Photography and social research

I have often felt in doing research that I have missed out on using photographs, but when it comes to it I am not sure what an image tells us. Or rather my suspicion is, to borrow a phrase from Ryle [1], that an image gives you a ‘thin’ description’, it shows you what is happening but not why it is happening or the intention of the person doing it. Words offer the possibility of a thick description and I would much prefer, for example, to read George Orwell on shooting an elephant [2] rather than look at a photo or see a film of the same thing – though to be fair a photo has the particular value that it could have established whether Orwell really did shoot an elephant or not.

Two sets of photographs have recently grabbed my attention. Both from 1930’s and early 1940’s. The historical context is important as this is the period in which small, reliable and affordable hand held cameras were coming on to the market triggering a new interest in photography, just as hand held video cameras and now Smart/ I phones have led to an explosion of moving images being taken today.

The first set of photographs were taken by [3] Bateson and Mead – in fact of the two Bateson seems to have led on the photography. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson were both established social researchers and were excited about using photos in their ethnographic reporting as this might fill a gap between ‘journalistic description’ and ‘over analytical disembodied discussion’. The book they produced was a mix of text (Mead provided the written descriptions of Balinese culture, for example, covering topics including learning, integration of the body, parents and children, rites of passages and so on) Bateson’s photographs could illustrate through image what was being described in text. The book was first published in 1942 though the images were taken some time earlier when, over a period of time, they immersed themselves into Balinese life. [4]

Bateson and Mead worked with a great many photos as well as some short film clips. Interestingly they did not ask permission to take photographs and their subjects, they suggest, had lost a sense of self consciousness as they had got used to the sight of cameras being carried around the village. Very few of the compositions were in any sense ‘posed’ and this the authors see as giving their work greater authenticity.

Mead and Bateson were leading social researchers of the last century and they have been rightly celebrated; if judgments are to be made about their work then these should be framed by the times in which they lived. Mead and Bateson wanted to learn from the communities they studied and they offer some fascinating insight not least in respect to education. In a section about learning Mead describes a socialisation framework which might be seen as a community of practice. Children it is said learn virtually nothing from verbal instruction and even in story telling words must be repeated to have meaning. However some of the text really grates to the contemporary reader and many would question  the process by which western ethnographers come to enter and appraise traditional community. The photos look horribly intrusive and Mead and Bateson did not follow through on the ethical issues raised by their methods and I doubt if any of their colleagues or readers at the time would have done so either. [5]   The pictures are helpful to support the text but they are secondary. To be honest they remind me of tourist ‘snapshots’ more than anything else (nothing wrong with that of course but unsettling in the context of social research). Mead and Bateson set out to avoid presenting Balinese culture as disembodied and being over analytical, yet in tone that is what they have done.

Around the same time that Mead and Bateson were in Bali, other American photographers, some of the key names were Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein and Roy Stryker, were working on documenting the experiences of smallholders in the USA itself.  This was the work of the Historical Section of the Farm Security Administration Programme (the FSA) – the FSA programme being part of the interventionist New Deal to tackle unemployment and poverty. In particular smallholders in central USA were made destitute not only by the economic depression but also by ecological catastrophe. Farm land in the plains was always susceptible to drought and erosion but the soil could be held together by grass. As the great plains were ploughed up the soil lost its binding and come the droughts the soil simply blew away in great dust clouds [7]. Faced with the destitution of farmers the government at first did very little but the New Deal offered by Roosevelt offered more, though how radical has always remained a matter of debate. The idea of a historical section seems to have been to record the lives and trials of shareholder farmers in the hope that this would generate a sense of social solidarity leading to action to address their plight. The photographers working on the project produced a very large numbers of images which can be accessed in library of Congress web site [6].

Many of the photos draw the viewer in and do what they set out to do which is to provoke an emotional response. I don’t want to overdo the contrast between these photographs and those of Bateson as the FSA ones were taken by professional photographers and were designed to persuade not just to document. However it needs to be said that the photos are engaging and humanist in ways that Bateson’s are not. Interestingly though, similar ethical issues are raised by both sets of photographs as the FSA photographers did not seek permission from their subjects either  and there has been some talk of smallholder  being unhappy at the way their lives were documented.

The FSA collection remains haunting. And particularly so as it seems to offer a direct  comparison with the images we have of, displacement and forced migration  in particular from Syria into Europe.


The images below are available from the Library of Congress and are respectively titled:

Farmer and sons walking in the face of a dust storm. Cimarron County, Oklahoma (Arthur Rubinstein April 1936)


Children of destitute Ozark mountaineer, Arkansas (Ben Shahn, October 1935)


Toward Los Angeles, Calif. (Dorothea Lange March 1937).


Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California (Dorothea Lange, February or March 1936)


(Note the collection is available to view via the Library of Congress and I understand is copyright free but apologise in advance if this is not case.)

[1] Ryle, G. (1968) The Thinking of thoughts, What is ‘Le Penseur’ doing?, University Lectures No 18, University of Saskatchewan. Online. Available HTTP: <>

[2] Orwell (1936) Shooting an Elephant is in various collections but can be accessed at the Orwell archive online at

[3] Bateson, G.and Mead, M. (1942) Balinese Character A photographic analysis New York Academy of Sciences, New York

[4] It is a grey area but I don’t think I have permission to upload photographs to the site but you can see them on a web site publicising a ibrary of congress event at

[5] a contrasting approach is to give cameras to participants in order that they may make their own images and discuss them together – see for a example Johnsen, S. et al (2008) Imagining ‘homeless places’ Area, 40, 2. 194-207.

