Visualism – Key concept in Social and Cultural Anthropology

It is perhaps ironical that at the same time as there has been an anthropological desire to deconstruct the central place given in the West to vision as a form of knowing (where ‘I see’ is synonymous with (‘I understand’) (cf. Ong 1969; Dias 1994), and to recognize an array of other senses and forms (Stoller 1989b), visual anthropology has also grown into a methodological specialism—albeit one seeking to redress a traditional (Western) emphasis on the written word as a form of representing anthropological knowledge. Nor has the irony gone unnoticed. Indeed, visual anthropology has been critiqued from two vantage-points: the ‘traditional’, in whose view anthropology must perforce remain a logocentric discipline because of the need to convey abstraction and theory, and there being no clear route from the particularities of the image to the generalities of a holistic social structure (cf. Bloch 1988); and the ‘post-colonial’, in whose view the technologies of filmic representation are unavoidably corrupted by their being Western practices with a history and continuing provenance of ideological control. Notwithstanding this, visual anthropology, the employment of pictorial media as means to communicate anthropological knowledge, has continued to grow; it has challenged notions that anthropological knowledge must needs be seen either as holistic or as hegemonic. It has argued that there are important contributions to be made via pictorial media to the study of the audio-visual dimensions of human behaviour, of culture as manifested in visible symbols and audible sounds—as gesture, script, oration, dance, ceremony, ritual, art-work, craft and material artefact.

‘Pictorial media’ has come generally to mean film and video, although there have been significant anthropological forays into study of and by other visual forms such as photography (Bateson and Mead 1942; Pinney 1990) and television (Intintoli 1984; Liebes and Katz 1990). (The anthropology of artistic-cum-visual forms has tended to represent another specialism again, linked with issues of aesthetics (cf. Layton 1981; Coote and Shelton 1991).) Even here, however, and with film and video being such accepted representational genres outwith anthropology, definitional problems have arisen concerning what is truly or distinctively ‘anthropological’ or ‘ethnographic’ in the pictorial. How seriously are aesthetic, emotional and sentimental registers to be taken as filmic components? How should documentation be validated, and how balanced with narrational needs? What poetic, even surrealistic, strategies are to be permissible in the conveying of subjects’ inner experiences? In short, how, and to what extent, should ‘ethnography’ take precedence over cinematography?

Through a number of celebrated films—Robert Gardner’s Dead Birds (1963) and Forest of Bliss (1985); Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1965)—these issues have been brought to a head (cf. Heider 1976; Stoller 1992).

Perhaps the best that can be said, following Sol Worth (1981), is that a film or video is anthropological if an anthropologist chooses to treat it as such, a judgement likely to be made on the basis of the extent to which the ‘screen-play’ can be seen to be informed by local ethnographic knowledge, while the subject-matter is local behaviour which is normative (whether spontaneous or scripted) in a particular socio-cultural milieu.


The history of a visual appreciation in anthropology, and its filmic representation, goes back to the very beginnings of modern fieldresearch. An argument can be made, in fact, that in W.H.R.Rivers’s conception of field-research (before a Malinowskian format became paradigmatic), a visual record and an appreciation of otherness were seen to be inextricably tied (cf. Grimshaw 1994). Since then, the nature of visual representation and what it should purport anthropologically to be has undergone a number of transformations: from a romantic capturing of the exotic and anachronistic, to positivistic observation, to realistic dramatization, to surrealistic fictionalization, to reflexive and subjective construction, to= collaborative textualization (cf. Marks 1995).

However, a number of key dates and occasions, linking the above developments, stand out:

  • 1895: Felix Regnault films a Wolof woman in Paris making a clay pot.
  • 1898: Alfred Haddon takes a cine-camera with him (and Rivers) on the Cambridge University expedition to the Torres Straits.
  • 1901: Baldwin Spencer films Aboriginal dances.
  • 1914: Edward Curtis produces the exotic Kwakiutl movie In the Land of the Head-hunters.
  • 1922: Robert Flaherty releases the Eskimo drama Nanook of the North (followed by Man of Aran (1934)).
  • 1930: H.Carver directs The Silent Enemy: An Epic of the American Indian with an all-Amerindian cast, one of a number of ‘rescue’ films depicting native and peasant populations, in costume, proudly enacting their everyday lives, rituals and adventures for posterity.
  • late-1930s: Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead undertake a photographic project on national character and cultural ethos as they are revealed in social interaction, culminating in analytical films such as Childhood Rivalry in Bali and New Guinea (1951).
  • 1940s onwards: Jean Rouch begins a series of influential cinematographic narratives, located in Africa and France, such as Les Maîtres Foux (1953) and Chronique d’un été (1960), which experiment with plot and genre.
  • 1950s: the Goettingen Institut fuer den Wissenschaftlichen Film launches its ‘Encyclopaedia Cinematographica’ project and archive.
  • 1960s: advances in camera technology (colour reproduction, sound synchrony and video) lead to a great expansion in the number of films made by such luminaries as David and Judith MacDougall, Timothy and Patsy Asch, Melissa Llewelyn-Davies, Paul Henley, and (the Oscar-nominated) Dan Marks.
  • 1970s onwards: the release of a number of ethnographic film series on prime-time television: Granada’s Disappearing World; PBS’s Odyssey; BBC’s Face Values and Worlds Apart.
  • 1980s onwards: universities offer specialist courses in visual anthropology (Manchester, New York, Southern California).


