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We've been framed: visualising methodology
Ruth Holliday
This paper explores the reasons why video, and other visual representations have
been largely ignored in sociology, whilst the possibilities of video as an empirical
source have been sidelined by cultural studies. Discussions of methodology have
raised doubts about notions such as objectivity and scientific knowledge, and about
the power relationships involved in the research and writing processes, and
techniques that one might employ in order to avoid such problems have been
suggested. Yet the aims of such techniques are misguided if they serve only to further
legitimate the `truth' of the research itself. In this context I explore some of the
possibilities of visual methods, such as video and photography, whilst also examining
some of the ethical issues raised by them. In this respect, the paper explores the
notion of a `queer methodology'. This approach is indebted to the legacy of its
predecessor, feminist methodology, but departs from this in several important ways.
I will explore these differences and examine the possibility that a place for the visual
within sociology is an inherently queer conception.
This paper arises from a wider study exploring the visual constructions,
representations and performances of sexual identities across time and space.
In order to bring together material for this project I used video diaries
compiled by respondents. Although a number of academics currently are
working with this method, and despite the recent popular BBC2 series Video
Nation, surprisingly little has been written on the subject. I want to explore
some of the reasons why video, and indeed visual representations more
generally, have been largely ignored in the social sciences, and why the
possibilities of video as an empirical source have been sidelined by cultural
Though video has yet to become an accepted part of sociological research,
there are academic fields where its use is more prevalent. One of these is
visual anthropology and a close examination of the way in which this
discipline treats the medium will help make clear several of the objections
which traditional social science has to visual representation. Text, by
contrast, is frequently accepted unquestioningly, and this illustrates how
# The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2000. Published by Blackwell Publishers,
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certain kinds of realism are central to ethnography while others are `written
Issues of representation are important to anyone interested in the notion
of power in the research process. Feminist writers working in the area have
raised serious doubts about notions such as objectivity and scientific
knowledge and about the power relationships involved in the research and
writing processes, and postcolonial theorists have pointed out the colonialist
approach of much of the research directed at `other cultures'. Currently
there are a number of techniques that one might employ in order to avoid
such mental traps and impositions, the finer points of which have been
discussed at great length. Yet the aims of such techniques are surely
misguided if in the end they serve only to further legitimate the `truth' of the
research itself.
In this respect, this paper explores the concept of a `queer
This approach is indebted to the legacy of its predecessor, feminist
methodology, but departs from this in several important ways. I will explore
these differences at the end of the paper and examine the possibility that a place
for the visual within sociology is an inherently queer conception.
Visualising sociology
Little has been written about the visual within sociology; rather the whole
question of the visual has been left to humanities based subjects or
marginalised to specific sub fields such as visual anthropology. This has not
always been the case. Stasz (1979, cited in Chaplin, 1994) found thirty-one
articles in the American Journal of Sociology between 1896 and 1916 which
used photographs as illustration or evidence. However, a new editor in 1914
banished photographs from the journal in favour of more `objective' statistical
reports. He believed that photographs actually `threatened the theoretical
status and purpose of sociology itself' (Chaplin, 1994: 198). I would suggest
that such an ambivalence hostility, even towards the visual within
sociology is endemic: there exists within sociology (and other critical
disciplines) a deep mistrust of the visual image and conversely an undue
faith in text.
Despite this general hostility a particular sub-discipline, visual anthropol-
ogy, has long made use of photography and film (see Aull Davies, 1999).
Before that, artists' sketches were commonly used to illustrate anthropologists'
written accounts. A focus on this sub-discipline helps understand some of the
debates surrounding the use of the visual and demonstrates the ambivalence
more generally within the social sciences to pictures and films. The ambivalence
stretches even further into what might be termed the differences between
science and art the visual being consigned to the field of art and subjective
expression or persuasion, and the textual (in the social sciences at least) to
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science. This is particularly evident in Margaret Mead's introduction to
Principles of Visual Anthropology (1995):
We do not demand that a field ethnologist write with the skill of a novelist
or a poet, although we do indeed accord disproportionate attention to those
who do. It is equally inappropriate to demand that filmed behavior have the
earmarks of a work of art. We can be grateful when it does, and we cherish
those rare combinations of artistic ability and scientific fidelity that have
given us great ethnographic films. But I believe that we have absolutely no
right to waste our breath and our resources demanding them. (45)
This highlights the unease around artistic or poetic prose and film within work
clearly marked as scientific enquiry: poetic text and artistic film, of course,
makes the products more palatable for academic consumption, but should not
be expected, or perhaps even desirable. Artistic film and text, one suspects,
stand accused of undermining the `scientific rigour' of such studies.