[6] I became aware of these photos via an exhibition at my university: The Photography of Persuasion from 1930’s America

[7] Some of the context can be seen in the film ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’.  I found it extraordinary. The film can be easily accessed on You Tube, for example at


Language learning: a thing of the past?

Language classes started again at our university and I have re-enrolled at intermediate German. From a technology point of view why bother? Online translation programmes are free and efficient and speech recognition has improved to such an extent that there is frequent talk of mobile translation devices that can really work  [1]. In fact progress has been startling and from the programming point of view the interesting thing about speech recognition, and now translation, is that it has developed by throwing large set of data at the problem rather than rule based artificial intelligence [2]. This leaves the whole process based on probabilistic modelling – something which cannot provide the 100 per cent accuracy needed in certain situations and which we would certainly need to trouble shoot breakdowns in communication and to get over more nuanced messages. Will we ever be able to move across cultures with satisfactory translation devices?  To be honest I would like to think not but incremental progress is being made. In the meantime some of us at least will plug away at learning another language and will look towards technology to help.

Of course what goes on in the head when we try to learn remains all too familiar, it is a time consuming process, two steps forward one step back. However technology seems to have sped things up or at least provided some variety. I use online translation as a support for writing, or for getting rough idea of a text before looking at individual words in more detail. I can access several online dictionaries and online conjugations databases. There are a growing number of people producing vlogs on language learning – in part these appear to be a mix of exhibitionism, public service provision and implicit promotion of teaching and translation services. Some are very useful. After having expressed an interest I get reminders to use Babel Fish and Duolingo however I find I can no longer stand online drills and quizzes.  I can find for myself any number of films in target languages on You Tube and I can send occasional emails to friends in Germany. In the case of German there are quite imaginative online materials offered by Deutsche Welle [3] and here it is striking how far their language support work is addressing the concerns of new arrivals as well as traditional audiences of tourists and travellers.

Using available technology for language learning is not of course new and it is always interesting to see the hopes generated by its use in the past. Linguaphone was one of the first to get into technology, using wax cylinder recording of the target language, crude, but something greeted at the time with widespread enthusiasm.  Recordings were of course later captured on vinyl and now digitally.

The other day I was given a box set of German course offered by Linguaphone back in 1961. The box consisted of several vinyl records with transcripts of dialogues and back up material in books. For many years Linguaphone was the ‘go to’ provider of distance learning language courses at least for those who could afford it (or whose organisations could afford it) but not only the technology but the materials now feel very dated in this box set. Linguaphone seemed to have made an assumption that language learning was a middle class, conservative pursuit [4]. Some of the contexts must have been crackers even in 1961. Here is a model sentence at a dinner party:

Die Damen unterhalten sich über gemeinsame Freunde und die letzte Mode. Wir Männer sprechen über Politik, Geschäft un die Tagesneuigkeiten. [5]

I saw the same thing in a Spanish box set years ago and I expect Linguaphone used the same framework for each course it offered and slotted in the required language [6] as it suited. I doubt if these contexts changed much over the years either.

Other shortcomings in my Linguaphone box set are that the grammar is covered very quickly and there is no meaningful authentic material. However the key underlying problem with any old style distance learning, and indeed with language labs, is that it is, at the least, very difficult to carry out an authentic conversation when talking to a record or tape recorder – it is all a rehearsal and feels mindless.

It is easy to mock my Linguaphone box set and the view of language learning contained within it, but it is not all bad. Although we tend to see language learning in the past as dominated by a direct method (a numbing succession of listen, repeat drills) there is a lot of back up material in Linguaphone which explains how the language works. It is a much more of a mixed approach than you would realise from the way Linguaphone advertised itself. We tend further to assume that old style distance learning was based on a transmission model  – the material landed on the doormat and that was that. However designers did understand the need to interact with learners and in my box set there is a letter, which I guess was constructed by Linguaphone but sent out and personalised by a tutor. The letter is stiff but kindly [7], and invites the learner to send in responses to exercises and to raise any questions about learning the language with him.

Linguaphone exists today and has, I guess, updated its material. However it must be a struggle for anyone to attract customers for a paid-for course when there is so much available online for free. Looking back you can see how technology (including wax cylinder recordings) have consistently triggered high expectations.  I think much more is at stake in learning a language than decoding model sentences and this is a shortcoming of Linguaphone and much language teaching today. It also suggests there are limits on what online translation can do. But if the alternative is listen and repeat drills or translation devices no wonder we look towards new technology.

[1] To be honest I have not looked at the academic literature here but this blog captures some of the possible consequences for practice:

Ballantyne, N. (2015) Skype’s real-time translator – the end of language learning? at

Though note how things have moved on. You can follow up on various commercial demonstrations of real time translation on YouTube, eg

[2]  My understanding is sketchy but I enjoyed a talk on breaking down speech recognition at:

[3] DW Lernen is at

[4] An earlier dialogue for learners of English on buying pipe tobacco has generated a very large number of hits as it features J.R. R.Tolkein of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings fame. It is bonkers:

[5] My best guess here is:

The women chat about their mutual friends and the latest fashions. We men talk about politics, business and the news of the day.

To go back to my earlier point Google translate has this as:

The ladies talk about common friends and the last fashion. We men talk about politics, business and the day novelties.

You could not fail to get the meaning from this but that is about it.

[6]  A trick pulled off by many publishers over the years and carried off with panache by makers of Extra – a programme for learning Spanish / French / German aimed at schools.

[7]  Some of the letter (minus identifying names and addresses) can be seen here excerpt