Photography and Sociology

Pixabay (Tusita Studio)

I like to highlight people’s work that you probably have not heard of elsewhere. For example, see here and here. To celebrate the Chinese New Year and the work of Rachel Tanur (1958-2002), an attorney and artist taken early by cancer, I examine one of her photographs to illustrate sociological concepts.

Since most human behavior is non-verbal, photography is a superb way to study it, and I use visual images to illustrate sociological concepts in teaching. Using the photographic work of Rachel Tanur is a prime example. Consider her photo, “Chinese Prayer.”

“Chinese Prayer” by Rachel Tanur

Key sociological institutions—the family, church (religion), and the state—leap from the still. In this mix of patriarchal relations of power and gender, religion as agent joins the audience. This is one of Tanur’s many projects that adds an illustrative dimension of meaning for sociological discourse.

First, this photograph captures the dynamics of family and gendered behavior. The men positioned, encapsulating the women, portray the historical patriarchal system of Chinese dynastic culture. Even as this is a dubious structure to be overthrown, they stand in a guarded posture of protection. At the same time, the women fulfill a powerful role as spiritual mediators, the function of “warrior priestess” (albeit within domicile constraint).[1] One notices their spiritual practice of prayer as action within the confines of an established cultural system. Curiously, the men are unattached to that same spiritual connection, seemingly as non-participants. Are they pausing to observe the outsider (photographer) at that moment, or does this portray their male constitution toward religious practice in general?

The child is in the center, notably the most protected position, and displays the most enthusiastic response in prayer. Why? Tanur’s art prompts the observer to ask sociological questions. Is it a childlike exuberance, an innocence to participate in the world’s cultural production, or is it a desire to demonstrate compliance toward authority placed over her? The daughter is imitating, to be sure. That she has acquired this behavioral knowledge via modeling indicates the process of socialization—learning and adopting the norms of a given culture—has already transpired. In this demonstrated collective behavior, how is religious ritual performative for each person in this photograph?[2] What demonstrates individual attestation or group compliance? Visual analysis is a key method to explore sociology in a fresh, unbounded way.

An element of visual sociology is a consideration of the recorder herself. Why did Ms. Tanur record what and how she did? What did she leave out of the frame? She left unclear to whom the women were praying. She also tightly framed the family as one unit, yet one wonders why she included non-associated others off to one side. One of them, scarcely noticeable, seems not of Chinese descent, facing away. This female (a Western foreigner?) joins the men in their non-participation of a religious practice which otherwise dominates the scene. With her back turned to the patriarchal way of the past (or present, some say), what does this woman’s posture represent for religion’s future in a globalized world, in which the distance between public squares of vastly different cultures is shrinking? Tanur demonstrates in her extensive travel that globalization—in its best form, cross-pollination—exposes historical roles for questioning. Photography is a method of representation and, as such, lures us to observe, to imagine, to assess, to question. Awareness brings possible change, and in this, Rachel Tanur and sociologists may share the same spirit.

[1] Jenny Hyun Chung Pak, Korean American Women: Stories of Acculturation and Changing Selves, Studies in Asian Americans: Reconceptualizing Culture, History & Politics, ed. Franklin Ng (New York: Routledge, 2006), 31-33, 40. Rosenlee, departing from the dominant view (e.g. Julia Kristeva, About Chinese Women), contests this historical dichotomy in her feminist interpretation of Confucianism. See Li-Hsiang Lisa Rosenlee, Confucianism and Women: A Philosophical Interpretation (New York: State University of New York Press, 2006), 69-70.

[2] Catherine Bell, “Acting Ritually: Evidence from the Social Life of Chinese Rites,” in The Blackwell Companion to Sociology of Religion, ed. Richard K. Fenn (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), 383-84.

Neuroplasticity: The New Year and the New You

new-year-1901690__340If you’re looking to change in the new year, take heart! Brain chemistry is on your side.

I recently interviewed Dr. Caroline Leaf, a Zimbabwe-born, South African-raised neuroscientist. Holding a PhD in communication pathology with a specialization in neurology, she has spent decades serving clients suffering from traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), learning disabilities, and emotional trauma. Many continue to debate the relation of faith and science, yet Dr. Leaf has pioneered research investigating the mind-brain connection and explains how our beliefs can actually change our brain chemistry. Her interest is particularly the science of thought and helping others use their brains properly, recognizing the toxicity of their thoughts. I asked Dr. Leaf a bit more about these ideas.

JM: Would you please share about the relationship you, as a communication pathologist and cognitive neuroscientist, see between spirituality and science?

CL: It is a simple relationship: God made everything, and science is a description of that everything. We see in all scientific research how we as humans are truly “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) and how magnificently God has created this earth, so I see God in everything and science as a way of understanding this. The research in quantum physics, neuroscience, and quantum biology is showing that the effect of the mind on the brain and body is very real. When I do my research, my spirituality and connection with God deepens.

JM: How did you personally come to see faith and science as compatible?