For Joseph H. Schaeffer (1995), the answer to providing `proper' research
outcomes from anthropological data is the training of the researcher: `when
carried out with intelligence by trained researchers, videotape coverage permits
scientific rigour' (255). Training de-emphasises the individual ethnographer
and their part in the research process substituting standardised skills for
`artistic expression'. Thus anthropologists can be trained in objectivity, and
objectivity can also be ensured by employing a number of techniques. Mead
notes the importance of minimising the intrusion of the camera. The camera
might be placed in the centre of a tribal village on a tall pole, so that subjects
(supposedly) forget its presence, continuing as normal in their daily activities.
One might also employ the method of `indigenous ethnography', asking
respondents to film themselves and each other. Of further importance is the
absence of editing in anthropological films. For example, J.H. Prost (1995)
writing on the recording of tribal dances, asserts that `[a]rtistic zoom shots of
hands and feet swapped in and out of sequence do not record the dance for
posterity ... editing is thus assumed to reintroduce bias into the data itself
[despite the anthropologists having been ``properly trained''] and also to render
the film ``artistic'' rather than ``scientific'' ' (287).
Visualising anthropology
Over time there has been much debate around these issues within anthropology
and sociology. The ethnocentrism of anthropological research has long been
recognised, and thus, despite training, the process of observing and
documenting `Other' cultural communities is understood to be shaped by the
researchers' socio-cultural background and values. This issue has given rise to a
number of new techniques and developments, including multivocality and
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One form of multivocality is the practice of bringing together anthropol-
ogists from different `cultural backgrounds' to examine ethnographic data
from a range of `different cultural perspectives'. This is essentially a response to
post-colonial criticisms of Western imperialist traditions within the discipline.
However, this practice certainly seems to lose some of its edge when the
anthropologists concerned, despite their origins, have all been `properly
trained' at the same American universities. A further criticism of multivocality
comes from Trinh (1994):
Multivocality ... is not necessarily a solution to the problems of centralized
and hierarchical knowledge when it is practised accumulatively by
juxtaposing voices that continue to speak within identified boundaries. Like
the much abused concept of multiculturalism, multivocality here could also
lead to the bland `melting-pot' type of attitude, in which `multi' means `no'
no voice or is used only to better mask the Voice that very place from
where meaning is put together. (440)
Reflexivity is the latest in a long line of (not specifically anthropological)
techniques aimed at ensuring the production of greater degrees of `truth', and is
particularly espoused by Clifford and Marcus, anthropological gurus extrordi-
naire. This technique aims to acknowledge the partiality of the researcher and
thus the distance between representation and `reality' in the researcher's work. In
Sexing the Self (1993), Elspeth Probyn is particularly critical of Clifford and
Marcus' approach to reflexivity, which she sees as cut off from an examination
of how these anthropologists got 'there', both physically (in the field) and
epistemologically (in the text). In other words the kind of reflexivity employed
tends to ignore historical questions of disciplinary genealogy and the privileged
position of the anthropologist. Geertz is concerned with the ethnographer's
being (`there'). For him the only way to know the `Other' is in relation to
ourselves. Thus Geertz's reflection (the figure of the ethnographer), Probyn
argues, effectively obscures the Other (the respondents). Nor is it clear from their
work exactly what self-reflexivity actually is:
On the one hand, self-reflexivity is used to describe a metatheoretical reflection
upon the activity of writing texts. On the other, it is also employed to name a
phenomenological or experiential moment of interacting with others in the
field ... With the emergence of self-reflexivity in ethnography, epistemological
and ontological questions about subjectivity come more immediately to the
fore. In simple terms, we need to ask what exactly a self reflexive self is
reflecting upon. In addition, it needs to be clear where that self is positioned
and whether it is a physical or a textual entity. (Probyn, 1993: 62)
Perhaps the most holistic critique of such techniques comes from a voice within
the anthropological discipline, that of Trinh Minh-ha, here quoted from an
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interview with Nancy Chen in Visualizing Theory (1994: 439440):
Whether reflexivity and multivocality contribute anything to ethnography
or not would have to depend on the way they are practised ... How is
reflexivity understood and materialized? If it reduced to a form of mere
breast-beating or self-criticism for further improvement, it certainly does not
lead us very far ... if the tools are dealt with so as to further the production
of anthropological knowledge, or to find a better solution for anthropology
as a discipline, then what is achieved is either a refinement in the pseudo-
science of appropriating Otherness or a mere stir within the frame.
Thus, it might be argued that reflexivity becomes a mere buzz-word generated
within a psuedo-positivist approach still concerned with gaining greater degrees
of `truth' and objectivity.
