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ANTHR 420: Visual Anthropology

What does "multimodal" mean?

Course Description

The traditional medium of anthropological scholarship is the written word.* Written words can do many things—elicit emotional responses, project imaginary scenes, draw one’s mind to focus acutely on particular details, and so on. And yet the written word is not itself the medium of exchange of the vast majority of human interaction—very far from it. Other media more closely approach—although never replicate precisely—the sensory modalities of human experience. Still images freeze a scene for close inspection. Audio recordings provide emotional immersion that words cannot. Film draws on multiple modalities to immerse and portray. Each of these media afford distinct possibilities for both ‘capturing’ ethnographic data and portraying the insights that the ethnographer is seeking to develop. This course will dive deeply into these distinct modalities of both capturing and conveying ethnographic insights into varieties of human experience. We will compare, contrast, and play with these different modalities, and push the boundaries of anthropological knowledge and experience beyond the written word.


More practically, this course entails an overview of visual/sonic (multimodal) anthropology methods and scholarship, including ethnographic film, photography, sound, art, and other methods used in anthropology. We will simultaneously study, deploy, and critique these methods of ethnographic data collection and conceptual communication, as we collectively consider of how distinct media allow new ways of understanding what it means to be human. We will become familiar with current theoretical and critical approaches to anthropology that focus on visual and sonic media. Students will learn to critically analyze the strengths and limitations of distinct media (photo, video, audio, text, art) in producing and conveying anthropological insights.


In this course, we will study a range of contemporary and historical cultural groups through visual and sonic anthropology scholarship. This will include gaining the capacity for cultural critique based on distinct media portrayals of various communities and societies. We will collectively learn to make the medium of exchange a more central consideration to developing, articulating, and debating theoretical perspectives. We will further apply various theoretical ideas to and test them with a variety of visual anthropological materials, all while seeking to develop theoretical lines of coherence from these different accounts rooted in distinct media..

Students will gain experience in a wide variety of modes of communication by completing not just writing assignments, but also audiovisual forms of data presentation including photographic essays, soundscapes, and a short ethnographic film. Students will be trained in the basic skills of photo, video, and audio editing, and will undertake a major project as the culminating assignment for the course. Students will learn these technical skills—blended with critical theoretical analysis—in order to produce unique anthropological insights using distinct media.

* Yes, much anthropological scholarship is transmitted through the spoken word, which arguably more closely approximates the media of social exchange in the communities that anthropologists study. And yet, even in verbal academic exchange, so often the “verbal” is a mere performance of a pre-composed written form.

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