Anthropometric Photography & Questionnaires


Anthropometric Photography, Questionnaires and the Victorian Age

I am often asked by some of my colleagues whether there is any value to the techniques utilized by nineteenth-century anthropologists.  This is a question that anthropologists have been asking since the beginning of the twentieth century when the discipline was adapting to the transformations occurring within academia. Anthropology — like many research fields — was trying to secure its place within universities. One of its disciplinary strategies for achieving this goal was to distance itself from the practices of Victorian anthropologists. Emphasis was placed on fieldwork as the surest form of empirical observation and the methodologies of nineteenth-century anthropologists were derided for being based on armchair cogitations, detached from the activities conducted in the field. Disdain for nineteenth-century anthropology continued to grow throughout the last century. During the 1960s and 1970s the discipline entered into a period of heightened reflexivity, where anthropologists further scrutinized the activities of their predecessors. Nineteenth-century practitioners were branded as handmaidens of the empire and their research was positioned as being de-humanizing and objectifying towards the people it studied. Clearly this is a glossed over account of two important periods in the history of anthropology, and the details of these disciplinary transformations are far more complex. Nevertheless, since the beginning of the twentieth century there has been a deep-seeded aversion towards the practices of Victorian anthropologists. It is an aversion that has often led to a limited understanding of the discipline’s past.

There is much to be gained by looking at the techniques utilized by nineteenth-century researchers. This is a topic I discuss at length in my forthcoming monograph The Making of British Anthropology (Efram Sera-Shriar, The Making of British Anthropology, 1813-1871. London: Pickering and Chatto, Forthcoming). With these considerations in mind, I thought that it would be illuminating to attempt to recreate a Victorian research practice for acquiring anthropological data and see what kind of results it produces. There were many different kinds of methods to choose from but I decided that it would be interesting to write a kind of guidebook that seeks to collect descriptive information about different people (including photographs) from around the world. Now many of you will be thinking that such an experiment will generate all sorts of problems. After all, Victorian anthropologists were not known for their cultural sensitivity. To avoid exploiting or subjugating anyone, it is necessary to modernize certain aspects of this experiment. These changes are instructive because they bring to the fore some of the problems associated with Victorian anthropology. At the same time, however, by trying to utilize nineteenth-century research practices we can learn a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of these older methodologies. In a sense, this recreation is a kind of exercise in participant observation, allowing us to better understand — with limitations — the analytical processes of Victorian anthropologists.

There are three main differences between my guidebook and those of Victorian anthropologists. First off, anyone who contributes information to this study should be a volunteer and not be forced to participate. Preferably they should be providing information about themselves and not a subject. This is a fairly big difference to the Victorian versions that in many instances forced people to participate against their will. Secondly, all photographs should include fully-clothed people. Under no circumstances should anyone send naked pictures. Again this is a significant difference to the Victorian guidebooks that often prioritize images containing naked subjects because it afforded researchers an opportunity to examine anatomical features. Thirdly, instead of attempting to classify people into clearly defined racial groupings that create stereotypical examples of a people — as was the case with Victorian anthropology — I want to organize my subjects into groupings based on nationality and emphasize the diversity of the group members. In doing so, I will shift away from biologically determined arguments about human variation and discuss cultural differences instead. The physical attributes that are included in this study are mainly superficial qualities that survived from the original Victorian classification systems. This will help shed some light on the strengths and weaknesses of nineteenth-century research practices. Once participants follow the guidelines and collect their materials they can send the information and photographs to the following email address ( I will cross-compare the data that I receive and in a few months I will write a report based on my findings.

In keeping with the Victorian theme, I have decided to call my instructions “A Guidebook for Participants”, which I styled after Thomas Hodgkin and Richard Cull’s text from 1854 entitled, “A Manual of Ethnological Inquiry” (T. Hodgkin and R. Cull, “A Manual of Ethnological Inquiry”, Journal of the Ethnological Society of London, 3 (1854), pp. 193-208), and the Anthropological Institute’s first questionnaire from 1873 entitled, “Question’s for Explorers” (J.B. Davis et al., “Questions for Explorers (With Special Reference to Arctic Exploration)”, Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 2 (1873), pp. 296-306). Following the basic format of these nineteenth-century texts, my guidebook includes a series of questions as well as instructions on how to photograph faces for cross-comparative analysis.


