Visual Sociology: Picturing Inequality

Equality of Opportunity?

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’m a big fan of using graphic material (pictures and illustrations rather than examples of extreme physical violence) to both illustrate sociological ideas and encourage students to think a little more deeply about such ideas and how they can be applied to increase their depth of sociological knowledge and understanding. I’ve tried to use this technique to good effect in:

• blog posts – visualising strain theory is a particular favourite
• teaching – one of my favourite “visual lessons” was to use optical illusions to introduce and illustrate the idea of different sociological approaches – how could people look at the same thing (“society”) yet see it so differently?
• my work as a video producer.

In this respect my argument is that the right picture can be a simple and evocative way of getting students to both understand and think about the ramifications of certain ideas across a range of sociological areas:

• Education and differential achievement.
• Deviance and rates of arrest / imprisonment.
• Social inequality and various forms of discrimination.
• Theory and concepts like economic, cultural and social capital.

The picture above, for example, can be used to get students to think beyond relatively simple and straightforward ideas about class, gender or ethic discrimination (it’s morally wrong…) in order to explore more complex sociological ideas about the concept of equality of opportunity: what, for example, does it really mean and can it be used by powerful groups to actually embed greater inequality into social structures?

Education Example

In terms of the picture, for example, it’s possible to argue in relation to differential educational achievement that everyone, regardless of their class, gender, ethnicity has an equal opportunity to succeed (climb the tree) – yet it’s clear some are much better positioned to achieve success in these terms than others. In terms of:

• the animals in the cartoon, they each bring different physical attributes to the problem and these confer different advantages and disadvantages in their quest for “success”.

• people, they each bring different social attributes (social, cultural and economic capital, habitus and so on) to the problem of achievement that give some marked educational advantages and disadvantages. If this is the case, what are these social attributes and how do they relate to both equality of opportunity and differences in achievement?

In this way you can not only explore how concepts of equality of opportunity are socially constructed you can also use further visual cues to explore a different interpretation of equality and the implications it has for areas such as educational policy, achievement and the like.

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