Visualising culture
A very different tradition concerning the analysis of visual material exists in
cultural studies. Here there is long history of critique of the visual and of text
but a neglect of empirical investigation. Instead cultural studies has focused on
the issues of cultural production especially from a Marxist or Neo-Marxist
perspective. For example, the Marxist writings of the Frankfurt School took
both popular culture and high art as their subject matter. They roughly argued
that whilst popular cultural products were debased forms, mass produced at
maximum profit for a mass audience, high art produced by the struggling artist
(outside the capitalist system) was beyond this frame and thus could provide
important critical insights into social life and relations of power (see Adorno,
1984). Moving on from Marx, Gramsci and Althusser argued against the base-
superstructure model where the cultural superstructure is a simple and
incidental product of the economic base. Both recognised the significance of
culture in ensuring the continuity of capitalist ideologies, and whilst Gramsci
concentrated on the negotiations of power between subjects and capitalist
hegemony, Althusser focused on the ways in which subjects are constructed
(interpellated) by ideology.
These approaches were refined into a method within structuralist linguistics
by Roland Barthes. Semiology enables the `reading' of images and texts
(frequently together) for their connotative ideologies. His work on advertising
and journalistic pictures was a landmark in the development of the discipline of
cultural studies. In Britain these approaches were brought together by the work
of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies. Hall's studies of the media,
McRobbie's research on girls' magazines and Hebdige's work on subcultures
were the first major culturalist approaches to the study of popular forms. All
were concerned with looking at images and texts and unpacking their
ideologies in conjunction with critical, neo-Marxist perspectives. Little of their
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work was empirical in the sense that it tried to discover what such images and
texts meant to their users.
Dick Hebdidge's Subculture: The meaning of style (1979), for example, offers
a semiotic reading of the dress codes of different suboultures, including punk,
by looking at images and deciphering the semiotic codes which the bricolage of
items of clothing suggested. What is missing from his research is any analysis of
what those dress items meant to the people who actually wore them and how
the wearers accounted for their choice of attire. While more recent studies,
especially in the field of subcultures, have tended to become more empirical
(see Thornton (1995), for example), this has once again ignored the visual.
There appears to be little theoretical justification for this separation of
visual and linguistic text from studies of lived cultures, practices and
understandings other than disciplinary convention. Kogawa laments this,
quoting from de Saussure:
Semiotics had to tacitly assume that, when it gave up the `outside', it would
be attended to by sociology or anthropology or psychology. The `slick'
analysis by semiotics and the `vulgar' approaches of the human sciences
(which deal with images as a social, cultural or mental index) are
complementary. It is not accidental that in spite of Ferdinand de Saussure's
proposition that semiotics is `a science that studies the life of signs within
society' while `linguistics is only part of the general science of semiology', his
followers never succeeded in overcoming the `either=or' of linguistics=
sociology as separate disciplines within distinct fields of analysis. (1996:
And, as Elizabeth Chaplin points out, in many ways the structures of visual
and linguistic texts (and thus their potential modes of critical analysis) bear
more than a superficial resemblance:
Bearing in mind the semiotic principles which operate in both visual art
work and sociological text, and the fact that both visual art and sociology
are discursive formations, such a critical practice can at the same time be
seen as a form of sociological practice: a practice which makes conscious use
of the symbolic code in visual imagery to emphasise social conventions and
a conscious knowledge of the image's iconic properties. (Chaplin, 1994: 91)
In the context of my study, moreover, the distinctions between text and society
seem to be similarly mapped out between queer theory and lesbian and gay
studies. For instance, Stein and Plummer contend:
Queer theorists ... appreciate the extent to which the texts of literature and
mass culture shape sexuality, but their weakness is that they rarely, if ever,
move beyond the text. There is a dangerous tendency for the new queer
theorists to ignore `real' queer life as it is materially experienced across the
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world, while they play with the free-floating signifiers of texts. (Stein and
Plummer, quoted in Halberstam, 1998: 12)
As Halberstam argues, this approach (on some level at least) seems to have
`recreated some essential divide between the truth of sexual behavior and the
fiction of textual analysis' (12).
Visualising performance
Any thorough investigation of any culture in Western society in the current
period a consumer society saturated with televisual imagery and replete with
vast arrays of cultural and sub-cultural products surely needs to examine
both text and experience. But more important than either of these is the
interplay of both with each other. How queer subjects, for example, construct
and display identities is not just about experiences, not just about the products
available to us through which we `consume' our identities, but also about how
the meanings of such products come to inform and construct our identitities
and how these identities become mapped out through the products available to
This is what I have hoped to explore through the use of video diaries a
method which not only captures the narratives of experience and lived cultural
practices, but also the visual nature of the construction and display of identities
through the use of cultural products. The visual dimension of the research
allows a glimpse of the configuration of these cultural products as they are
mapped out on bodies, homes and other adjacent milieux. In addition, the
dialogue enables a reflexive process of explanations for these configurations
and importantly alludes to the meanings which products come to have, not just
at the point of consumption, but as they subsequently become woven into
narratives of self.
