Community narrative in visual anthropology

Source:Chinese Social Sciences Today 2023-09-25

On September 16th, the photography base of the Photojournalist Society of China opened in Sanjiang Dong Autonomous County, Guangxi. Photo: Ren Haixia/CNSphoto

Community narratives are intricately intertwined with the evolving times and the everyday lives of individuals. Constructing a community narrative from the perspective of visual anthropology contributes to further exploring and promoting the concepts, humanistic spirit, and moral norms of fine traditional Chinese culture.

Key symbols

Community narratives in the field of visual anthropology should emphasize the observation of changes in daily lives and traditions, restoring the “everyday nature” while rejecting the “spectacularity” of traditional narrative construction. In other words, visual anthropology contributes to the construction of community narratives by emphasizing a return to the narrative process of daily life.

The perception of community among individuals is often vague, primarily influenced by mass media, while their sense of fulfillment, happiness, and security stems from daily life. The construction of the community is closely related to various aspects of people’s daily lives, including their living spaces, social interactions, community relationships, conceptual systems, value systems, among others. It is only when individuals experience a sense of security in their living spaces and find happiness in their material and intellectual pursuits that they can genuinely connect with the community.

Community narratives in the field of visual anthropology need to concentrate on the diversity of local subjects and relationships, which is of irreplaceable value for their construction and description of the interaction, exchange, and integration among groups. As relationship construction involves the exchange of knowledge and culture, discussions about diverse relationships necessarily involve communication. Visual anthropology focuses on the subjectivity in self-expression by research objects.

The construction of community narratives in the discipline of visual anthropology necessitates making the most of the valuable resources contained in fine traditional culture to summarize cultural images and key symbols. This is the key to understanding local knowledge systems. Identifying cultural symbols of crucial cultural significance, and grasping human-time and human-space relationships through investigation constitutes an indispensable narrative technique at the audio-visual level in the discipline.


In practice, humans, not machines, act as the medium of visual anthropology. “Medium” in this context goes beyond the scope of communication studies, as it also exists in other social science disciplines. “Community narrative” thus enjoys relatively broader academic horizons. In this regard, community narratives in the field of visual anthropology are characterized by embodiment, and involve the concepts of experience and lifeworld. In terms of methodology, multidisciplinary, multidimensional, and multimethod approaches are adopted.

The practice of community narrative in visual anthropology requires cultural interpretation and cross-cultural translation capabilities of researchers and practitioners. When describing relational issues, it is crucial to examine the formation processes of relationships, the background knowledge involved, and the narratives underpinned by internal cultural logic. For instance, in certain regions, trade rules that are passed down orally are underpinned by an underlying logic of survival, such as employment relationships and benefit-oriented communication. Common needs and a common market drive the local population to embed all aspects of their lives within a shared community. The community narrative emerges as a natural result of a sense of security and the attainment of benefits.

The description of intraregional relationships should stress key symbols of commonality and the discovery of shared values, either through the examination of common markets, cultural spheres, or through common value chains and shared beliefs. The formation of a community hinges upon the shared understanding among its members, rooted in a common underlying logic that revolves around mutual survival needs and reciprocal relationships. These key symbols, resources, and entities are not monopolized by any individual. Instead, they serve as fundamental intellectual, material, and cultural support upon which the survival of the group depends.

The disciplinary approach to constructing community narratives in visual anthropology involves long-term participant observation, gaining a deep understanding and firsthand experience of local knowledge, as well as rational analysis, explication and comparison. Without these elements, researchers may struggle to produce clear and precise cultural interpretation after entering the field.

Visual representation allows for in-depth descriptions of key elements, revealing the cultural logic and social order behind various phenomena. Essentially, describing cultural logic entails answering the question of “why a community can be formed” or “how a community exists” in a clear and well-founded manner.


Lu Fangfang is a researcher from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology at CASS.

Editor:Yu Hui

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