Computer Science (Human Computer Interaction) (3 Years) [BSc]

Anthropology of Vision, Senses and Memory

Unit code: SOAN30811
Credit Rating: 20
Unit level: Level 3
Teaching period(s): Semester 1
Offered by Anthropology
Available as a free choice unit?: Y




The course is taught with certain overall aims in mind: (1) to convey the content of classic and contemporary understandings about vision and visual culture; (2) to support the development of your own visual, sensory and ethnographic engagement with the world we live in; and (3) to create a space to form new theoretical connections between different disciplinary perspectives on vision and the senses. A better understanding of the place and power of vision within contemporary societies not only constitutes a type of social choice/action but is a preliminary to understanding the world we live in and carrying out effective ethnographic research.


The course begins by exploring the development of the human eye through cognitive science, evolution and pre-history so as to ascertain the biological possibilities and constraints that shape vision and visual culture. However vision cannot simply be reduced to the mechanics of perception, biological process and the human organism's phylogenetic capacity for seeing, for it is simultaneously a social, political and cultural phenomenon which is continually undergoing transformations throughout history and in relation to different social and cultural environments. Accordingly if we are to better understand the diverse ways of seeing encountered around the world then we must consider the relationship between the eye, brain and body in relation to language, the imagination, culture and power; consider how different visual practices are embodied, naturalised and articulated within different times and places; and how acts of looking not only shape the relations between persons but structure the way they encounter and understand the world.

The course explores how vision has been understood within history and philosophy and then attempt to place this into ethnographic and anthropological context and by considering the role of vision in everyday social life and practices. By considering how relations between persons are framed by power, culture and gender and played out through the glance, the gaze and other ways of looking, one goes beyond the mechanics of perception to form a better understanding of visual processes. It is a journey that takes us from the art and early cave paintings of early humanity and the Sahara to the abstractions of Picasso and mass reproductions of Warhol; from aesthetics to anaesthetics; from regimes to resistance; from the power of 'the gaze' of modernity to the postmodern glance of the contemporary world.

This allows us to look at vision from both a theoretical and embodied practical perspective, that is to say through the lens of art history, philosophy and anthropological theory and in terms of how visual practices are inscribed into people's lived everyday experiences; a journey that draws upon ethnographic examples from around the world including Africa, India, Japan, Melanesia and America.

Week 1: Setting the Stage: Evolution and History of Seeing

Week 2: The Modern Eye: Knowledge, of Vision

Week 4: Crossing Boundaries: Para-aesthetics and Culture

Week 5: The Phenomenology of Landscape and The Urban Eye

Week 6: Surfaces of the World: Body Image and Skin

Week 7: Empire of The Senses: Negations of Vision

Week 8: Perception, Memory and Imagination

Week 9: Images of Death

Week 10: Rethinking Visual Anthropology?

Teaching and learning methods

Lectures/Seminars/Film Screenings

Assessment Further Information

100% - 5000 word essay

Recommended reading

Selected Readers

The following readers offer an excellent overview of readings concerning the anthropology of vision, art, media aesthetics and the senses. They are good value and might also be worth buying for other courses and for general interest.

Askew, K & Wilk, R. (eds) 2002. The Anthropology of Media: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Howes, D. (ed) 2004 Empire of the Senses Oxford and New York: Berg.

Mirzoeff, N. (ed) 2002. Visual Culture Reader. London: Routledge.

Morphy, H and Perkins, M. (eds) 2006 The Anthropology of Art: A Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Taylor, L. (ed) 1994 Visualizing Theory: Selected Essays from Visual Anthropology Review New York:Routledge.

Those without a background in Visual Anthropology and the Anthropology of Art may find the following texts useful for understanding the history of the discipline:

Visual Anthropology:

Banks, M. 2001 Visual Methods in Social Research. London: Sage. Press.

Grimshaw, A. 1999. The Ethnographer's Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology. Cambridge University Press.

Pink, S. 2001 Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research. London:Sage.

Pink, S. Kurti, L and Afonso, A (eds) 2004 . Working Images: Visual Research and Representation in Ethnography. London: Routledge.

Art and Aesthetics:

Berger, J. 1973 Ways of Seeing. London: BBC Books.

Coote J and Shelton, A. (eds) 1994. Anthropology, Art and Aesthetics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Layton, R. 1991 The Anthropology of Art. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weiner, J. (ed) 1995 Too Many Meanings: A critique of the Anthropology of Aesthetics. Special Issue of Social Analysis. 38

Feedback methods

Students receive personalised, electronic feedback on their essays.

Study hours

  • Lectures - 30 hours
  • Independent study hours - 170 hours

Teaching staff

Andrew Irving - Unit coordinator

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