A Manifesto for Visual and Filmic Sociology


Evry, October 2017

The following proposals reflect the joint efforts of social sciences specialists and filmmakers working for two European filmic sociology research groups and collaborating after the following international conferences: May 2015 in Genoa (Italy) and September 2016 in Evry (France). The purpose of this Manifesto is to connect the kinds of approaches taken by sociologists, on the one hand, with those pursued by photographers or filmmakers, on the other. This extends, revives and re-creates certain paradigms dating back to the 1950s-1970s, based on the idea that recognizing the cumulative nature of a research approach can spark its further development.

Sociology, which is itself the product of debates between several disciplines, has become a research activity in its own right, creating the tools that have legitimized its field of knowledge. Re-assessing the process whereby written research outputs are produced enhances our understanding of the contributions that images and sounds can make to this process. Despite being neglected or considered peripheral to their abstract outputs, many sociologists have now come to see perceptions of images and sounds both as real variables playing a significant role in the construction of objects and as key moments of problematization, mobilizing the conceptual apparatus associated with a particular kind of field work. Altogether, this becomes the background of sociologists, their initiation and their point of differentiation, which explains their participation in a process culminating in the production of one representation of reality. Sociological texts generated in this way can then be re-interpreted in light of the reader’s own knowledge and perceptions.

Conceptualizing how a research production process works within a sociological documentary entails a similar approach. Connections like that between reality and sensorial perception, or between the construction of the object/fieldwork and the conceptual apparatus/prior research might all be mobilized by the sociologist – documentary maker. Having said that, the sensorial intake has a second role to play here. The act of seeing and hearing can be made visible and audible through certain images and sounds. They therefore have a big role to play in the construction of a representation of reality. Choices about framing and sequencing, what’s left in the frame and what is left out of the frame, sound, camera movement, the film’s pace and the timings chosen during shooting and editing – all of these stages are explicit representations of the perspective of the sociologist/documentary-maker. Not to mention the fact that showing a documentary on a screen means offering it to the receptiveness and background of the audience.

Far from wanting to give a restrictive definition of this field, the purpose here is to encourage debate and reflection in order to produce a general recognition of the value of visual and filmic texts in the field of sociology. This manifesto should therefore be considered a work in progress the aim of which is to foster a debate about the transformations of our discipline.


1 – Visual and filmic sociology opens up new perspectives

Our goal is to encourage the production of photos or films made by sociologists as part of their research work. Sociological documentaries or photos (note that everything written below applies to still images as well as to moving images) offer an original approach that integrates images and sounds into sociology in order to produce new outcomes. Sociologists construct the singularity of their approaches and it is on this basis that observation, analysis, and conceptualization occur. It is crucial not to separate the observer’s subjectivation from this conceptualization. In short, the purpose of visual and filmic sociology is to offer new research perspectives and disseminate findings to a wider audience.


2 – Sociological documentaries link disciplinary approaches to the filmmaker’s output

Sociology uses concepts and paradigms to apprehend social reality. A sociological documentary combines all of the research approaches that sociologists use with those employed by filmmakers. Sociologists apprehend reality through verbal language. Filmic language offers them a possibility to incorporate new meanings. Visual and filmic sociology combines  the scientific and conceptual apparatuses of sociology with the language of photography and cinema. Filmic sociology captures images and sounds and turns them into something relevant to and congruent with the subject in question, making them an integral part of the sociological approach.


3 – Sociological documentaries overcome the tensions between the language of cinema and sociological argumentation

Even as it re-casts the spotlight on emotions, narratives, and individuals depicted as characters, visual and filmic sociology remains rooted in science, understood here as the ability to question, conceptualize, reject simplistic thinking and pursue a deeper understanding.


4 – Sociological documentaries deconstruct evidence

It is at this level that the new field meshes with sociological critiques of presupposition. The sociologist-filmmaker’s viewpoint is one that is rooted in a research perspective situated in a specific context. By looking beyond social appearances, this research approach reveals what other manufacturers of meaning may be trying to hide. Deconstructing evidence and doxa also means deconstructing domination. Sociological documentaries reveal and/or show the foundations and mechanisms underlying social phenomena.


