This essay analyzes how “sociological films,” an early iteration of social problem films during the 1910s, participated in a wider historical formation of social reform, one that was heavily influenced by women. It investigates the category of sociological film as it was discussed in Moving Picture World; the connection between practical Progressive Era reform initiatives and the emerging field of sociology, especially through the figure of Jane Addams and the social settlement movement; and reform publicity methods, which included sociological moving pictures along with photographs, living displays, and interactive exhibits on child labor and civic welfare. Reform exhibits were frequently organized through women's volunteer organizations and relied on women's voluntary labor. Female participant observer sociologists talked about the importance of social imagination. Addams's sympathetic understanding was implicated in a gendered construction of knowledge of the social. The essay develops the notion of a “secular spectator” as a way of characterizing an address in sociological films both to a social subject who was part of a social formation of reform, and to a civic subject who was enjoined to do something about social problems based on knowledge of social facts and social sympathy.
Sociological Film, Reform Publicity, and the Secular Spectator: Social Problems in the Transitional Era
Constance Balides is an associate professor of communication and director of the Film Studies program at Tulane University. She previously published on Shoes (1916) in “Making Ends Meet: ‘Welfare Films’ and the Politics of Consumption during the Progressive Era,” in A Feminist Reader in Early Cinema (Duke University Press, 2002). Her essay “Intertext as Archive: Méliès, Hugo, and New Silent Cinema” appeared in New Silent Cinema (Routledge, 2016). Her article in this issue of Feminist Media Histories is part of a larger book project on women, archives, and silent cinema. In 2014 Balides received Tulane's Suzanne and Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellowship teaching award; in 2013 she received the Pedagogy Award from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies.
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Constance Balides; Sociological Film, Reform Publicity, and the Secular Spectator: Social Problems in the Transitional Era. Feminist Media Histories 1 October 2017; 3 (4): 10–45. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/fmh.2017.3.4.10
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