visual Sociology: Becker, Benjamin, Bourdieu

Photography has been an object of study privileged that contributed to the sociology of culture and served to deepen the conceptual perspective of the cultural models. An introduction to three authors essential evidence of the intrinsic value of the images as a unique means of sociological analysis.


Author: Hugo José Suárez


Original publication: “Photography as a source of senses”, Notebooks of Social Sciences, No. 150, Costa Rica, Latin american Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), 2008.


Sociología visual: Becker, Benjamin, Bourdieu

Howard Becker (1928)

Howard Becker is an author that when one reads it is convinced that sociology serves for something. Your clarity in the exposure —sometimes criticized by those who are convinced that the theory must be written in code that is unreachable— it goes hand in hand with its capacity for explanation of complex social issues.

What is perhaps most interesting about this author is his career, which leads to the sociology. Lover of the arts, Becker was a passionate jazz musician from Chicago. His youth was spent among the local urban play until dawn. It was after his intense traffic by the music that began to systematize their empirical observations about the “art world” and started to do sociology. Met very close to the demands and experiences of the artists, from the drug until the economic needs or ways of learning and transmission non-institutionalized knowledge. So when it came to sociology, his personal experience became one of his main sources analytics. Her music label —and the ability to enter into contact with the public— were moved to this discipline, where he played key themes. Though it has inexplicably been little translated into Spanish, his work is of capital importance to understand the current “interaccionalismo symbolic”, to which he contributed significantly.

Among other concerns, aesthetics, Becker practiced photography and was one of the first social scientists that put a serious question on the link between sociology and photography. In fact, you will say to this author, on the one hand the two share a historical period and similar territory in his birth, but on the other hand, the two are one and the same spirit that is to discover-to describe the human experience. Photography as well is a “tool of exploration of society” (Becker, 1974). In their analysis, Becker explores how some photographers expose questions of nature sociological, and his images are a particular effort to portray particular situations of a specific group. So, photographers like Eugene Atget, Berenice Abbott, or Weegee, end up showing problems highly sociological of the everyday life of their urban centers. Other photographers focus on the classical themes of sociology: migration, poverty, domination, racism, etc (Becker, 1974) To the contrary, the author is concerned with the way in which used the photo in scientific journals or in social research. When a photo must be considered to be “journalistic”, a documentary, or as visual sociology? It all depends on the context, responds to Becker, as we will see later.

Obviously the intent of Becker is not to make photographers, sociologists and vice versa, but rather to analyse the picture from the tools of sociological and exploit the potential of the picture by freezing images, see social situations with other instruments could not be observed. Somehow, the challenge is to construct a sociology of art in which is inserted the photograph. Let us see what was the route of the author in this task.

Despite his personal experience in the local of Chicago, in his professional life, Becker is dealing with issues rather closer to the sociology of education: student resistance, cultural backgrounds of the students, logic of domination in school settings, etc, it Was thanks to a scholarship —which allowed him to devote a year to thinking about other issues— that came to the sociology of art. His first observation was the limit of the classical authors (such as Lucien Goldmann, Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukacs) focused on the aesthetic value of works of art and in the criteria for defining them as such. His critical starting point was to rather concentrate on analysis of “the social structures where works of art are produced, distributed and consumed” (Becker, 1999: 8). At this point, his own artistic practice became a source for analytical, because I knew very well the economic and social skilled in the art from the artist, or what was later called the “complicity collective enrolled in the music and in the body that make us able to produce music” (Becker, 1999: 8).

His analysis of experiential learning would be enriched by its academic learning earlier. In fact, Becker had been a student of professor Everett C. Hughes, specialist in sociology of work, whose premise fundamental analytical was “all work is the work of someone”, which implies, on the one hand, to consider that any social production (artistic, cultural, economic, symbolic) must be subjected to the same standard, and on the other hand, you should always build the system of relations of a given process of production of a good. This means, says Becker, pay attention to the work of production, distribution and consumption of art.