Visual anthropology has succeeded in bringing into focus, throwing significant light upon or putting into interesting perspective, a number of key issues in contemporary anthropology. These include:

Fieldwork method: Making films in the field elucidates the processes by which field data are elicited through the anthropologist’s presence and the particular relations in which he or she is enmeshed. As a medium of record and reportage, film can be particularly reflexive, making explicit field methodology, subjectivity and intersubjectivity. As provocation, the camera can cause people to articulate taken-for-granted aspects of their culture (cf. Ruby 1980; MacDougall 1995).

Teaching methods: Timothy Asch, in collaboration with John Marshall, has made over 20 films on the !Kung San, and, with Napoleon Chagnon, over 35 films on the Yanomami (such as Ax Fight (1975)), primarily as teaching-aids. Might not filmic immediacy elicit a sense of ethnographic immersion? Then again, might not students used to film-asentertainment receive the filmic text as an affirmation of prior prejudices (cf. Martinez 1992; Asch and Asch 1987)?

Advocacy: As a new means of communication, one which bypasses the state and also the need for literacy, can film offer a medium for resistant local voices? Via projects such as Navaho Film Themselves, sponsored by Worth and Adair (1972; also Michaels among Aborigines (cf. 1987) and Turner among Kayapo (cf. 1992)), locals who are given the chance to film themselves produce cultural documents which reveal aspects of an indigenous world as seen through local eyes. This may culminate, as in the British ‘Black Audio Collective’, in a forum for grass-roots political critique.

Intellectual property rights: The distribution and reproduction of film calls into question rights of ownership of footage. A film made by Timothy Asch and Asen Balikci on nomads in Afghanistan—produced by the Canadian Film Board as Sons of Haji Omar, then sold to the BBC, who add a political commentary concerning the role of the protagonists in the (1980s) Afghan war, before releasing it as a finished product—ends up endangering the lives of those originally filmed.

Contested discourses: A growing realization that the camera is more than simply a window on the world—a neutral, transparent, objective unimpeachable medium—brings to the fore questions of its ideological nature: of filming as the pronouncements of the ideology of the filmmakers upon that of the filmed. To film is to have the power, the technology, the operational knowledge and the marketing control to film, and to abide by certain hegemonic conventions of producing the ‘filmic gaze’. But all this is also contestable by its consumers (cf. Minh-ha 1989; Crawford and Turton 1992).

Kinaesthetics: Film is ideally equipped for the study of body movement, whether as dance or as everyday gesture, and the sociocultural spaces in which this takes place. It records the proxemics of interaction, and can call into question their overdetermination as socalled cultural habitus (cf. Birdwhistell 1970).

Globalization: Film is part of a globalization of technology, of translocal and transnational production and consumption. As such it provides a test case of how a Western cultural artefact and practice is advertised and sold, and also how it is locally transformed (cf. Armes 1987; Appadurai 1991b).

Mass media: Many questions surround the relationship between contemporary mass media and their importance in social life, and the formation of cultural identities. Via film one is able to explore the              construction of local identity as part-and-parcel of its being represented (cf. Musello 1980; Kottak 1990).

Reflexivity: From film of people watching themselves on film, to filmmakers’ making their presence behind the camera felt in front of it, film can show up the constructed nature of all texts, the individual artistry and the collaboration that goes into their final forms (cf. Loizos 1993).

Individuation: Inasmuch as film captures the transience of particular moments of interaction—between film-maker and local, between local and local, between film-maker and film-maker—it is individual actors and their practices which are focused upon. Thus film can help rectify tendencies to generalization, collectivization and abstraction which have plagued traditional ethnography and given rise to brands of fictional holism (cf. Asch and Asch 1988).



Nigel Rapport and Joanna Overing (2000), SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ANTHROPOLOGY :The Key Concepts, Routledge,  London and New York.