Paranormal · Social Science · Sociology · Sociology of Religion · Supernatural

Visual Sociology

What is ‘Visual’? 

Visual, especially with reference to visual methods, may not necessarily equate with the images directly viewed with the eye at a given moment. When a person closes their eyes and images emerge from consciousness, do they remain “unseen”? If a person can visualize the invisible, it may not be a stretch to believe that the ‘visual’ is not relegated to direct, physical eyesight, but multisensory stimuli.  

The somatic order (Waskul and Vannini 2008) and various sensory ‘scapes’ (Borer 2013) play a large role in the investigation of paranormal activity. Not only do investigators use their lived visual experience (Emmison, Smith, and Mayall 2012), but they attempt to catch video of spirits on enhanced cameras that can utilize infra-red and night vision video to look beyond the scope of the seescape into realms that cannot be detected by the naked eye. The sense of smell is used to detect indicators such as the scent of sulfur or perfume to identify potential instances of phantom smells. Furthermore, as investigators use these first two sensory scapes, they continually use digital audio recorders while asking questions that are intended to entice an entity into a conversation. Not all responses are caught by the ear during an investigation, thus these recording devices are listened to during evidence review as the researcher attempts to find any instance of an electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) in which a spirit may have answered a question that was unheard during the lived experience. These extra-sensory devices must be used, because the normal senses may let them down. 

Lived vs. Found Images 

Any reasonable discussion about paranormal investigation should include the topic of lived vs. found images. As skeptical as both believers and non-believers are, the approach to this dichotomous relationship can be difficult to navigate. The strength of lived images is that the researcher has their own sensory experience in which to rely on. Since lived data features the relationship between structural spaces and all senses (Borer 2013; Emmison et al. 2012; Waskul and Vannini 2008), the researcher has more tools to operate with. The space, in terms of most paranormal investigation, is usually a building or home that features unexplained elements that are interpreted as actions of the paranormal. As the investigation occurs, most teams try to debunk the claims made by the home or business owner and reattribute the phenomena to natural explanations. The discussion of sensory experience can be put into context as a collection of sights, sounds, and smells to create a more viable piece of evidence. When natural explanations are insufficient, the remaining outcome is to question the possibility that the inexplicable happenings are, in fact, paranormal or supernatural. The problems with lived data are the financial cost, accessibility, and time that it takes to collect information. 

Found images can provide an easier and more accessible data set. With the Internet, a person can find millions of images that can be used as secondary data for content analysis (Emmison et al. 2013). However, found images can be altered in many different ways. False visual representations can be fabricated using computer software or camera tricks. For example, the image below is a photograph taken from the infamous Amityville haunting.

Many skeptics have argued that this image is one of the investigators involved with Ed and Lorraine Warren—the “psychics” who came to fame with their alleged perpetration of the Amityville Horror hoax. However, no one has admitted to faking this photo, neither has anyone denied that it is fake. This ambiguity is what both entices and frustrates paranormal believers. Without the additional sensory input, the context of an image or auditory cue is lost and skepticism increases. In short, found imagery is less reliable and verifiable than imagery collected directly by the researcher.   


Visual methods are predominantly a merging of qualitative ethnography and content analysis, although there has been an increase in quantitative methods (Grady 1996). Thus, the methods of data collection in paranormal research come in the form of participant observation in the field as a researcher is embedded in a paranormal investigation group, as well as the follow-up data analysis of the recorded audio and video taken on various electronic devices. When presenting results of a study, the researcher should have several forms of visual data to represent not only the ways in which paranormal investigators operate, but contextual ethnographic findings that increase the legitimate need for visual methodology. 

In researching paranormal investigators, I would infiltrate and observe a group on an actual investigation of an allegedly haunted location. My senses would provide excellent context for my findings. First of all, conversations with the group would allow access to inside information about how the various tools operate. I would also seek to understand the motivation for why these individuals felt compelled to join a group and go seeking evidence of the paranormal. I expect that answers would range from finding answers to a prior personal experience to just wanting to help other people who are scared to better understand the phenomena that have them spooked.  

My objects of study would be lived and living sources of data (Emmison et al. 2012). The structural limitations, including the absence of light, and the pattern in which investigators traverse the public space can provide insight into the intended design of a location and the stigmas attached to them (Mannay 2010). The investigators would be living sources of research in how their personal experiences have shaped their motivation.  

The understanding of subscribed paranormal belief systems may be of interest as well, in that the theoretical orientation of the classic or religious supernatural world view of the investigator (Rice 2003) may play into their description of the phenomena that they believe to have witnessed—or not witnessed—on any given investigation.  

If a scientific-minded person enters an investigation as a total skeptic, they may look for only natural causes as explanation for paranormally attributed events. If phenomena is not able to be explained by physical examination, the skeptic may refrain from labeling activity as being supernatural and further investigation is taken. However, someone who is a paranormal believer may walk away from the unexplained with a bolstered sense of an otherworldly cause of phenomena. In this case, their belief system is reinforced and it may take stronger evidence of natural causes for them to admit that they could be mistaken. 

Once the investigation has concluded, I would assist in analyzing the audio and two-dimensional visual images found during the process. Comparing personal experience with possible footage would allow me to decode the validity of an image. Most importantly, the legitimacy of the investigators’ paranormal beliefs may play a large role in their motivation. If a large amount of unexplainable phenomena occurs, I would be able to better understand why someone would continue to seek visual evidence that may once and for all convince them of the existence or non-existence of inexplicable happenings.  


Why Sociology? 

