Reading visual images
Reading visual images

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Reading visual images

2 Social science approaches to the documentary photograph

2.1 Photographs as documentary evidence

As the discussion of context makes clear, we can begin to ask many questions about the role that images may play in the social sciences. Photographs are documents and like other documentary records they are a physical trace of an actual event. However, as with all documentary evidence, their meaning is not fixed. Other examples of documents used by the social sciences can demonstrate this point.

Documentary evidence can come from official records such as a marriage certificate, a census return, or a medical certificate. Such records may be ‘aggregated’ (added together) to offer statistical evidence about social facts. Such statistical evidence might take the following form: 63 per cent of weddings in 1999 were between partners who had not been previously married; 12.5 million people lived in London in 1991; the largest single cause of death in the UK is heart disease.

As with all statistics of this nature we can ask pertinent questions about how the recording process reduces a more complex reality to simple, statistically relevant boxes on an official form. We have the raw evidence, but what does it mean? Of those who were married in 1999 how many had been married before but did not declare that fact? How many had been cohabiting in a stable long-term relationship with their partner before marriage (and are such relationships an ‘unofficial’ form of marriage?).

If we compared the 1999 statistic with its equivalent from 1899, would we be comparing like with like? Has, for instance, the nature of marriage and the form of social relationship it connotes, changed so much over the intervening century that the comparison of these statistics is less helpful than it seems? What about the fact that there were more marriages in 1899 than 1999, despite the population of the UK being roughly 20 million less?

Presumably in 1899 men and women thought marriage was an important social institution. If they wanted to cohabit did they believe that a marriage ceremony was the essential precondition to such a relationship? We might have to turn to other forms of evidence to give us some insight into this question, comparing, for instance, what people in 1899 and 1999 thought about the relationship of marriage. Perhaps in the case of 1899 we might get such evidence from personal letters or the accounts of social observers of that period who were interested by such questions: both constitute unofficial but clearly relevant forms of documentary evidence.

As this example shows, asking pertinent questions about documents and evidence indicates just how complex the issues around knowledge and knowing in the social sciences can be. Typically, we construct theories that attempt to provide a meaningful account of why social behaviour changes over time. By their very nature, theories are reductions of complex reality to a set of propositions or claims. We use methods for comparing and evaluating evidence that has been defined in terms of these claims.

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