The method I employed in my research involved giving respondents
camcorders and asking them to make `video diaries'. In the brief for these,
respondents were asked to demonstrate visually and talk about the ways in
which they managed or presented their identities in different settings in their
everyday lives. The participants were asked to dress in the clothes they would
wear in each situation, describing them in detail and explaining why they
thought these self-presentation strategies were appropriate. This technique was
designed to make sure that participants were as explicit as possible about the
presentation of their identities in different spaces at work, rest and play.
I would like to emphasise the importance of the video diaries in capturing
the performativities of identity in ways which are qualitatively different from
other sociological research methods. In one sense, the self-representation is
more `complete' than the audio-taped interview, which only provides aural
data. Moreover, the visual dimension of the construction and display of
identity is obviously more easily gleaned through this method. The use of video
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as a process in the research is equally important (compared with, say, the use of
still photography), not only in allowing a representation of the performativity
of identity to show through, but also in running that alongside the
narrativization of identity (through respondents' commentaries) and in
reflecting the selection, editing and refining that constitute identity and
performativity as process in all our lives (see Holliday, 1999).
In theory (if not necessarily in practice), video diaries afford respondents the
potential for a greater degree of reflexivity than other methods, through the
processes of watching, re-recording and editing their diaries before submission,
and because each diarist has at least one month in which to create their diary.
Against other methods which focus on the `accuracy' or `realism' of the diaries,
then, this approach offers respondents more potential to represent themselves
than other more traditional research methods. For example, Gill, one of the
participants in the study, says about the process:
The least favourite bit of my body is this little bit in here, because I've got a
fat bit there, and a front-on picture of my belly, although I let a bit of that
be shown earlier and viewed that to see if I was going to let it stay in.
This implies that in some senses, for Gill at least, making a video diary can be a
reflexive, even empowering process, since it offers the participant greater
`editorial control' over the material she chooses to disclose.
Within the material submitted by respondents two important but
fundamentally different styles of diary emerged. One style was primarily
associated with those respondents who involved partners and friends in the
filming process. These tended to be light-hearted pieces incorporating jokes
and ironic statements. Whilst concessions are made to the overall aims of the
project, these diaries appear to be specifically designed to be `entertaining'. So,
for example, during the filming of one sequence, a friend of the diarist says:
Why are you being so witty and funny today? You're only trying to make
out that you're a more interesting person than you actually are!
These diaries (or diary parts) are full of performances dancing and singing,
jokey telephone conversations, mock debates between soft toys, the baring of
bottoms and much giggling. This seems to suggest a high level of self-
consciousness on the part of the diarists. Of course, one would imagine that the
diarists would be self-conscious in front of the camera; however, alone in front
of the camera, the diarists adopted a totally different style, as did those diarists
who filmed themselves without accomplices. The self-consciousness thus
appears to be the result of performing in front of a known other. Alone, the
diarists appear to lose all inhibitions, disclosing the most intimate details about
themselves to the camera. This is especially strange since the diarists were
aware that their diaries would be used in academic work and for conference
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presentations. The depth of disclosure is also surprising given the high degree
of control which respondents have over their self-representations.
Visualising confessions
The style used by these diarists is, in fact, highly reminiscent of the
confessional, a notion probably made most famous by Foucault (1979) in his
History of Sexuality Volume One. Beginning with the writings of Augustine in
the late fourth century, a confessional apparatus can be traced through the
history of specific practices of the Church into areas like criminology and
psychoanalysis, manifesting itself in the contemporary West in almost all areas
of life. The confession is certainly a structure of enormous importance given its
prevalence in the (post)modern media, manifesting itself in many areas from
biographical documentaries and celebrity talk shows involving members of the
royal family to the most sensationalist popular shows such as Rikki Lake and,
most infamously, Jerry Springer, where `ordinary members of the public' bear
their souls. Michael Renov (1996) sees therapeutic discourse becoming
increasingly internalised and entrepreneurialised as the confession moves
beyond the necessity of face to face confession to another, and becomes
increasingly mediatized. There is a further dimension, Renov argues, which
makes video a particularly confessional medium:
confessional discourse of the diaristic sort addresses itself to an absent,
imaginary other ... In the case of video confessions, the virtual presence of a
partner the imagined other effectuated by the technology turns out to be
a more powerful facilitator of emotion than flesh-and-blood interlocutors.
Camera operators, sound booms, cables, and clapperboards are hardly a
boon to soul confession. (8889)
Renov celebrates the immediacy of video what is filmed can be instantly
played back, edited and viewed without the intervention of intermediaries.
Video thus enables greater freedom of expression:
[The video] monitor shows the subject only herself as she (re)produces
herself. The screen-mirror also becomes a blank surface upon which an
active projection of the self rather than a strictly receptive introjection reigns
triumphant. (90)
Renov also sees confessional video as empowering in the sense that it is beyond
conventional media control. It is non-profit making and thus not susceptible to
the whims of a viewing market. In some senses it redresses the media
imbalance, turning `passive' viewers into `active' producers. Video reclaims
television as a two-way communication process. Here Renov is perhaps a little
over-optimistic, exaggerating the impact such video productions can make.
