Documentaries in Sociology

When I started my master’s degree at American University, I told several of my professors that I had worked on a documentary exploring the institution of marriage. The response to this information was nearly always the same: professors would say “You know, I’ve always thought my research would make a great documentary, but I just have no idea where to begin.” When I entered the public sociology Ph.D. program at George Mason University, it was essentially same reaction, different faculty. As I progressed in my public sociology coursework, I found that almost all of my reading assignments were from peer-reviewed academic books and journal articles; and that my progress throughout the program had been assessed almost exclusively on my ability to write academic papers. I am not suggesting that reading books and writing papers should be cast aside—my undergrad degree was in English education, after all! As public sociologists, though, our mission is not only to conduct rigorous research, but to communicate it as clearly and as broadly as possible. I see documentaries as having the potential to reach far more people than our formulaically-written, jargon-heavy, peer-reviewed publications in academic journals.

In my experience, citing claims made in a documentary in an academic paper is generally frowned upon, which suggests that documentaries are not acceptable sources of knowledge. But one of the things I love about qualitative research is that it validates personal lived experiences as evidence. If we’re willing to take ethnographies, oral histories, in-depth interviews, and Photovoice projects as “reliable” and “valid” methods in sociology (these are all given credence in Carr et al’s 2018 methods bible The Art and Science of Social Research), I have difficulty understanding why documentaries are not considered “reliable” or “valid” sources of knowledge as well; and even greater difficulty understanding why basic filmmaking and editing are not included as part of our methods. If I take the transcript of an audio-recorded in-depth interview with a subject, their quoted words can be used in my written, publishable research. Wouldn’t recording an interview while the subject sits in front of a camera improve the credibility of their story? Or, why does a published article or book from an academic scholar “count” as a reliable source of information, but that same scholar speaking as an expert in a documentary film doesn’t?

Documentaries are an exemplary mechanism for sociologists to use to communicate with the public, because successful documentaries attempt to achieve interaction between their audience and the problems screened. There are dozens of recent documentaries that are useful in helping the public understand certain complex societal problems: Ava Duvernay’s Thirteenth provides an excellent exploration of race and mass incarceration; Jeff Orlowski’s Social Dilemma navigates the intersection of social media and mental health; Jennifer Siebel Newsom scrutinizes media messages of toxic masculinity in The Mask You Live In. These films incorporate statistics (quantitative methods!) along with pictures and interviews (qualitative methods!) to drive home a point that ultimately hits audiences harder than STATA graphs and R charts alone.

Sociology departments should consider incorporating courses on how documentaries can be used to explain various societal structures and how sociologists can use documentaries as a form of public sociology, using our legitimate qualitative and quantitative methods. If such courses aren’t available, sociology students should seek out classes that prepare them with professional tools to communicate their research effectively—by this I mean media courses that introduce them to software like Audible (for podcasting) or iMovie and FinalCut (for video editing). These are marketable skills that will help emerging scholars broaden their skillsets and improve their reach.

Documentaries reach substantially more of the public than do our academic journal articles, and some of the best documentaries help non-experts learn about issues sociologists care about. Further, the role of documentaries in social mobilization is well documented. The anthropologist Ronald Niezen (2020) argues that visual and emotional media technologies can compel audiences toward action. The social movement scholar Alice Mattoni describes media practice and media ecology approaches as “the nexus between social movement and media technologies” (2017:495). American University’s own Caty Borum Chattoo (2020) has an entire research center dedicated to studying the impact of documentary film projects on social movements—this is a part of the School of Communication, and not, at least at this time, in partnership with the sociology department in the College of Arts & Sciences.

Of An Inconvenient Truth, the late film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “In 39 years, I have never written these words in a movie review, but here they are: You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to” (2006b). He called the film “horrifying, enthralling and [having] the potential, I believe, to actually change public policy and begin a process which could save the Earth,” (emphasis mine) (2006a). The accessibility of documentaries in terms of their understandability and their availability to various publics encourages matters of consequence to become public ideas.

According to Pew Research Center (2012; Gelles-Watnik and Perrin 2021) surveys, roughly 1 in 4 Americans read zero books in the year 2021, a proportion that has been largely unchanged since 2012. If sociologists want their ideas to engage with publics, the written word seems to have a limited reach.

In future issues I intend to use this space to discuss the importance of documentaries as a form of public sociology, and to explore this academic and intellectual tension. Like a book club, in future articles I will highlight various documentary projects to discuss their social impact, underscore their validity as sociological research, and demonstrate their utility as teaching tools in our classrooms.


Anon. 2012. “E-Book Reading Jumps; Print Book Reading Declines.” Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 3, 2023 (

Borum Chattoo, Caty. 2020. Story Movements: How Documentaries Empower Social Movements and Inspire Social Change. New York, NY. Oxford University Press.

Carr, Deborah, et al. 2018. The Art and Science of Social Research (2nd Ed). New York: W.W. Norton.

Ebert, Roger. 2006a. “Al Gore plays leading man.” RogerEbert.Com. Retrieved November 2, 2023 (

Ebert, Roger. 2006b. “Disaster movie.” RogerEbert.Com. Retrieved November 2, 2023 (

Gelles-Watnick, Risa, and Andrew Perrin. 2021. “Who Doesn’t Read Books in America?” Pew Research Center. Retrieved November 3, 2023 (

Mattoni, Alice. 2017. “A Situated Understanding of Digital Technologies in Social Movements. Media Ecology and Media Practice Approaches.” Social Movement Studies; Vol 16, No 4, 494-505.

Niezen, Ronald. 2020. #Human Rights: The Technologies and Politics of Justice Claims in Practice. Stanford University Press.

By Courtney Bell

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