Should You Study Visual Anthropology?

In Karen Nakamura’s recent blog post: “Careers: Visual anthropology as a field of study?” she republishes a letter she sent a student asking about graduate study in visual anthropology.

  1. Visual anthropology is on the margins of the discipline. Few programs offer degrees in it and there are even fewer jobs.
  2. It is my own belief that photography or film work that isn’t backed by participant-observation research is weaker than that that is. If your goal is to fly in, take photos, and fly out, then you might want to pursue a degree in journalism.
  3. There are dwindling grants for visual social science research. You would most likely apply to standard anthropology grants — which means that your work should speak to the discipline of anthropology in some way.

Like Karen, when students approach me about pursuing a career in visual anthropology, I usually attempt to dissuade them. The reason being that if they are interested in producing visual documents, they are unlikely to be able to do so in a Ph.D. program in anthropology. Only rarely are visual documents accepted in lieu of written ones at the graduate level. While some may complement their written thesis with “supplementary materials,” they will most likely remain just that.

Of course, if someone is interested in media studies and would like to do an ethnography of visual media production, then I think they’ll do OK.

Such a study falls within the framework of traditional anthropological research. While pursuing any degree in anthropology is a questionable career choice these days, your chances of getting an academic job are even smaller if you don’t produce a traditional written ethnography. Moreover, if you are primarily interested in producing visual documents, the best training is to get lots of production experience, either by working in the media industry or by going to film school – not by getting a Ph.D. (in any discipline).

A lot of people are interested in visual anthropology because it seems like they don’t have to choose between an academic career and a career in the filmmaking. It doesn’t really work out that way. Don’t make any mistake about it: if you are getting a Ph.D., you are choosing an academic career. However, if you really love anthropology and are willing to accept the “supplementary” status of your visual work, then by all means, go for it. Being a production-oriented visual anthropologist today usually means pursuing a double career, not merging your various interests into a single one. Are you ready for that?

14 thoughts on “Should You Study Visual Anthropology?

  1. It seems to me that there are two values in anthropologists doing ethnographic film. First, one of the primary ways through which people in the general public may observe people in “different” cultures is through television. This would include things such tv magazines, documentaries, news segments, anthropologicalish television shows (some of the stuff in the U.S. on The Discovery Channel, The National Geographic Channel, The History Channel and The Travel Channel) or actual ethnographic films/shows (primarily PBS, the Discovery Channel and some National Geographic stuff). The majority of this content is produced by non-anthropologists who might not be aware about larger debates about representation in anthropology and/or might not have spent a significant period of time in a specific location. This can be seen in some of the post-911 television documentaries/news programs about Arabs which appear to be made by people who spent as little as a two or three weeks creating their programs.

    Anthropologists need to make these types of “ethnographic” programs (or make an effort to collaborate with filmmakers of such programs) in order to avoid stereotypical portrayals of the “other” and to show what anthropologists actually do. Anthropology clearly has a pr problem (as I have argued in response to other blog entries) and ethnographic film is one way through which anthropologists can reach the general public. Not making an effort to make such films either allows for stereotypical portrayals to remain unchallenged and/or keeps anthropology regulated to a marginal position both within and outside the academe.

    Second, often times text is unable to clearly describe something observed by anthropologists. I’ve often noticed that many undergraduates in anthropology classes don’t understand some readings or lectures until they see aspects of these readings or lectures on film. Similarly, I’ve found that some articles on certain subjects would be much better in film form. There was one article I remember reading about a year ago about the symbolic sexual and gender content of certain game played somewhere in East Africa. Based on the description of the rules of the game (even with a chart), I was unable to figure out how the game was played and in turn, I couldn’t evaluate the larger argument of the author. Had this game been part of a film about the sexuality and gender of those who played it, I probably would have been able to understand how the game was played (by observing it in action).

    A better example of a cultural activity that is difficult to describe “on paper” might be American football. Describing American football “on paper” to someone who has never watched a game is extremely difficult. While some aspects like touch downs and field goals are easy to describe, explaining how downs work in practice and the complicated rules for running, passing and positioning (penalties for offsides, encroachment, factors determining who can catch the ball) is very difficult. Thus, in order for someone to fully understand how American football works, they would have to actually watch a game of American football.

    Imagine if one were an anthropologist outside the United States and one decided to study American Football. One might run into this problem describing football in print. An ethnographic film might help alleviate this problem or provide a good complementary piece to written articles or books.

    I think that anthropologists have a tendency to undervalue ethnographic film. I’m not suggesting that one eliminates dissertations or anthropological writing but I do think that anthropologists shouldn’t be penalized in tenure decisions for doing a mixture of writing and ethnographic film. For example, if an anthropologist decided to make an ethnographic film in their fourth year before tenure review and they had already published some articles, I do not see why that film shouldn’t count towards tenure.

  2. There have been examples of films counting towards tenure, just as there are examples of visual media counting towards one’s Ph.D., but these are the exception rather than the rule, so it is a big risk to take.

  3. Kerim writes,
    … it is a big risk to take.

    What I hear is you saying that mostly Anthro is text at the graduate level. Meaning that to convey ideas and learning text is preferred?

    I assume you don’t mean film since hardly anyone would shoot film anymore. At any rate from having shot movies myself, the camera creates distinct impact upon people. As does the tape recorder.