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However there are two points in his argument which I feel warrant further
discussion. The first is the concept of the confessional which he employs in his
analysis. As Foucault and many others have pointed out, the confessional is
itself far from a one-way process. Confessing in psychoanalysis, for example,
whilst always conducted within a network of power, is not enforced through
domination. The confessional is rather a power game. The analyst cannot force
the analysand to confess, but rather must coax a disclosure. The analysand
may give a response willingly with the aim of a catharsis or cure but since
these disclosures can be painful or embarrassing there may be resistance to
such proclamations on the part of the analysand. The confessional is thus a
game and the analysand may choose to withhold or disclose information if they
feel potential benefits may arise from this. Benefits may arise simply out of the
fact of having a particular space in which to confess, an audience intent on
listening. The analysand may persuade the analyst that, after all, their
disclosures are those of a `normal' subject. They might even dismiss the analyst
if the latter cannot be persuaded of their point of view, as Dora famously did to
Freud. Thus, the psychoanalytic encounter may also afford the analysand
power and space to speak which normal circumstances preclude. What the
analysand risks, of course, is having that speech rendered into discourse. This
paradox is one familiar to queer subjects whose worlds historically have
frequently collided with those of the analyst.
In terms of the video diaries, then, the power to present one's subjectivity
may override the risk of having that speech appropriated by others (for
example, academics). Thus, the fullest confession opens up the greatest space to
talk and affords the greatest power at that moment. If a distant authority
subsequently appropriates that speech then this is of little consequence to the
diarists themselves. For example, in the study, Gill, says:
Why am I telling you all these things about myself? Well, I think that if you
asked me I'd tell you, but you're going to tell other people; um, because I
think that it's important and I think I've got things to say.
The second point to raise here is about Renov's analogy of the camera monitor
as mirror. I feel that this is important because it inadvertently explains something
about the perceived audience for the diary. Since we are accustomed to
conceiving of ourselves as viewers of media productions rather than as creators
of them, the mirror analogy seems appropriate since we are likely to imagine
audiences of our productions through a strong process of identification: we
imagine ourselves as audience for our own productions. It is often said that
diarists and other confessors are narcissistic. In a sense, then, the video diary
production is narcissistic, but not in the sense of self-love; rather in the sense of
the imagined self for whom the diary is constructed (see Freud, 1914). The diarist
thus engages in a confessional through a narcissistic identification with an
imagined viewer. This further explains the candour with which the diaries are
made, since one cannot, and should not desire to, have secrets from one's self.
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Although these confessions are by no means made externally to relations of
power, the explicit nature of the material is facilitated by the unique space
which respondents are afforded in order to attempt to fix the meanings of what
they say. Confessions are also facilitated by the narcissistic identification with
imaginary viewers and possibly (hopefully) by an assumed sympathetic reading
of the material from a similarly situated researcher. Finally, though the diaries
do appear confessional in style, it must be remembered that, for this project,
diarists were actually directed to talk around a number of specific foci. These
were in effect fairly mundane (in terms of how identity is expressed, rather than
arrived at) and thus they cannot be compared directly with, for instance,
psychoanalytic encounters. Given this format, then, the frankness of the
diarists' responses remains surprising. Yet one should not be overwhelmed into
conceiving of this frankness as the truth itself. Rather these accounts are
representations. I will return to the issue of representation later in the paper.
A final point about the content of the diaries concerns their specifically
visual nature and the possibilities they afford for actions and props. Most of
us display our identities in visual ways through different arrangements of
cultural products such as clothes and interior decor and the kinds of books,
records and CDs we choose to put on display for others. The diarists were
keen to demonstrate aspects of their identities in such visual ways. The
instructions to the project specified that diarists dress in the clothes they
usually wore in specific situations, but many of them went beyond this, going
through their wardrobes and identifying trends in clothing or specific items
with special meanings. They often used panoramic shots to show music and
book collections, posters and prints, and also pointed out items imbued with
personally important meanings. One diarist, for example, spent some time
showing and talking about his old Salvation Army tambourine, reminiscing
about how his time with the Salvation Army had been important in terms of
informing his current identity.
