Reflections at the Intersection of Cinema and Sociology (by Lester Andrist)

The Sociological Cinema turned two this year, and in recognition of this milestone, Anya Galli invited us to write this reflection for the department newsletter. We are occasionally asked where we got the idea for the site, and we have often quipped that like most good ideas, the idea started in a bar, but that answer is a bit misleading. In fact, the site didn’t materialize as a fully formed idea. It has been a work in progress, and two years on, the site is far different in many ways than the one we set out to build.

The one thing we agreed on was that our students lied. That is, we knew our students offered affirmative nods in class when we explained to them that intersectionality theory draws attention to the relationship between multiple dimensions of inequality. They nodded too when we explained that such things as teenagers and race are social constructs. But as many sociology instructors can attest, nods aren’t always reliable indicators of comprehension. We want students to nod when they understand, but the problem is it’s too easy for them to fall into a trance where on some level they come to believe that they’ve understood something simply because they’ve nodded. The task is—and has always been—to penetrate that thin deflector plate that resides somewhere between an external stimulus and the brain, between class content and student cognition. Valerie, Paul, and I simply had the idea that film offers a powerful way of breaking the trance and shattering that brittle brain plate.

Initially, our notion was that The Sociological Cinema would simply be a digital warehouse of short videos and descriptions, and our visitors would primarily be sociology instructors, who were looking for clips to supplement their lectures. We wanted to build a teaching community, so the original blueprints called for one other page where visitors could submit their own videos to be featured on the site. Later, members of a focus group suggested we add a home page, and somewhere along the way, we integrated a traditional-looking blog and a few other pages we thought might be useful for sociology instructors. Finally, in September of 2010 we published the site and obsessively tracked what was at first a very slow trickle of visitors.

It’s a humbling experience to see Google’s impressive suite of analytical tools monitor and quantify the online interactions of a paltry 15 new visitors each day, which was our daily average the first week. But soon enough the trickle of visitors became a steady stream. Average site visits began to climb, and before long, we realized that the site we envisioned wasn’t the site that The Sociological Cinema was becoming.

To be sure, we were reaching the sociology instructors we set out to reach, but the increase of visits to the site and the feedback we began receiving indicated that we were engaging a much broader public. While the site analytics offered no definitive explanation for this growth, we have a theory. We’ve come to believe that the upsurge in popularity of The Sociological Cinema stems in part from a creeping uncertainty people feel in their everyday lives. The recent recession has revealed again that capitalism is no more eternal than so many of the homes built on sand along the New Jersey shore. Similarly, the Arab Spring reminded the world that despite the proliferation of secret prisons and high tech surveillance, revolutions still occur and may even spread. The world has horrifically drifted into another decade where passages like those from C. W. Mills’ “The Promise” seem fresh, despite being written more than fifty years ago: “What they feel they need,” Mills surmised, “is a quality of mind that will help them to use information and to develop reason in order to achieve lucid summations of what is going on in the world and what may be happening within themselves. “

Thus The Sociological Cinema is looking more and more like a water hole for a thirsty public, rather than a narrowly focused teaching website, but it’s not just the sociology that brings people to the site; it is also the cinema. Our site features YouTube-style clips, the majority of which range from thirty seconds to a few minutes. Such clips now constitute a new mass medium, and increasingly, a new language. Looking across the reams of footage that clutter the digital landscape, it’s possible to detect patterns, and to formulate a typology. For instance, one finds that some types feature new styles of computer animation used to enhance familiar narratives, and new techniques of data visualization that allow filmmakers to tell complicated stories quickly. One also finds a host of amateur interviews featuring candid moments and heartfelt reflections from people usually rendered invisible by traditional mass media. The creators of these new video types are increasingly engaging our students and the broader public, and we think the growth of The Sociological Cinema is due in part to the fact that we are engaging these new video types.

As we reflect on the last two years, we think we placed a good bet by positioning our site at the intersection of sociology and cinema, but we are well aware that we are not the sole occupants of this space. In 1932 an entire issue from The Journal of Educational Sociology was devoted to “objectively” understanding how “moving pictures” effect the “knowledge, attitudes, emotions, and conduct of children” (199). To this end, sociologists, psychologists, and educators administered a battery of cutting edge techniques on moviegoers, including an electronic galvanometer to measure emotional experiences. To determine what kinds of movies constituted “bad influences,” researchers asked their audience subjects to rate certain actions, among them “aggressive lovemaking by women” (Charters 1932)*.

The broad conclusion of this work and similar investigations is that films can have a profound impact on what people think, and consequently, how they act. This conclusion has not been lost on advertisers and others with more maniacal ambitions to conquer or control, and it’s worth noting that only three years after the publication of the aforementioned journal issue, the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, was released. Even today, Triumph is widely regarded as one of the most influential propaganda films ever created, and many of its pioneering techniques can still be spotted in contemporary documentaries.

It seems somewhat unlikely that The Journal of Educational Sociology was directly consulted by propaganda filmmakers, but the broader point is that we’ve begun to take stock of the kind of history making that has occurred and continues to occur at this intersection of cinema and sociology. So much energy and so many resources have already been invested in an attempt to learn more about how people are influenced by the media, and so much has been invested in actually attempting to influence people with film; we’ve reevaluated the goals of the site. We’re not strictly a site that promotes teaching and learning; nor are we simply a site that identifies what sorts of videos are effective for teaching various sociological concepts. Since that initial idea in the bar, we are working to become an outlet for public sociology as well, and in the service of offering “lucid summations of what is going on in the world,” it is our hope that The Sociological Cinema can be a destination for helping publics to see past the smoke and mirrors and become more sophisticated consumers of cinema.

Lester Andrist is an advanced graduate student. Co-editors Valerie Chepp and Paul Dean are an advanced graduate student and recent alum, respectively.

Charters, W. W. 1932. The Journal of Educational Sociology: A Magazine of Theory and Practice. “A Technique for Studying a Social Problem,”  Vol. 1, No. 4.
* Thanks to John Pease for passing along this issue of The Journal of Educational Sociology.

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