However, this approach still was slipping something of the artistic experience, which is the relation of complicity that is generated between the audience and the artist at the time, played the music, and that it is received by others. The music is a production collective that acquires “social significance” when it is touched. The idea of “convention” will be the one that will help you to conceptualize this practice is emotive and intellectual, for she understands the experience between the musicians and the audience that allows the first touch to “naturally” a tune knowing that the others are waiting, and those waiting to know that that is what the musicians are going to play. It is this system of expectations collective of both parties —that must be satisfied— the one who stops the flows of the musical experience. The author says: “The greater part of those who are involved in the processes of musical know these arrangements are conventional; it allows musical events to take place and produce their effects more or less programmed” (Becker, 1999: 12). This explains, for example, the fact that musicians who have never previously been seen to play the same song, and even improvise —as happens regularly in the jazz— with ease and without leaving the schemes harmonics “conventionally predefined”, and the public to enjoy, understand and appreciate the show (Becker, 1999: 13).

In this direction, in a text on how to approach the culture from sociology, the author begins narrating her life of “musician of Saturday night”. Tells how he was called a few hours before any presentation, and in the way he knew other musicians who had never before seen. Not to know is not prevented when the head of the band, announced that he was going to play “Exactly like you” in b flat, everyone could do it without any problems (Becker, 1999: 19-21).

From that fact, Becker reflects on the “culture” as the capacity of action of individuals against a given requirement. Why musicians who do not know they can play songs together as if they had practiced months before? And, what’s more, how you can improvise while keeping an aesthetic proposal and a coherent for people to understand, enjoy, and not feel disappointed? Somehow the shared culture would be one that would allow a particular group, participate in a dialogue is not explicit with the other, but with high efficiency (Becker, 1999: 20).

For Becker the conventions, the production, reproduction and consumption of art leads him to the concept of “art worlds” (that is the name of his most important book), which refers to “the set of people whose activity is necessary for the production (…) of what is defined as art” (Becker, 1982: 34). The art world is composed of all those who play a role —major or minor— in the process: artists, curators, consumers, staff in charge of the cleaning of the museums or scenarios, sellers of inputs, guards, etc., and artists —creators themselves— are part of this network without which there would be neither they, nor their creatures. As we have said, a “world of art” stands in the series of conventions that its members accept to enter it.

While it is true that Becker puts greater attention to the process of production of a play (the worlds in which it is inserted, the necessary conventions, etc) that your content, suggests that this intentional choice answers that it’s the process that will define the content of the creation and not the work itself. Therefore, to analyze any artistic creation, to construct the “world” in which it is conceived.

This tour on the sociology of art in Becker is important because when the author discusses the photography argues that, like a painting or a song, it “finds its reason for being in the way how those who are involved in its production understood, used, and attributed to it a meaning” (Becker, 1999: 173-174). Study a photograph —or a corpus of images, whatever— requires raising questions about the social construction where the photo plays a role, the actors involved, the uses, etc, because “the photos, as any cultural object, extracted its meaning from the context” (Becker, 1999: 181). A systematic work in this direction, to analyze the interaction of the images in the production, consumption and meaning, will bring to the visual sociology, concludes the author.

Walter Benjamin (1892-1940)

Sociología visual: Becker, Benjamin, Bourdieu

Walter Benjamin is a author complex and complete. “His work —says Michael Löwy fragmentary, unfinished, sometimes tight, often anachronistic, and, nevertheless, always present, occupies a unique place, and even unique in the panorama of the intellectual and political of the TWENTIETH century” (Löwy, 2002: 11). Benjamin has touched different aspects of the human condition, from history to theology or politics, and has placed particular attention to art and culture. Your reflection is intended to be “a vision of the whole”, and your thinking “aspires to nothing less than a new understanding of human history” (Löwy, 2002: 12). The photograph was part of their concerns.