The visual dimension of the diaries also enabled a certain amount of acting
out of particular situations or activities. There were office shots of everyday
work encounters, or much more personal activities such as the shaving of
body hair or the taking of hormone tablets, accompanied by discussions
about such rituals. Such performances were frequently made central to the
diarists' identities, but were also sometimes discussed with a measure of
ambivalence. Some of the diaries tended towards a more `artistic' structure
and included, for instance, recitals of poetry. Thus, though space precludes a
fuller list or interpretation here, an important point is the way that video
diaries capture visual performances of identities, and the ways in which
identities are mapped onto the surfaces of bodies, homes and workspaces in
fascinating ways. Put together, the intertextuality of queer identifications
becomes apparent in the ways in which similar props, or cultural products,
occur across different diaries. In fact, identities may also be expressed in the
very structure of the diaries themselves, which frequently borrow textual and
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visual codes from queer television programming and film. As James (1996)
... while video provides the arena in which an autobiographical self can be
talked into being, the talking is realised only via video; the verbal is always
mediated through its specific electronic visualization. Investigating this
mediation in successive tapes ... the social relations that constitute [lives] are
themselves similarly mediated through video as text and video as a social
process, video as audiovisual electronic information and video as a network
of social institutions and apparatuses in which this information comes into
being. (125)
Visualising subjects
However, to suggest that the diaries are only confessional would be misleading.
The idea that video diaries represent a kind of auto-therapy may in part be
true, especially in terms of style, but there are many other forms in which the
diaries appear. Much of the literature discussed so far essentially describes
forms of video art or video activism. This has been necessary due to the scant
literature on video diaries specifically. In order to examine the concept of the
video diary more thoroughly, Sue Dinsmore also examined some of the writing
on `written diaries' for her article concerning the BBC2 Video Diaries series.
For example, Simon Brett (quoted in Dinsmore, 1996: 44) describes how the
diary fulfils a variety of different roles:
It can serve as a confessional or as apologia. It can be used to colour reality
or to vent a spleen. It can be a bald record of facts or a Gothic monument of
prose. It can chart the conquest of a libertine or the see-sawing emotions of a
depressive, it can chronicle the aspirations of youth and the disillusionment
of age.
Certainly all of these elements appear in the video diaries which I have
collected, and the styles employed varied considerably across different diarists
and within diaries. Dinsmore also identifies the `newsflash' as an element of the
video diary, and there were many instances where important events which had
taken place shortly before the filming were recounted to the camera by my
Dinsmore compares video diaries with other representational forms the
written diary and the home movie. In particular she seeks to counter some of
the criticism of the televised video diaries from journalists and television critics:
These programmes, they argued, were not really diaries. `Like any diary
written for publication, these home movies are unreliable if not downright
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increadible', censured John Naughton in The Observer. `Seeing is not
believing, even when the camera shakes'. (43)
She goes on to show that similar criticisms are levelled at written diaries
produced for public consumption. However, Dinsmore argues that no diaries
are exclusively and authentically private. All diarists have an imagined reader
for their work, even if that reader is a facet of her own self. If no diaries are
truly authentic in this sense, then, it seems misguided to look for comparative
degrees of authenticity between `public' and `private' diaries.
Dinsmore then compares video diaries with another similar form the
home movie, using Richard Chalfen's (1987) detailed study of the content of
home movies. Although these movies purport to portray `impromptu realities',
they more frequently contained acted out scenes hammed up for the camera.
Despite being constructed for private viewing within the family, they almost
never depicted private domestic activities and usually focued around specific,
more public events and special occasions the public face of family life. In
sharp contrast, video diaries frequently display the everyday domestic sphere
and its incorporated activities:
Made for broadcast on a national television network, Video Diaries are
clearly a more `public' form of communication than home movies. But,
paradoxically, this more `public' form of film-making includes a far greater
range and proportion of `private' activities than does the essentially
domestic home-movie format. (53)
Thus, whilst being neither essentially confessional in nature, nor reliably
authentic in terms of self-representation (whatever authenticity could mean in
terms of the self), video diaries do appear to offer a glimpse into the everyday
worlds of respondents in unique ways. In fact the represented self of the video
diary is rarely fixed or stable. The recording of events (action) and commentary
on them, of emotion and reflection, enables the presentation of a self that is
fluid and fragmentary and one that changes over time. Accounts of events are
mediated by the selves initially explaining those events and subsequent selves
reflecting back upon them:
Quotidian triviality, be it routine or unforseen, is frequently recorded with
the same degree of attention to detail as social or political upheaval,
national catastrophe and family trauma. Whatsoever the nature of such
material, it is always mediated through the diarist's individual perceptions of
the world and her position within it. (54)
Whilst the diaries clearly do not present a unified `truth' of selfhood, then, they
record experiences and their interpretations from specific social and cultural
positions. It is this element of the social (position in the world) which pervades
all of the diaries and thus prevents them from interpretation as purely
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individualistic representations. This is in opposition to Jameson's argument,
which sees video as individualising:
the discussion ... of a single `text' then automatically transforms it back into
a `work', turns the anonymous videomaker back into a named artist or
amateur, and opens the way for the return of all of those features of an older
modernist aesthetic which it was in the revolutionary nature of the newer
medium to have precisely effaced and dispelled. (Jameson, 1991: 7879)
However, the sum of the different diaries in the study facilitates the analysis of
social characteristics running through different lives, made similar by social
context in this case a queer one. Video diaries may be a particularly
`postmodern' media in this respect. They capture the ways in which different
subjects may be situated within specific configurations of discourse whilst
simultaneously making those discourses available for examination as they recur
across different diaries.
