Searching for Meaning: Visual Culture from an Anthropological Perspective

By Stokrocki, Mary | Art Education, January 2006 | Go to article overview

Searching for Meaning: Visual Culture from an Anthropological Perspective


Stokrocki, Mary, Art Education


This article reveals the importance of Viktor Lowenfeld's influence on my research, describes visual anthropology, gives examples of my research, and examines the implications of this type of research for teachers.1 I regard Lowenfeld's (1952/1939) early work with children in Austria as a form of participant observation research. Participant observation is a process of describing, analyzing, and interpreting an everyday activity to understand it more fully (Stokrocki, 1997). Lowenfeld intensely watched how children made art, listened to what they said, and asked questions (Stokrocki, 1982). Similar to Lowenfeld, I also elicit student views on their artwork. Teachers do this tacitly everyday to some degree and often times more methodically. Observed through the lens of his own education, largely based on psychology, Lowenfeld regarded his findings about children's artworks as "universal," not context-bound, and failed to understand the influence of culture on children's artworks. In contrast, when studying children's artworks today, I try to search for meanings of different socio-cultural contexts through visual anthropology.

What is Visual Anthropology and How Do I Use this Methodology?

Visual anthropology involves the study of the significance of a culture's media and material making. It logically proceeds from the belief that culture is manifested through visible symbols situated in constructed and natural environments. It provides an alternative way of observing and understanding cultures through documentation of their visual components, such as gestures, artifacts, and rituals (Ball, 1997).

In the 1940s, scholars became interested in the analysis of cultural behaviors through visual media, such as photographs and film. Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, for example, photographically documented and analyzed the behaviors of Balinese parents teaching their children how to dance and play instruments (Stokrocki, 1985). John Collier in 1967 established the field of visual anthropology and methods to be employed by researchers. Since the 1980s, study of film, video, and television roles and audiences in the construction of meaning predominated (Chalfen, 1981). In the 1990s, experiments with multimedia-hypertext technology opened future computer-generated pictorial ethno-graphies. Ethnography, the systematic portrayal of an etbnos-people with the tools of the cultural anthropologist-resulted in a different type of text and learning experience (Ruby, 2004). Similarly, visual culture study encompasses material/virtual objects in a setting that highlights a culture's way of seeing them (Duncum & Bracey, 2001) and explores such issues as art, non-art, gender, and ethnicity (Freedman, 2003).

Visual anthropology demands multiple methods, participants, and comparison with other studies. The methods that I use are analysis, elicitation, and interpretation (Stokrocki, 1985).Analysis involves describing and classifying visual evidence by systematically surveying the images to find predetermined and emerging aspects which include gesture, posture, orientation, movement, and spatial positioning in relation to physical space. Later, I add the participants' views through a process called elicitation, whereby I show the visuals to them for their opinions. Since visuals are ambiguous and do not speak for themselves, further interpretation is needed to decipher an event's aesthetic and emotional dimensions that unfold over time, similar to Kenneth Beittel's (1973) early documentation of artists' working in his drawing lab.2 Interpretation includes references to cultural meanings obtained through interviews with key informants, teachers, and interested students and through reviews of related studies.

How Does Visual Anthropology Apply to My Research with Native Americans?

While studying art teaching on the Navajo Reservation for 4 years and photographing art classes, I also documented and analyzed children's drawings to understand their world view by using Lowenfeld's representational categories: use of schema, color, and space. …

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