A recent text published in Spanish, has collected a series of reflections of Benjamin on photography (2004). Although scattered and often diffuse —as well as his work in general— the book allows you to go through the main analytical axes from which to look at the picture of the author. It is a compilation of essays, fragments of reflections, articles, journal, quotations from other authors, reviews that revolve around the image. The publication, according to the translator, it was not easy since there are texts that were written in different times and followed a life as rugged as the path of its author. Particularly, the text highlights the two reflections extraordinary of Benjamin: “Little history of photography”, and “The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility”.

Being one of the thinkers most brilliant of marxism in the last century, Benjamin has as a backdrop of your thoughts about the culture this analytic paradigm. The theory of art must be registered in “the current conditions of production and whose dialectic is left to perceive in the superstructure with as much clarity as is in the economy” (Benjamin, 2004: 92).

The author addresses the topic of reproduction —and therefore of the authenticity— as a fundamental axis. In fact, the art was always confronted with the problem of imitation and copies of the original in different ways, ranging from the relationship between literature and printing, until the invention of lithography. The “reproductive technique detaches the reproduced from the sphere of tradition. By multiplying the reproductions, it replaces the occurrence unrepeatable played by your occurrence mass” (Benjamin, 2004: 97), and thus devalues the “here and now” of a work, which in many cases constitute a significant percentage of its essence. In fact, in good measure, the “unique value of the work of art ‘authentic’ is founded in the ritual in which it acquired its value in use, the first and original” (Benjamin, 2004: 101), that is billed with the duplicates. Also, the disclosure of the copies of works of art respond to the need of consumption of a mass that needs to “take possession of the object in the maximum proximity of the image” (Benjamin, 2004: 100) and feel that his close family.

Was the emergence of photography which questioned the painting, precisely because of their capacity of unlimited reproduction and, therefore, its loss of originality. The reactions were diverse. One of them, perhaps the more anecdotal, is that of a German newspaper that emphasized the character of the devil of the photographic apparatus: “want to fix fleeting reflections is not only an impossible thing, as has been proven after a thorough German investigation, but the mere fact of desire is in itself a blasphemy. The man has been created in the image and likeness of God, and no human machine can fix the image of the divine. At most may the divine artist, excited by heavenly inspiration, to dare to play in an instant of consecration supreme, in obedience to the high command of her genius, without the aid of machinery, the traits in which man resembles God” (Quoted by Benjamin, 2004: 22-23). But the criticism most telling comes from Charles Baudelaire that defines photography as “the servant of the sciences and the arts”, and is concerned that it can assume a function art: “If it allows the photograph to replace the art in some of its functions, will soon have supplanted or corrupted it entirely, thanks to the natural ally that you will find in the stupidity of the masses (…). If you are allowed to invade the domain of the impalpable and the imaginary, everything that is not worth by what man adds his soul, then, oh, poor us!” (Quoted by Benjamin, 2004: 143).

Benjamin takes a distance of these views and is critical of the time spent in debate on the statute of artistic —or not— of the photograph. In fact suggests that the claim to be art of photography came rather from those who wanted to use it as a commodity, and coincides with the moment in which the painting walked in the direction of feed business. The “aberrant and confusing dispute without mercy” between painting and photography eluded the fundamental problem, that it was a “shift in universal history” introduced by the photograph, where what was at stake was “the global nature of the art”, its value of cult: “the technical reproducibility cut them off at the art of your foundation of worship, extinguishing forever the brightness of their autonomy. This brought about a change in the function of art which fell outside the field of vision of the century” (Benjamin, 2004: 108). The photo, according to this author, contributes to the “decline of the aura” —understood as “the unrepeatable manifestation of a distance, for close to that can be” (Benjamin, 2004: 101)— in which he took refuge in painting.