CL: I did not struggle with their compatibility. No conflict exists because God created science. When people do not understand something, they fear it. We will find God in science as much as we will find science in God. My scientific research has been informed by my spiritual walk, so it made perfect sense thirty years ago when I began my undergraduate research to show that how we use our mind would impact and change our lives. Essentially, I was showing scientifically that when we capture our thoughts, we can change them, that we have free will and that when we intentionally direct our attention, we will change our brain. The mind and the brain are separate, and the mind uses the brain as a physical substrate; thus, the brain is dependent on the mind. This is scriptural, which we see in verses like Deuteronomy 30:19, Philippians 4:8, Romans 12:2, and so on.

JM: Please tell us a bit about your work, that is, thirty years of research! What have been your main pursuits and/or findings?

CL: I set out to study the science of thought and memory formation specifically to show that when we direct our attention, we learn and change our behaviors, and, as a result, our brain changes. I worked with different populations such as those with a traumatic brain injury, the learning disabled, cerebral palsy, stroke and heart attack victims, autism, and, of course, toxic thinking, attitude and emotional issues. I also did twenty-five years of work in education, training underprivileged teachers and students in some of the worst areas of South Africa, many of whom were starving, abused, and had suffered numerous indignities at the hands of the then apartheid government. I saw extreme changes in educational results and behavior once people understood how to think and use their mind.

I am currently entering into a series of clinical trials with endocrinologists and neurosurgeons showing the power of the mind in physical healing. My programs and books are based on my research and clinical application over the past thirty years. This research has shown that when we intentionally and deliberately direct our mind, we stimulate neuroplasticity in the brain and improve our functioning between 35-75%.

JM: How does our mind change our brain and body?

CL: As we think, we generate a quantum signal through the physical substrate of the brain influencing genetic expression, which in turn produces amino proteins. Our thinking is literally built into physical protein structures in our brains, and the physical thoughts influence every one of the 75-100 trillion cells of the body.

JM: Can you point us to a few of your publications for those interested in further reading?

CL: For further reading of the main concepts of my work, I suggest Switch on Your Brain; Switch on Your Brain with the 5-Step Learning Process; Who Switched off My Brain?: Toxic Thoughts and Emotions; Who Switched off Your Brain; Think and Eat Yourself Smart. Follow her on Twitter @DrCarolineLeaf

Many thanks to Dr. Caroline Leaf for this interview. May her diligent research encourage you that change is possible this new year.

The Contingency of Identity


Claude Steele, in his book Whistling Vivaldi (2010), brilliantly narrates his 30+ year journey as a social psychologist researching identity and stereotype threat. He explains “identity contingencies” as the situational conditions because of one’s social identity and their effects on, particularly, educational access and academic performance. Here are two excerpts:

Identity contingencies—the things you have to deal with in a situation because you have a given social identity . . . Contingencies are circumstances you have to deal with in order to get what you want or need in a situation. . . . Ours is an individualistic society. We don’t like to think that conditions tied to our social identities have much say in our lives, especially if we don’t want them to. . . . By imposing on us certain conditions of life, our social identities can strongly affect things as important as our performances in the classroom and on standardized tests, our memory capacity, our athletic performance, the pressure we feel to prove ourselves, even the comfort level we have with people of different groups—all things we typically think of as being determined by individual talents, motivations, and preferences. [My purpose] is to bring this poorly understand part of social reality into view. I hope to convince you that ignoring it—allowing our creed of individualism, for example, to push it into the shadows—is costly, to our own personal success and development, to the quality of life in an identity-diverse society and world, and to our ability to fix some of the bad ways identity still influences the distribution of outcomes in society. How do identity contingencies influence us? Some constrain our behavior down on the ground, like restricted access to a public swimming pool. Others, just as powerful, influence us more subtly, not by constraining behavior on the ground but by putting a threat in the air.” p. 3-5

“People, though capable of independent choice, do have a location in society; their lives are located somewhere in its social, economic, and cultural structures and in the networks of relationship that make up society. Being born into a low-income Appalachian family in the hills of eastern Kentucky is to take life on from a different location in society’s opportunity structure than being born into a high-income family in the northern suburbs of Chicago. Different locations afford people different resources, different access to the “social capital” of skills, knowledge, opportunities, and life chances.” p. 196, (emphasis mine)

Thank you, Dr. Steele.



Mindset may not be everything, but it may be almost everything.

Consider Carol Dweck’s decades of research ( This graphic depicts the differing mindsets of growth and fixed. What do you believe?

Growth-v-Fixed Mindset

Self-Talk and Student Success

The work of Carol Dweck and Geoffrey Cohen among others is stunning. They discuss a compilation of research that demonstrates what leads to long-term student success. A must read for all educators.

Racism in Education

Let’s consider the reality of what research suggests and change.

Academic Censorship?

Universities are supposed to be a safe place for open dialogue of divergent views, right? I found Wendy Doniger’s perspective compelling.

Student Success

Student success comes by educators increasing students’ sense of belonging, independence, and accomplishment. Paul Tough offers a fantastic summary of early childhood and neurobiological insights.