Anthropology Has Always Been a Visual Practice

The other day I was talking with a friend about ethnography as a writing genre, not just a methodology.  Not surprisingly, the conversation focused on the textual nature of ethnography specifically and anthropology in general.  What struck me as we talked was the focus on the written word, as though that were the principle mode of representation.  And being someone who writes, it is, from a personal standpoint, largely on the mark.  But then the discussion turned to video and photography, both of which I use frequently, as do most of the anthropologists I work with in the private sector.  I would even go so far as to say that the collaboration we practice with other disciplines, such as designers, artists, etc. extend the practice of anthropology further, turning most of our work into something decidedly non-textual.

The notion that anthropologists are more textually-oriented than visual is far from true.  Anyone who has spent the early part of their training trying to figure out the subtleties of kinship diagrams, mastering the art of reading archaeological site maps, and illustrating the landscape in which they did fieldwork knows that the visual side of anthropology is as strong as the written word. Anthropology has always been visual.

We tend to think of visual anthropology as that part of cultural anthropology concerned, in large part with the study and production of ethnographic photography, film and new media. But visual anthropology also encompasses study of visual representation, including areas such as performance, museums, art, and the production and reception of mass media. Visual representations from all cultures, such as sand paintings, tattoos, sculptures and reliefs, cave paintings, scrimshaw, jewelry, hieroglyphics, paintings and photographs are included in the focus of visual anthropology. And while it may be a stretch, I would go so far as to say that it increasingly includes the products of our research – package design, marketing campaigns, product design, etc.  While these are not necessarily direct representations of a people or context, they are representations of insights in material or visual form.

So why does it matter?  It matters because we often find ourselves perpetuating the myth, at least in the business-focused community, that ethnographic work finds culmination exclusively in the written word, with video and photography being a side project meant to illustrate a difficult concept or to add flavor to a report.  Consequently, many of the people who hire us hold the same belief.  The more visual work we do, the more useful we are.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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1 Comment

  1. So very true. How often have you thought about the type of photographic equipment and the quality of the photos you take, in the same way that professional photographers worry about composition, lighting, resolution and potential publication? Always. But I especially appreciate the fact that you included non-photographic forms of visual documentation as part of ethnographic representation. Beyond kinship charts, think about the ways we strategize to visually represent social networks, gift exchanges, even the Deluze & Guttari rhizome is an example of visual anthropology.

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