The effort of the thinker German is the reading of the photograph in synergy with the paint, and does not hide the contribution of the first in several dimensions: “the idea to the most basic that we can have of the usefulness of a box is significantly enriched thanks to photography” (Benjamin, 2004: 76). In fact, Benjamin suggests prophetically that “painting and photography ever end up merging in the beam of a powerful inspiration social” (Benjamin, 2004: 84). It is because of this affinity that the author appreciates the research of Gisèle Freund, as conjugated analytically to photography and painting, the relationship between technical development and social development.

Finally, Benjamin launches the thesis —though not developed in depth— of which, thanks to the photo “we have news that unconscious optical, equal to that of the unconscious drive we know only thanks to psychoanalysis” (Benjamin, 2004: 28). Although the text does not abound in the “unconscious optic”, his shy approach suggests reflections which today can go in multiple directions; that is to say that it opens the doors to consider the photography as a tool to uncover an unconscious way —we would say underlying structure— that organizes the gaze. Benjamin, intense and passionate, brings the tracks of singular interest for the study of photography.

Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)

Pierre Bourdieu has a double relationship with photography: on the one hand analyzed as a cultural product, and the other used as a working tool for the research. In his text photography. A intermediate art, Bourdieu reflects on how and why the photograph can be the object of sociological research. He has the conviction that, at that time, photography was “the only practice with an artistic dimension, accessible to all, and the only well cultural universally consumable” (Bourdieu, 2003: 38), hence its importance in the analytical results. In your perspective, any image, be it photography, popular, professional, or family, possesses meanings —some explicit and others implied— that respond to the group that is responsible for it. Bourdieu places emphasis on the fact that the objective conditions in which is inserted a class are those that delimit the scenario of the possible, the impossible, what is relevant and what should and should not be taken into account.

Sociología visual: Becker, Benjamin, Bourdieu

But as we said, the relation of Bourdieu to the photography is not restricted to study it sociologically, but, as a sociologist, he makes use of it. In the year 2003, was published in a book posthumously entitled , Images d’algérie. Une affinité élective. In this magnificent text, we can see the social researcher, in his first experience of dealing with the reality in Algeria (25 years), and to investigate on it, you have to hand a photo camera. Bourdieu part to this country in 1955 and remains in it until 1960. These intense years —when it is carried out the War of Liberation algerian— will be the ones that make his general theory about the social world; in fact he considered to be —shortly before his death— that his oldest works (referring to those studies) were those that had greater timeliness. In addition to several articles and books that were published about his research on Algeria, Bourdieu left a huge body of photographs that until our days had been archived in his personal collection.

At the initiative of Franz Schultheis1 , and in coordination with the international journal of photography Camera Austria, decided to dust off this visual dimension of the work of Bourdieu, which resulted in a traveling exhibition of their photographs and the publication of the book mentioned. In the text, Bourdieu account —in an interview done by Schultheis— on your camera German Zeiss Ikoflex), who accompanied him in his travels, and that became, first of all, in an instrument of investigation; tells of his problems with the work of the light —strong-and-white own of the region— that burned the image, and his foray into the revealed in the dark room. By the way, his friends had told him that “a true photographer is one that itself reveals your photos, it is revealing that one can see the quality and it may work or reframe the image” (Bourdieu, 2003: 21).

In your research, the picture fulfilled two functions: on the one hand it allowed him to remember and recall events and describe scenarios which could then have an importance of analytics, and on the other hand was “a way of looking (…) a way to intensify my gaze” (Bourdieu, 2003: 23). With the exercise of taking pictures, “looked better and then, often, it was a way to enter in the field” (Bourdieu, 2003: 23). The act of photographing, concludes Bourdieu in the interview, “is a manifestation of the distance of the observer, who registers and who does not forget that it is registering (…), but it also presupposes a close family, caring and sensitive to tiny details” (Bourdieu, 2003: 44).

Aware that the understanding of the social world is of a greater complexity, Bourdieu used the photo as a instrument, together with the theoretical resources and the multiple methodological strategies for ethnographic research in Algeria. Thus, it is evident the link between the content of their research and of their photos.