The very first component of any social science research comes in the way of visual interaction with data by seeing, communicating with icons, and doing sociology visually which employs both quantitative and qualitative methods to data collection and analysis (Grady 1996). Oftentimes, especially with the latter method, the researcher may struggle to represent their findings in a way that truly captures the experience that they lived. Description is such a huge part of social science research that it is only logical to look to increase the number of methods used in description, and subject images to critique and analysis that cannot be performed by simply studying art and history (Savage 2009). The inclusion of visual methods may truly enhance the findings with undeniable imagery that exceeds the limit of the written word. 

Another use for visual methods may come in the way in which sociologists seek to “make the familiar strange.” We often study groups familiar to us because of the convenience of not having to reorient ourselves to a new, unfamiliar environment. However, sociologists run the risk of missing interesting data because of the taken for granted nature of familiarity. Using creative expression through imagery, the social scientist can look to art, even that of a child, in order to analyze the culture being studied (Mannay 2010).  

A reciprocal relationship also occurs as the critical techniques and paradigmatic exposure that differentiates sociology from other forms of scientific inquiry. Natural science often fails to take context into consideration when looking at data. They would seek to find natural explanation for supernatural phenomena, while a sociologist may look to the influence of collective effervescence on the shared experience of paranormal investigators. The social scientist would also seek to understand the motivation behind the rise in popularity of the investigator subclass, rather than just noting that the rise exists. 

Concerns and Critiques (Mitchell) 

Mitchell (2005) identifies several concerns and critiques of visual studies or culture, beginning with the struggle for being a legitimate field within more “respected” disciplines. There is a danger to using visual data as supplement for more traditional methods. However, there is a movement to include visual culture in a conglomerate of other disciplines, such as art and history. In order to stay relevant to the technological advances of contemporary society, I believe that the social sciences should include themselves in the visual revolution. 

As the idea of “social construction” has permeated common discourse throughout the arts and social sciences, students of the disciplines must remain vigilant in their critical thinking lest they fall prey to what Mitchell (2005) calls “constitutive fallacies”. These include the merging of high art and commonplace cultural works that leads to turning the image into something mundane, the hegemonic use of visuals in subsuming other sensory expressions, the separation of the visual from other senses in “visual media”, and the power that the producer of visual data has on the viewer.  

Finally, Mitchell (2005) turns to the concern of “showing seeing”. That is, the way in which a researcher is able to perform, in some form or another, the presentation of their results. This can take the form of a visual representation of an image, or a total immersive sensory experience that engulfs the viewers. For instance, if one were to present evidence of paranormal activity that can easily be debunked, they could show a photograph, such as the one below, to discuss how oft cited “ghost orbs” are merely dust particles picked up by the camera as the light of the flash is reflected from tiny objects that may be invisible to the naked eye. 

The presentation of audible EVP or video of proposed paranormal sightings can come together and strengthen the contextual experience for the viewer who was not present during an investigation. When all senses are used at once, an event is often more memorable. Thus, showing seeing is an effective tool for research presentation. 

Possible Constraints/Limitations 

Visual data is unpredictable and completely open to the interpretation of both researcher and viewer. Quantitative researchers would quickly dismiss findings as non-scientific, and qualitative researchers may view visual methods as a subset of their own ethnographic research. Either way, visual methods may not get the respect it deserves. 

Cultural bias can play a large role in shaping the way that the visual is both presented and represented, as well as the way that meaning is understood (Mannay 2010). The researcher risks missing meaning in the image and shared meaning may be taken for granted. Though critique may unlock some ways in which an image comes alive and speaks (Mitchell 2005), there may be other hidden messages. In short, the researcher may not be able to completely identify the way in which the image seeks to be understood. 

Other issues arise with the question of validity. Regardless of the source of visual data, the opportunity to tamper with an image is something that the researcher may not consider. The presence of the camera as an instrument may cause people to act in unnatural ways, such as either quickly moving away from the photographer or posing in a way that makes them look better. Virtual data poses the highest risk of contamination. The information available online is often unverifiable and more problematic, because it can be easy to create a fake image.  

The talent of a research photographer may influence the results as well. A well-placed shot can often produce different data than a candid picture. Knowledge of shutter speed, lens quality, zoom, focus, and other adjustments change the data that is being collected in a photograph. Some interesting interactions happening behind the photographed object may be missed due to a bad exposure setting or misuse of panoramic functions. Thus, there may be some additional training necessary to turn a qualitative ethnography into a visual data collection. 


Borer, Michael Ian. 2013. “Being in the City: The Sociology of Urban Experiences.” Sociology Compass. 7(11):965-983.  

Emmison, Michael, Philip Smith, and Margery Mayall, 2012. Researching the Visual. 2nd ed. Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC. Sage. 

Grady, John. 1996. “The Scope of Visual Sociology.” Visual Sociology. 11(2):10-24. 

Mannay, Dawn. 2010. “Making the Familiar Strange: Can Visual Research Methods Render the Familiar Setting More Perceptible?” Qualitative Research. 10(1):91-111. 

Mitchell, W.J.T. 2005. What Do Pictures Want?. Chicago, IL. University of Chicago Press. 

Prosser, Jon, and Andrew Loxley. 2008. “Introducing Visual Methods.” ESRC National Centre for Research Methods. Discussion Paper. NCRM. (Unpublished) 

Rice, Tom W. 2003. “Believe it or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 42(1):95-106. 

Savage, Mike. 2009. “Contemporary Sociology and the Challenge of Descriptive Assemblage.” European Journal of Social Theory. 12(1):155-174.  

Waskul, Dennis D., and Phillip Vannini. 2008. “Smell, Odor, and Somatic Work: Sense-Making and Sensory Management.” Social Psychology Quarterly. 71(1):53-71. 

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