Fourteen proposals to found a filmic sociology

By the Collectif Image et Société (I&S)
Centre Pierre Naville- University of Evry/France

Why a collective answer?

The creation of the DESS Image and Society at the University of Evry (South of Paris) was the result of a long collective work bringing together different professions (researchers, teachers, film directors, scriptwriters, cameramen and camerawomen, sound engineers, etc.) in various fields: sociology, history, philosophy, ethnology, movie analysis, etc. From that experience was developed a visual sociology, which doesn’t only concern the use of movies or photography in teaching or their critical analysis (which is of course a fundamental part of our training ) but turns toward the making of documentaries based on the combination of the sociological conception of a research and the scriptwriting work.

Group Master Image and Society (University of Evry)

We built this training course together (since 1995 for some of us), starting from a workshop gathering the first members of the group; it was the DESS Image and Society empowered by the Department of Higher Education and Research, which became later the Professional Master 2 Image and Society, according to the reform LMD. Our permanent preoccupation was to make this Master a place of exchanged experiences and extremely different careers in order to build a training integrating the different knowledge necessary to the making of a sociological documentary. The reflections peculiar to each profession which have circulate in those exchanges have enriched and allow us to think differently our own field.

Teachers-researchers and movie professionals : Joyce Sebag, Monique Peyrière, Habib Tengour, Jean-Pierre Durand, Pierre Maillot, Réjane Vallée, Jean Breshand, Nassim Cherikh, Marina Galemberti, Sylvia Calle, Jean-Pierre Lenoir, Christophe Nowak.

PhD students : Alexandra Tilman, Manon Ott, Virginie Villemin, Grégory Cohen, Émilie Balteau, Hanane Idihia-Cabaret


We propose here to question this experience of making scientific documentaries from a confrontation between teachers-researchers, movie professionals and PhD students and from the debates which cross this training. This reflection results from a practice of teamwork: workshops, common lectures and collective defences of final works and films, debates, confrontations between different approaches, etc. To build this presentation, we have discussed some of the questions which cross the training and the constitution of the visual sociology field; and because it seems impossible to summarize those long debates expressing the complexity of each of our professions, we decided to propose something else, an “almost manifesto” made of 14 proposals to found a film sociology.

1. Visual sociology is not a methodology (according to the often implied signification of a technique allowing to gather data). To practice visual sociology can be seen like using audiovisual tools:

  • the camera to capture data and social facts
  • or a film already made to teach.

The sociological documentary is an original approach that integrates image and sound to sociology for an innovative result.

The sociologist builds the singularity of his approach and it is from this singularity that the observation, the analysis and the conceptualisation happen. It is indeed important not to separate the observer’s subjectivation from the conceptualisation work.

2. The sociological documentary associates the sociological approach (construction of the object, problematization, validation through fieldwork) to the work of the film director (scriptwriting, direction, shooting, editing).

3. Sociology grasps the social reality with concepts. Sociologic documentary sees that the cinematographic language doesn’t prevail on the sociological practice and argumentation. The sociologist grasps the real with the verbal language. He can do it with the audiovisual language that carries at least as much significations as the verbal language.

4. Sociological documentary brings to discussion the variety of points of view and totally converges with the current trends of sociology that show the same preoccupation (without falling into relativism)

5. Sociological documentary deconstructs the obvious; it rejoins here the sociological critic of pre-notions. The sociologist film director’s point of view is a constructed, scientific and situated one. One can only wish that a point of view was at last expressed in the documentary. It’s a matter of interpreting social reality. Which is constructed from the variety of the points of view discussed (4) in the sociological documentary. Otherwise the approach slides into the absolute relativism.

6. Sociological documentary can more easily bring to the screen the interactions and inter-subjective links which are at the heart of the objects of the new sociological trends.

7. Sociological documentary intends to do more than to present social appearances. It wants to suggest and/or show the motivations and the mechanisms founding the social phenomena.

8. Sociological documentary distinguishes itself from militant documentary which favours one and only one point of view at the expense of a more complex construction of the different thesis.

9. Visual sociology can be understood as the one which uses the still or animated images already-there to found its demonstrations. We offer to call filmic sociology the sociology that integrates as an ensemble the work processes of the sociologist and of the film director. Filmic sociology combines the scientific and conceptual equipment with the cinema’s language equipment. In this way, filmic sociology captures its images and sounds to show them: these processes are then intrinsic to the sociological approach.

10. The human perception of reality is fragmentized-; The film re-fragmentizes this reality by its technical procedures. During the sound recording, the filming and the editing, the sociologist film director discriminates: he classifies, organizes, and structures these fragments of time and space to reconstruct the sense in the sociological documentary.

11. The sociological documentary tries to emancipate itself from the non reconcilable aspect of the word and the image. The image doesn’t allow conceptualizing, therefore, he appeals metaphor and tries to invent new modalities of re-presentation of the concepts. We overtake the first perception of image and sound, it’s on this image and on this sound that verbalization (meaning the sociological and filmic analyse) takes place.

12. Sociological documentary is attached to the art of cinema. It is the product of extinguishable tensions between the film directors’ artistic preoccupations (narrative, aesthetics…) and the rational and scientific position of the sociologist.

To be a sociologist film director, means to take hold of social reality in its complexity. Cinema thinks. Cinema is sounds and images. Cinema is sounds and images in a dialectic way. Cinema is tomorrows’ writing (Robert Bresson). Cinema does what ever we want him to do. And so, it can do sociology to.

13. Filmic sociology combines this plurality of fields (fields from various occupations and various disciplines) to question a reality that is problematic to hold on to. We never stop questioning and being there, in an anxiety of the way we are going to question it. The sociologist film director brakes with what he is today to try to cross, to bring up, to invent a reality that can be possible in another way, so that can appear something else that what we already know. It’s at that cross, in this situation of questioning, of strangerness facing the world, that may be a common passage, in terms of education, to undo and to brake with needs to be learned, and desire, because you have to want to (with desire) to brake of, to undo and to go somewhere else.

14. Filmic sociology demands a long time in its making aspect: Beyond the traditional approach of the sociologists, the sociological documentary requests the time of the writing, the time of the meeting ( to tame) with the subject and with the characters, the time of the editing, etc. Time is needed to have a true speech.

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