Envisioning Theory: An Anthropological Teaching Experiment, Part One

Photo by fancycrave.

The idea for a learning and teaching experiment in envisioning theory came to me when I began to select texts for a theory seminar on the anthropology of the body, kinship and gender. My colleagues and I usually teach reading courses in a traditional fashion. Students read selected texts and then use the instructor’s questions as vehicles to carve out theory, that is, arguments, positions, and traditions, from them. But given what my own reading had taught me about the primacy of the body in the production of knowledge, I wondered how embracing bodiliness might affect my pedagogy. How, after all, could I initiate students to the anthropology of the body without incorporating its basic premises into modes of teaching and learning? While accepting that textual representations are the fundamental mode through which anthropologists communicate, I asked myself how bodily learning might deepen textual understanding.

“Envisioning Theory” thus emerged as a pedagogical experiment that hoped to convey some of the excitement of experiential learning into the genre of the theory seminar. It is an attempt to take away some of the heaviness and silencing authority of academic texts with which undergraduate students often struggle, rendering those texts more accessible and expanding the (emotional, artistic, communicative) space of possible response. Instead of asking “How does this author think? How does she argue?”, this experiment urged students to consider: “What does reading this text provoke in me? What do I imagine and feel?”

My aim in this post and another to follow is to reflect on the experience of letting students “show” theory in a way that proactively involves their bodies and senses of creativity. In this first installment, I share the rationales behind “Envisioning Theory” and provide glimpses of how my co-teacher Friederike Eichner and I realized these ideas in class. The second post will document how students responded and report on some of the challenges we faced in facilitating and framing creative contributions.

Visualizing Text: What does this look like?

At its root, “Envisioning Theory” is organized around the notion of theorizing as gazing. Etymologically, the Greek word theōrein means “sight” or “to gaze upon.” A visually sensitive reading of anthropological texts reveals the visual relations that authors propose in order to make their arguments understandable.

Visualization in the learning experiment described here differs from recent attempts to visualize evidence in the social sciences, for example by visualizing statistics for interpretation or novel methods of analyzing big data by searching for key terms and drawing visual connections. It also diverges from anthropological methods that employ visual elicitation as a tool for generating new knowledge in the encounter between anthropologists and subjects in the field (e.g., Bignante 2010).

The approach taken here comes closest to methods used in primary and secondary schools that use visualization as a tool of understanding, by drawing pictures while reading a text (e.g., De Koning and van der Schoot 2013). In these projects, students read a paragraph, look out for key descriptive words that stand out to them, and begin to form mental images. The same can be applied to the text as a whole: What does it look like? Does it imply a web, a contrast, a line, a ball of wool, a thunderstorm, a bite, or darkness?

In translating similar methods to the undergraduate classroom, we asked students to reduce the text and to embrace simplicity. Yet we had to keep in mind the dangers of such visual minimalism. Anthropologists tend to struggle against representational realism and to debunk visualizations that convey a sense of rationality and scientific rigor, or what Michael Lynch (1991) calls “rhetorical mathematics.” The debate surrounding genealogical charts, for instance, suggests that anthropology has a history of producing highly idealized and technical depictions of social reality. So why reintroduce something that has failed to capture the lived, contingent, and processual dimensions of human culture?

Despite these dangers, I think we should not rule out the existence of novel and nuanced forms of visualization. “Envisioning Theory” diverges from the authoritative stance of schematic drawings picturing idealized and static social relations of kinship, hierarchy, and the like. Students instead employ visuals in passing, as provisional heuristics that aid collective understanding. These function as interpretive and metaphorical devices revealing ideas (rather than ideal relations) conveyed by text. Like artwork, these visualizations are interpretable and contestable, rather than gesturing toward clear-cut, manifest facts or figures. Our goal, in other words, was to use visuals in the classroom to help students achieve a rudimentary understanding of claims that may then be expanded, illustrated, or critiqued.

Enlivening Theory in the Classroom

In order to give students a taste of how visualizations can offer scholarly angles on particular phenomena, we presented examples of theory-led museum exhibitions like “Rich Pickings,” which was staged at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg in 2015. The exhibit translated sociological theories of class-making into a selection of quite plain visuals illustrating the self-presentation of the very rich. A photograph by Juergen Teller, for instance, showed an old man holding the earring of a woman decades younger than him, as if reconfirming that both (the woman and the jewelry) are his property. Such pictures provide an immediate, if basic grasp, of Pierre Bourdieu’s (1984) conceptualization of class as operating through our bodily modes of being: our tastes, gestures, and positions, as well as the stuff and people we assemble around us.

As another preparation exercise, we opened one session with an on-the-spot visual translation of the first paragraph in Tim Ingold’s (1990) paradigmatic essay “An Anthropologist Looks at Biology.” As an introductory activity that set the stage for what was to come, the exercise called on students to work with materials such as putty, aluminum foil, postcards, clips, and the like to create visual representations of Ingold’s arguments. Ingold uses terms such as domain, opposition, and confrontation in reference to anthropology and biology, which he contrasts with parallels, synthesis, and a unified theory between the two subjects. Recurring motifs in students’ responses were DNA strands and hanging mobiles, each in their way illustrating the text’s central claims around interweaving and balancing.

Photo documentation of students’ visual responses to Tim Ingold’s “An Anthropologist Looks at Biology." Photos by Stefanie Mauksch.

In later sessions, teams of three students shared visualization projects on which their peers were expected to comment. The rest of the class time was reserved for text-based discussion and a small practical exercise. In doing so, we aimed to create three takeaways for students:

  1. a singular idea connected with a scholar or scholarly tradition, which students could then deepen and commit to memory through visualization,
  2. various complications and extensions of this idea, achieved through discussion on the basis of visualizations, and
  3. a practical exercise in which students reiterate and/or apply key ideas to another example or context.

In this post, I have suggested that producing visuals may make theory courses more accessible and engaging to students. The connection between reading theory and expressing it in bodily registers and creative formats other than cognition and rhetoric proved to be quite productive in our case. We were happy to learn from our course evaluations that students not only thought that the class was “fun,” but also remarked that visualizations helped them to remember key ideas, to reduce confusion, and to focus on the central message of a text.


Bignante, Elisa. 2010. “The Use of Photo-Elicitation in Field Research: Exploring Maasai Representations and Use of Natural Resources."

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

De Koning, Björn B., and Menno van der Schoot. 2013. “Becoming Part of the Story! Refueling the Interest in Visualization Strategies for Reading Comprehension.”Educational Psychology Review 25, no. 2: 261–87.

Ingold, Tim. 1990. “An Anthropologist Looks at Biology.” Man N.S. 25, no. 2: 208–229.

Lynch, Michael. 1991. “Pictures of Nothing? Visual Construals in Social Theory.”Sociological Theory 9, no. 1: 1–21.