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Visual Anthropology

A Guide to Resources at Temple and Elsewhere


There are "two main streams of thought and practices which 'visual anthropology' implies. One sense refers to attempts to communicate anthropological observations and insights through photography, film, and video. In this sense, many early anthropologists who used these media were practising forms of visual anthropology before the approach had been made explicit. Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson used cine film and still photography as central to their studies of culture and personality, and later Jean Rouch and Timothy Ash both filmed extensively and argued for the recognition of film in anthropology. John Collier did the same for photography, as did Paul Hockings, for both mediums, working to formalize the importance of such contributions to academic and humanistic anthropology.

The second definitional approach to visual anthropology is more recent and is concerned with the understanding of visual systems in cultures and societies. It shares common concerns with the anthropology of art and with technology and material culture. By convention, the subject of literacy and its significance has not been prominently included within visual anthropology, but is normally discussed in wider debates about the transition from the neolithic to large-scale states and empires, and debates about power, hierarchy, and authority. [Visual anthropology] as yet shows few signs of making serious inroads into the hegemony of classical political economy and other mainstream concerns. The approach claims that special attention to visual systems may lead to reassessment of mainstream assumptions and analytic givens."

Loizos, P. (2001). Visual Anthropology. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences (Vol.24, p. 16246). New York: Elsevier.

Visual anthropology logically proceeds from the belief that culture is manifested through visible symbols embedded in gestures, ceremonies, rituals, and artifacts situated in constructed and natural environments. Culture is conceived of as manifesting itself in scripts with plots involving actors and actresses with lines, costumes, props, and settings. The cultural self is the sum of the scenarios in which one participates. If one can see culture, then researchers should be able to employ audiovisual technologies to record it as data amenable to analysis and presentation. Although the origins of visual anthropology are to be found historically in positivist assumptions that an objective reality is observable, most contemporary culture theorists emphasize the socially constructed nature of cultural reality and the tentative nature of our understanding of any culture. (Read the entire article at )

Ruby, Jay (1996). Visual Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, David Levinson and Melvin Ember, editors. (Vol. 4, pp. 1345-1351) New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Visual Anthropology at Temple University

Visual Anthropology Track

Visual Anthropology Faculty:

Jayasinhji Jhala Ph.D., Associate Professor, Visual Anthropology Advisor. See also his personal website

Film and Media Arts, School of Communications, College of Arts and Sciences


Subject Specialist

Profile Photo
Tom Ipri
Charles Library, Rm 375
Subjects: Anthropology

Associations / Societies

American Communications Association Online. The American Communication Association (ACA) is a not-for-profit organization, created to enhance and promote the academic and professional study, research, knowledge, criticism, teaching, exchange, and application of the basic principles of human communication.

SVA: Society for Visual Anthropology. " Founded in 1984, the Society for Visual Anthropology promotes the use of images for the description, analysis, communication and interpretation of human [and sometimes nonhuman) behavior. Members have interests in all visual aspects of culture, including art, architecture and material artifacts, as well as kinesics, proxemics and related forms of body motion communication (e.g. gesture, emotion, dance, sign language)."