that they begin interrogating the question of how the researcher knows that the participant was empowered. The alternative is to ensure that research projects have an outlet for the multiple voices of their participants and places for them to examine how the research may, or may not have impacted upon their lives. Making them an active part of the project through web 2.0 platforms may be one way to do this. Allowing participation within the research not to be a one time thing that takes place during the collection of data, but by allowing them to continue to participate alongside the analysis phase and beyond publication to help researchers understand the way in which their research may, or may not have met it’s aims of empowerment.

There is an oft used phrase ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’ which is the anti-thesis of what participatory research that maintains a goal of empowerment aims to do. I would argue that without actually examining if and how participants are indeed empowered, that we are in danger of leaving only footprints that do not have a lasting effect on those who researcher claim to empower.



Williams, R. (2013) ‘The Collaboration as Empowerment Claim: The Case of Visual Social Research’, Sociology Compass, 7, 515-532

IVSA 2013, visual sociology

Reflecting on #IVSA2013

My final image from the series I captured at IVSA 2013 comes not from the photo walk, but from a moment of clarity during a coffee break. Sitting on the lawn, I gazed towards the giant mirrored windows of the academic buildings and starting back at me was an image of myself, surrounded by people. Sometimes we focus in so closely on the nuts and bolts of academia that we miss the wider picture. The fact that it is the people that exist in the social that are inherently interesting and not the tools we use to capture them. Appropriate then that this image was the product of a mere iPhone and not the more complex set up that normally typists my best images.


IVSA 2013, visual sociology

(In)visibility of the observer and the observed – #IVSA2013 Photo Walk part 5

(In)visibility of the observer and the observed - #IVSA2013 Photo Walk part 5

Several of the presentations in the morning panels I attended at the IVSA conference focused on the issues surrounding visibility of the researcher to the participants in their research or photographs and the ethics surrounding that. There were also discussions of the partiality of representation of subjects by the way the lens frames them. This image seemed to draw together both of these concerns through the partial representation (and anonymity) of the subjects of the photo and their relation to the shadows of myself and two other photographers.

IVSA 2013, visual sociology

Subject/Object – #IVSA2013 Photo Walk Part 4

The juxtaposition of these two images is intentional. At first glance they both appear to be of the same thing, some young lads performing a routine and wowing the crowd with their physical agility but if we look deeper into the images, they are about something else, the crowd within the frame. This shifting from the performers being the subject of the photo to the object of the gaze of the crowd is something at I found particularly interesting. The onlookers who saw my camera would have assumed that the flips and turns were what I was focusing on when really it was their reactions that were capturing my imagination and the way they were interacting with the performance.