BASS Social Anthropology and Philosophy / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Anthropology of Vision, Senses and Memory

Course unit fact file
Unit code SOAN30811
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The course opens by exploring the possibilities and constraints of the human body to understand the foundations of visual perception, sensory experience and memory. This allows us to understand the possibilities and constraints of perception, including how humans perceive the world in ways that are both similar and different to other animals. Vision, senses and memory are not reducible to the mechanics of cognition, perception or biology insofar as they are social, political and historical phenomena that change over time and in relation to different environments. As such, to better understand the diverse ways of being encountered around the world we must consider the relationship between the human eye, brain and body in relation to things such as language, art and the imagination; media, advertising and technology; race, gender and power; everyday life and performance; architecture and cities; war, illness; and death.  

Approaching vision, memory and the senses from an anthropological perspective allows us to understand their vital role in people’s everyday lives. By engaging with different scientific, artistic and practical perspectives, we consider how people’s lived experiences are framed by discourses of power, gender and ethnicity and how these are embedded within different ways of looking, sensing and understanding to offer anthropological understanding of social life.  

The course is designed as a journey. It is a journey that draws on ethnographic examples from around the world including Africa, India, Japan, Melanesia and America that takes us from the art and early cave paintings of early humanity to the abstractions of Picasso and mass reproductions of Warhol; from aesthetics to anaesthetics; from regimes to resistance; from modernity to postmodernity to the contemporary world, from the power of ‘the gaze’ to that of ‘glance’; from the real to the hyper-real and the realms of imagination, hallucination and trance. 


Pre-requisite: Second year students may take the course but must achieve an average of 65%+ in the first year


The course is taught with certain overall aims in mind to:  

1. Convey the content of classic and contemporary understandings about vision, memory and the senses.  

2. Support the development of your own visual, sensory and ethnographic engagement with the world we live in.  

3. 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/political action but is a preliminary to understanding the world we live in and carrying out effective ethnographic research.  

1) Setting the Stage: The (R)evolution of Vision and the Senses.  

2) Art That Made the World: From the Cave to Mechanical Rep.  

3) The Modern Eye: Knowledge, Power and Vision.  

4) Postmodern Images and Transformations of Vision.  

5) Surfaces of the World I: The Skin of the City.  

6) Surfaces of the World II: Body Image and Skin.  

7) The Phenomenological Body: Perception, Memory and Imagination.  

8) Empire of The Senses: Negations of Vision and Hearing.  

9) Images of Death.  

10) Rethinking Visual Anthropology.  

Learning outcomes

1. To understand the semiotics of imagery and how it can be deployed to help tell a story. The power of imagery as a tool of communication.  

2. Learning to develop explicitly constructed or imagined imagery as part of a narrative as an effective tool in developing and communicating ideas and knowledge.  

3. To equip students with additional techniques and sensibilities to employ alongside other modes of anthropological understanding.  

4. To assist them in the realisation of their final dissertations by developing their skills and understanding of the use and application of images and different media.  

5. To develop a critical understanding of the construction of images and other media  

including furnishing practical knowledge of what, how and why images and other media are used.  

6. To develop skills that can be applied outside the realm of anthropology and which could be utilised by any number of organisations, from private companies to community  
organisations to NGOs etc.  

7. To be able to conceive, communicate and realise their ideas through images and other  
media, and to add to their skillset and confidence when working across a range of  


Teaching and learning methods

Lectures/Seminars/Film Screenings

Assessment methods

3000 word essay - worth 70%;

2 x Visual/multi-media exercises (15% each) - worth 30%;

Feedback methods

Students receive personalised, electronic feedback on their essays, and feedback on audiovisual exercises that are presented to the class for discussion.  

Recommended reading

Selected Readers

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

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

Edwards E & Bhaumik, K (eds) 2008. Visual Sense: A Cultural Reader. Oxford and New York: Berg

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

Schneider, A and Wright, C (eds) 2010 Between Art and Anthropology, Oxford: Berg

Jay, M 1994 Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought. Berkeley and London: University of California Press


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

Visual Anthropology:

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

David MacDougall 2005 ‘The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses’.

Princeton: Princeton University Press

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

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 30
Independent study hours
Independent study 170

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Andrew Irving Unit coordinator

Additional notes



Return to course details