Part of the book underlines this relationship by offering images on a page and scientific texts —in different publications— in the other. In front of a photo that reproduces uniform buildings —and uniformed— we have the reflection on the forms of colonization of authorities from the imposition of geometries, the urban as a way of disciplining the use of the space; the photos of men and women fulfilling different roles are accompanied by the analysis of the divisions constitutive of the social order and, more precisely, the social relations of domination and exploitation that are instituted between the genders that are entered progressively in the two classes of habitus different, on the form ofhexis body opposite and complementary, and of principles of vision and division of the world that lead to classify all things in the world and all practices according to distinctions be reduced to the opposition between the masculine and the feminine” (Bourdieu, 2003: 103).

But in addition to this double-entry writing–visual, to fix the attention only on photos of Bourdieu as he traces his intellectual curiosity: it takes men and women in their places of work, children working or playing, the developments in the field, farmers, animals, and roads, bars, posters, messages painted on the floor, public places, urban and rural landscapes. In sum: the social space of algeria. In a picture of a girl weaving a basket, in another take care of their younger siblings; later a few children play and others work collecting water, selling newspapers or shining shoes; still later, now children well-dressed high-class, enjoy an ice cream or having fun in a carousel. What wants to show that Bourdieu? Does the formation of the habitus of gender and class from the first years of life?

In another photo a woman, a whole deck of white —up to the face and head only teaching— arms, going down the avenue on a motorcycle in the city. Forward, a man of rural origin uses a sewing machine pedal. In the bar share bar four women and one man, all drinking coffee, they covered up the face and he dress military; another couple equally dressed, now with a baby in her arms, walks in the city: the creature is charged by the man with the suit. What are the borders of the social roles? How do you define them?

A series of images show the gap between the “modern” capitalist society and the traditional forms in algeria. A mobile shop small goods is located in front of a poster of cigarettes “Wands” that promote “the French taste”; a woman dressed in white and with a basket on the head, passes through the showcase of a store that offers refrigerators, televisions, and radios; some children looking at a business of toys “Dinky Toys” that you have a dog cowboy that returns the gaze; other adolescents observed a showcase of comics: Fantax, Old Bridger, Back John, Totem… How to transform mental structures with the introduction of products of consumption in foreign?

In between, the photos of the war: a poster that suggests “protect yourself from the murderers”; an advertisement of Kodak, covered with pamphlets that say “all united vote”, “for a better future”; one car to the side of a tank on the road; a few children walking on the side of a barricade of barbed wire. In these conditions of social upheaval, what the position of the sociologist? What epistemological implications it has investigate in moments where you risk life?

The photos taken in a context of research, teaches Bourdieu, are inseparable from the reflection; the images captured sociologically not complement each other: argue, reason, explain. Images d’algérie, crosses the barriers of photography and the social science and check another of the facets of creative sociologist most lucid of the TWENTIETH century.


Becker, Howard, (1999). Propos sur l’art, Paris, Ed. L’harmattan.

–(1982). Art Worlds, Berkeley, Ed. University of California Press.

–(1974). “Photography and Sociology”, Studies in the Anthropology of Visual Communications, No. 1, 1974.

Benjamin, Walter, (2004). On the photograph, Valencia, Ed. Pre-Texts.

Bourdieu, Pierre, (2003). Images d’algérie, Paris, Ed. Actes Sud.

—(1994). Raison pratiques, sur la théorie de l’action, Paris, Ed. Seuil.

—(1992). Les règles de l’art. Genèse et structure du champ littéraire, Paris, Ed. Seuil.

Bourdieu, Pierre (compiler), (1979). Photography. A intermediate art, Mexico DF, Ed. New Image.

  1. Professor of the University of Geneva has also coordinated the book Schultheis, Franz, and Ducret, André (Coord.) (2005), A photographie de circonstance. Pierre Bourdieu in Algérie, Ed. Université de Genève, Geneva. [↩]

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