Equally important here is not just what is performed, but also what is not
performed. What diarist can or cannot say is also a product of their discursive
locations. I have argued elsewhere that queer subjects tend to draw largely on
essentialist logics in their self-identifications and that this is a product of
limited access to other discursive positions (such as those which circulate in the
academy, for instance) (Holliday, 1999). In this sense, then, the diaries move
from being performances to being performative (in Butler's sense), and therein
lies their interest to sociologists. In this case it is of little consequence whether
video diaries represent any `truth' or `reality', so desirable in visual
anthropology. It is the social formations that produce the diaries which is of
interest. Their analysis requires the use of methods employed in the
examination of aural accounts (traditional in sociology and anthropology)
and of the visual, be those bodily texts or commodities (traditional in
humanities), and importantly, the textual analysis of empirical material.
Furthermore, Sara Diamond (1996), discussing documentaries about relatively
powerless groups, explains that realism can actually have negative effects:
Documentary makes us think we know a topic. Realism reinforces the idea
that the image stands in for the real ... Like conventional narrative,
documentary creates an identity between the camera and the subject
position of the maker, reducing the object of the work to the visual
spectacle, reproducing relations of control whether structures of class, race
or gender. The viewer, working through the narrative, moves between
identification and distance. Documentaries that focus on victimization often
revictimize the object of their narrative, especially if the subject is isolated
from a social context and critique. (195196)
If realism only serves to reproduce the relations of power it aims to critique
then it should not be a prerequisite in sociological studies. Instead perhaps
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516 # The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2000
we should be encouraging new forms of data and new forms of
representation. A post-positivist sociology need not concern itself with the
accuracy of data arising from the social world if it uses the critical
methodologies, commonly used in humanities, to interpret them. What such
accounts do provide is a perspective on the social world from a subject
specifically situated within it.
From this perspective, then, I would argue that the possibilities form part of
a `Queer Methodology'. As Judith Halberstam argues:
A queer methodology, in a way, is a scavenger methodology that uses
different methods to collect and produce information on subjects who have
been deliberately or accidentally excluded from traditional studies of human
behavior. The queer methodology attempts to combine methods that are
often cast as being at odds with each other, and it refuses the academic
compulsion towards disciplinary coherence. (Halberstam, 1998: 13)
There are other aspects of the research method which also serve to situate it as
queer, which are specifically related to the visual. Having been invisible for so
long in writing, the media, law and culture more generally, as well as being
literally invisible on the bodies of subjects (you can't tell by looking), queer
identities have become visibilised through a number of mechanisms. The
politics of visibility as well as the many everyday cues and codes of dress,
gesture or conduct are often used to communicate identity to others of the
same (or different groups). Butch and camp, for example have become
signifiers of sexuality mapped onto the surface of bodies, not least through
clothes (See Munt, 1996; Nestle, 1987). As Rosa Ainley (1995: 122) comments:
`Without visual identity there is no presence, and that means no social support
networks, and no community'. Thus, queer subjects are often highly skilled in
the communication and interpretation of visual signs. The self presentations in
the video diaries encapsulate these visual manipulations. Visual research, then,
is a method which has strong resonances with queer research, and one in which
its subjects may have considerable expertise. That is not to say that the method
cannot be used elsewhere, simply that queer diarists may have much to teach us
about its approaches and processes. For example, Butler's work in the context
of gender and sexuality locates her as a (foundational) queer theorist, but she
teaches us about the performativity of all identity categorisations.
Visualising the future
This paper is not intended to be a `finished work', but I hope instead to have
raised some issues about video diaries which have not been raised before. If the
argument here is a little `incomplete' then this is precisely because it is a
relatively new form of research with consequences that have not yet been
foreseen. I hope I have dealt satisfactorally with issues of representation, at
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# The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2000 517
least in terms of what impact the study of representations has on the processes
of research and interpretation. However, there is another issue of representa-
tion, concerning power, which I have not fully worked through. Are
respondents empowered in the process of constructing a video diary? Or are
their representations simply pilfered for the advancement of academics? If their
diaries are simply confessional, then we must consider the possibility that in
some way their disclosures are extracted cannily through the use of the cultural
imperative to confess. These diaries are thus part of a deeply-rooted power
structure, made all the more sinister through their creation in a private space,
with no obvious `delving' on the part of a researcher. A self-surveyed
imperative to tell the `truth' of one's being can be much more malignant than
the more obvious manipulations of others.
