IMAGES Journal for Visual Studies

events: Visual studies today: The power of images


Max Liljefors
Visual Culture Studies and disciplinary identity: some concrete issues

Visual culture studies have never had a clear disciplinary identity in the academic world. Studies of visual culture are conducted at Departments of Art History, of Cultural Studies, of Media Studies and of Sociology, and perhaps at others as well. Departments dedicated exclusively to visual culture studies are rare or non-existent. This lack of a clear disciplinary identity is, in my view, first and foremost its strength and an attractive feature, which can make unexpected cross-disciplinary collaborations possible. I see no need per se to define the "core", or the intrinsic identity, of visual culture studies. However, at the level of concrete courses, programs and research projects, the lack of (or freedom from) disciplinary identity brings about certain issues that must be decided on a per case basis. The examples are: 1) Which disciplinary backgrounds make students eligible to Master’s programs and PhD programs in visual culture studies, at e.g. a Department of Art History? Should students from film studies or from sociology be admitted? 2) For what kind of positions, inside and outside the academic world, are students graduating from visual culture studies programs able to apply? What professional futures do we prepare our students for? 3) In interdisciplinary research collaborations, which scientific and methodological paradigms do researchers of visual culture represent? For instance, do the kinds of subjective interpretations that are often employed by art historians to individual works of art have the same validity as, say, focus group studies commonly used in the social sciences? And can cultural meaning be studied by means of control groups in order to eliminate "placebo effects" (a question recently raised in research collaboration with medical scientists)? These and other questions about the concrete implications of the lack of a clear disciplinary identity of visual culture studies have come up in the context of a two-year Master’s Program in Visual Culture at Lund University, Sweden, and in research collaborations with researchers mainly from ethnology and from the medical sciences.