    Frankly though, I am not sure why the field doesn’t take seriously such media?
    Doyle Saylor

  4. You say “movies” I say “film”. In some parts of the country “soda” is called “coke.” “Digital Video” would be the most accurate term for what most people shoot these days … but language isn’t always about accuracy.

    Why don’t people take multimedia seriously? I don’t think it is so much a problem with “the field” as it is a problem with “the university.” More and more schools are trying to quantify tenure promotions based on factors such as the number of journal articles in SSCI listed journals and the number of books from university publishers. Media doesn’t have a place in such metrics. I don’t think too many anthropologists are happy about such moves, and I think many departments would defend their film making colleagues, but the wind is currently blowing in the other direction.

  5. Thanks Kerim for the clarification. I liked you making the point about the ‘field’. That’s reassuring to me.

    I wonder if an Anthro Wiki is around? I haven’t heard of one. That’s a great place I presume to put media.

    Hey film is what I use all the time unconsciously. Sorry about the nit pik.

  6. often times text is unable to clearly describe something observed by anthropologists.

    Just wanted to add some support to this observation. One of my most vivid memories was showing slides of the Taoist rituals I analyzed for my dissertation to a colleague from the Physics Department at Middlebury College, himself an avid amateur photographer.

    “I had no idea from reading your stuff that that was what it looks like,” he said.

  7. There was some discussion about the AAA hosing online media, but seems like a good place to host Academic multimedia for now.

  8. How about an anthro themed YouTube-esque site? We could call it something quirky and witty that I can’t think of right now but which would surely make us all look hip and “with it”. It sure wouldn’t do anything to boost someone’s tenure but its high time we made anthropology a more publicly accessible discipline.

  9. A note to the earlier discussion on how visual anth at the graduate level develops into careers:

    First, I am a master’s student at SFSU and there is only one professor there with a Ph.D in Visual Anth. He produces multimedia and documentaries that can be seen on PBS type shows like Frontline and others. He laments constantly on how doing shows like that inherently involves a type of compromise in material and issue depiction/editing that otherwise wouldn’t have to happen say if you were producing for an academic audience. Unfortunately, as was mentioned earlier, he attests to the fact that there are virtually no grants to do that kind of a film and one must shop one’s film around to various media outlets, all with their own agendas and of course their own bottomlines. This kind of commodification of ethnography can be a fine line for some to walk especially if the student pursuing this kind of work is actually more interested in the anthropological side of things.

    Personally, I want to thank you all for the discussion!

  10. This is a great blog and I’m glad I found it. I just received my BA in Anthropology and I certainly would like to get my Masters in Visual Antropology. Can anyone tell me what Universities have good programs? They can be anywhere, USA or Overseas.

  11. Kelley: This is a hard question to answer. First, people go into VA for so many reasons: some want to be producers of visual media and others want to be anthropologists of visual media. If you are doing visual production, you want to go somewhere with a good film program that works together with the anthro department, or where the anthro profs are teaching produciton courses. If not, you should really go to the best Cultural anthro program you can find which also offers visual courses.

    Second, there aren’t many well established programs, so you are usually talking about finding an individual professor you want to work with. That takes some research on your part, since there are so many different approaches.

    And third, whether it is reasonable or not to pursue an MA in anthropology is open to debate, some would argue that you are better going for a Ph.D. directly, since an anthro MA doesn’t have much weight on the job market and you will be treated more seriously (and eligible for more funding) if you apply as a Ph.D. candidate.

  12. First of all, I want to say that I am thrilled to have stumbled upon this thread and this blog in general.

    I am an undergraduate student who will be graduating in the spring with my BS in Cultural Anthropology and a strong desire to pursue VA. I am more the “visual ethnographer” type and am getting the affirmation that this (just as in most other professions) is more about finding the right connection for you and being able to develop in your own outlet of a career.

    Maybe it is my own naiveté about the world around me, but if you ask enough of the right questions and know what it is that you’re interested in, then it shouldn’t be so ominous an outcome (as in being able to get a job doing what you love with a competitive salary, passion shouldn’t be lucrative). I mean is there risk? Of course. Everything involves risk, I’m not trying to ignore that. My point is, that if I decided that I wanted to continue developing into someone who is going to produce ethnographic film (doing my own research) then, I have to make it happen.

    I would start by doing some self reflection. Identify a few things like:
    1) What is it that I am actually interested in?
    2) What risk level is acceptable to me?
    3) What kind of risk does it look like I may have to take to get to where I want to be?
    4) Is that OK with me and whoever I have a responsibility to?
    5) What kind of school fits my needs? and where can I go to be surrounded by like-minded individuals?
    6) Where can I encounter more professionals that would be interested in my kind of work?
    and now the fun part starts…
    7) Once I have found these professionals how do I convince them that what I bring to the table as an Anthropologist will surely further the conversation, dig deeper into the issues at hand and at the end of the day facilitate in engaging in a more meaningful documentary/ethnography.

    It is about time that every profession has a resident Anthropologist on staff. But it is on us to make that happen. Anthropology is used in the world whether or not they are a “trained” Anthropologist. People use and abuse cultural phenomenon regularly and I think that it will be up to us graduating and those who are already out there as graduates to be able to help use Anthropology ethically. This is where I feel that the biggest need for Visual Anthropologists lies. In trying to un-marginalize Anthropology and help the “PR problem” that it has (to quote the “grad student”). Filmmakers and documentary makers are going to continue to film, interview, produce and distribute films about people. The question is, how do we attempt to make sure that Anthropology is used ethically?

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