I have already established that, whilst the diaries may have confessional
elements or be confessional in style, this is by no means the only function
operating within them. Play acting and ironic distance along with many other
forms are central characteristics. Moreover, confessions frequently have a
political motive. In terms of academic appropriation there is also a political
motive behind the work. This is a queer study of queer subjects by a queer
subject, albeit a differently located one. The subjects of this study may not
necessarily agree with all of my interpretations but they do get to represent
themselves with minimal interference at least. In any case, as Beverly Skeggs
(1997) points out, discursive frameworks make interpretation from a critical
perspective impossible for some respondents. The feminist practice of having
respondents confirm one's interpretations is by no means a guarantee of
This paper, then, proposes a `Queer Methodology one that disrespects and
disrupts disciplinary boundaries and truths. This is reflected in the structure of
this paper and the problem of where to locate video diary research in relation
to visual research preceding it. A queer methodology may be closely aligned
with a visual research method, since the visual dimension has close associations
with queer identities and is one in which queer subjects have particular skill. A
queer methodology might deal largely with subjects whose identities are
already informed politically, and who may choose to represent key political
issues as knowing subjects within their diaries. Researchers thus have much to
learn from the researched. Jo Eadie (2000) recently lamented the `banal
findings' of some straight researchers investigating queer cultures, who claim to
`discover' issues that have been known by queer activists for many years.
Engagement with a political community as well as academic literature might
thus form a key part of a queer methodology. Finally, a queer methodology
disrupts the notion of a `natural world' to study. Instead it seeks to uncover
`truths' (instead of a universal truth) as they are experienced and represented,
through the context-specific discourses available to participants in particular
In terms of an approach to respondents, then, Trinh's approach of
`speaking nearby' (as opposed to `speaking for') seems appropriate. Speaking
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518 # The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2000
nearby is:
a speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is
distant from the speaking subject or absent from a speaking place. A
speaking that reflects on itself and comes very close to a subject without,
however, seizing or claiming it. A speaking in brief, whose closures are only
moments of transition opening up to other possible moments of
transition ... It is an attitude in life, a way of positioning oneself in relation
to the world. (Chen and Trinh, 1994: 443)
This is quite a challenge. However, I feel that here too the visual dimension of
the diaries assists in empowering the diarists. I was recently presenting some of
the material from the study in a seminar programme, and I had made an
interpretation of the speech of a particular respondent shortly after I showed a
clip from their diary. Later one member of the audience challenged my
interpretation. In other ethnographic studies I have conducted in the past, I
have frequently read out quotes from respondents, but this kind of challenge
has never taken place before. I would suggest that the visual=verbal presence of
the diarist in such presentations is greater than a purely textual one, mediated
by the researcher. Thus, the respondent's account is afforded greater weight in
relation to the researcher's than is usual. Furthermore, a colleague, Maggie
O'Neill presented a videoed dance piece on prostitution, including a voice-over
from one her respondents, to a stunned audience at the BSA conference in 1998
(see O'Neill, 1998). This presentation prompted an angry reaction from some
viewers whilst others were emphatically moved. Conventional academic texts
almost always fail to produce this kind of emotional engagement.
This brings me to my final point. If such respondent empowerment and
emotional engagement is made available through visual=verbal representation
through their greater presence then how can such a presence be achieved in a
paper such as this one? A major problem still exists in terms of the dissemination
of visual material outside of the presentational forum. We are, after all, still
largely confined to the conventional format of the academic paper or book.
Journals and book publishers remain, on the whole, extremely reluctant to print
pictures, let alone include a videotape as a publishing package. On the other
hand, as many academic researchers have found, material presented on television
is all too often `dumbed down' in the name of `popularity' and viewing figures.
In this respect the internet may be opening up new possibilities for academics. It
is now easily possible for even inexperienced filmmakers to construct video
`programmes' or video `papers'. These can be placed on websites on the internet
and viewed by anyone, anywhere in the world, with the appropriate software.
With such technologies now in place, perhaps it is time to become a little more
inventive in terms of the methods we employ and how our work is presented.
Received 2 August 1999
Finally accepted 15 June 2000
Staffordshire University
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# The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 2000 519
I would like to thank David Bell, Clare Hemmings, Mark Jayne, Harriette Marshall, Rolland
Munro and Maggie O'Neill who have all helped me with this paper.
1 The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is gratefully acknowledged.
The work was funded by ESRC award number R000236657.
2 Queer theory can be defined as an absolute critique of the `natural' in relation to sexuality. This is
distinct from lesbian and gay studies which tends to solidify rather than deconstruct certain
binaries (especially those of man= woman, gay= straight etc.)
3 Whilst I am well aware that there are many sociologists, and indeed anthropologists, engaging
critically with these traditional assumptions (see Denzin 1999, for example), it is my intention to
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