5 – Sociological documentaries spark debates about a range of viewpoints while amplifying reflexivity

Sociological documentaries enhance the visibility of both intersubjective interactions and the core relationships that connect some of the objects found in modern sociological thinking. The nature of this effort is based on the desire to include very diverse visions of one and the same question while giving a range of social actors the sense that they have been recognized and that their viewpoint has been acknowledged. The multitude of fragmented visions that come into contact with one another in this field gives audiences a great deal of freedom to reflect.

Sociological documentaries situate words by associating them with singular professional and generational histories and trajectories. They offer initial findings that are recognizable to certain social actors and which open up a dialogue with everyone else who shares an interest in these questions. It is the quality of a research film that increases the dissemination of a research project and raises productive questions. When research outputs reach the many audiences affected by it, the object of research can become the research itself.


6 – Visual and filmic sociology is a way to co-produce knowledge

Through the relationship between the people making the film and the people being filmed, researchers negotiate with research subjects the forms and modalities of a representation in which actors’ anonymity disappears. This negotiation, along with several technical questions implied in the act of filming, encourages the co-production of the research project and of the sociological documentary. It is through this pre-production work and the subsequent filming and editing that space and time become a new social field, one whose analysis becomes part of the production of knowledge.


7 – Sociological documentaries differ from activist documentaries and lend themselves to an approach based on public sociology

Sociological documentaries differ from their activist counterparts, which highlight a single point of view instead of offering a more complex representation of relevant constructs and social facts. The idea here is not only to capture hidden and/or suppressed knowledge, but also to enable a dynamic translation and restoration (or expansion) of su bjects’ ability to be autonomous and take action. In line with the spirit of public sociology, the circulation of knowledge generated by visual and filmic perspectives helps to rethink social sciences in a way that transcends academic pigeonholing.


8 – Cinema, fragmentation of reality, and sociological texts

Visual and filmic sociology is not opposed to sociological texts. Both share many codes, including narratives, representations and interpretations of reality. Visual texts and written texts are complementary forms that enrich one another.

Perceptions of reality are fragmented. A film can fragment them further through its own technological mechanisms. When a shot is filmed or a sound recorded – and then edited – the sociologists-filmmakers involved are being discriminatory, in the sense that they are classifying, ordering, and structuring these fragments of time and space in such a way as to re-construct meaning within a sociological documentary. In other words, filming generates its own body of research, similar to the databases constructed in sociological texts. Film editing is then akin to a form of writing that highlights certain associations, relationships, and interpretations within a given framework which comprises an archive of images, references, and interviews related to a particular social phenomenon.


9 – From images to conceptualization

Since images do not enable conceptualization, sociological documentaries use metaphors to invent new ways of re-presenting concepts. This transcends superficial perceptions of images and sounds – something that is necessary because it is specifically these images and sounds that lie at the heart of sociological and filmic analysis.


10 – Sociological documentaries combine art and reason

The opposition that has long been imagined between (didactic) sociology and (emotional) cinema is resolved in sociological documentaries that are grounded in the art of cinema. The drivers here are, on the one hand, the tensions between the filmmaker’s artistic concerns, which include narrative, aesthetics, and on the other, the kinds of rigorous research approaches that are generally associated with sociologists. Being a sociologist-filmmaker means apprehending social reality in all of its complexity using images and sounds, all with a view towards re-transcribing this aesthetically through the language of cinema.


11 – Multidisciplinarity and the complexity of reality

Filmic sociology combines a plurality of fields (professions and disciplines) in such a way as to question a reality that is generally quite problematic. It is through this combination of approaches, in a situation based on distancing and questioning, that the conditions of inventiveness arise for sociological documentaries. Visual and filmic sociology encourages interdisciplinarity involving workgroups that bring together a variety of professions, knowledge, and types of know-how (cameramen, screenwriters, editors, photographers, etc.), and mixes them with the full range of social sciences (sociology, ethnology, geography, history, social psychology, etc.).


12 – Filmic sociology takes a long time

Filmic sociology requires long production times. In addition to the traditional approaches that sociologists take, sociological documentaries require time to be written and for interested parties to meet (and master their subject). Proximity to subjects and participants must also be developed, without forgetting the time it takes to do the editing work, the subsequent dissemination, etc. Speaking truth can take a while.



Centre Pierre Naville Filmic Sociology Group, Évry Paris-Saclay University (France); Visual Sociology Research Group, Genoa University (Italy)


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