A Guidebook for Participants

Instructions for answering the questions

Please answer the following questions in their order and include as much relevant detail as possible. The participants should be volunteers and freely willing to provide the information contained in the responses. Once the responses are submitted to the email address ( they will be used for cross-comparative analysis.

  1. Name:  What is the first name of the participant? To ensure some degree of anonymity do not provide any surnames. If the first name comprises of two names please include both (i.e. John Paul). If the name has an accent please include it (i.e. René). Please provide information about the name’s linguistic origin  (i.e. Lars “Swedish”).  Does the name hold any meaning? If so provide a brief explanation (i.e. Emma is a name derived from the German word ermen meaning whole or universal). If the participant does not want to provide their real first name it is acceptable to use an alias. However, please indicate in the response that the name is a pseudonym by writing “alias” next to the name (i.e. Peter “alias”). Does the alias hold any meaning? If so, provide a brief explanation (i.e. Horatio was the name of my beloved childhood teddy bear).
  2. Age:  What is the age of the participant? Please record this information in years (i.e. 25 years old). It is not necessary to include the participant’s full birthday (i.e. 15 June 1987).
  3. Height:  Using a tape measurer please provide the height measurements of the participant. Please record the results in either centimetres or inches.
  4. Weight:  Using a scale please weigh the participant. Make sure to check whether the scale is at zero before the participant stands on it. In an effort to standardize the results as much as possible, participants should wear jeans and a t-shirt while determining their weight. Please record the results in either kilograms or pounds.
  5. Eyes:  Describe the eye color of the participant. It is important to include information about the color tone of the eye (i.e. dark brown). If the eye exhibits multiple colors record all of them in the description (i.e. blue/green). If the participant is using colored contact lenses please include this information (i.e. Sophia is wearing blue tinted contact lenses but her natural eye color is hazel).
  6. Hair:  What color is the participant’s hair? It is important to include information about the hair tone (i.e. red-orange hue). What kind of texture does the hair exhibit? Please be as descriptive as possible in describing the texture (i.e. the hair is soft and frizzy with a full body on the top of the head but drops down at the bottom). Does the hair exhibit any discoloration? This should include information about aging (i.e. the hair is greying). If the participant is suffering from hair loss this information should be recorded. If the participant has altered the color of their hair please include this information (i.e. the participant has dyed their hair pink, but their natural color is flaxen).
  7. Nationality:  What is the nationality of the participant? If the participant has multiple nationalities this information should be included in the response (i.e. the participant is a Canadian citizen but was born in the Netherlands). How does the participant self-describe their nationality? If they choose to identify themselves as having multiple nationalities please include this information (i.e. Dutch-Canadian).
  8. Languages:  What languages does the participant speak? Please identify their level of competency in these languages (i.e. Spanish “fluent”, Portuguese “oral only”). What is their preferred language of verbal and written communication?
  9. Occupation:  What is the participant’s occupation? Be as specific as possible (i.e. “neurosurgeon” instead of “surgeon”). If the participant has multiple jobs please list them all (i.e. tax lawyer and lecturer in law department). When relevant, the participant can list their occupation as retired or as student. Does the participant work full time or part time?
  10. Relationship status:  What is the participant’s relationship status? Please select one of the following options: “single”, “open relationship”, “short-term relationship”, “long-term relationship”, “common law”, “civil partnership”, “married”, or “divorced”.

Instructions for photographing faces

Please follow the guidelines as closely as possible. By standardizing the method by which the photographs are taken it will allow for better cross-comparative analysis. The photographs that accompany the responses to the questions above should be of the participant. It is important that all photographs are taken using a digital camera. There is no set requirement for an image’s resolution, although images that have a minimum of 600 dpi are preferred. All photographs should be taken in a bright room using a flash. Please make sure that the photographs are taken in color. Participants should stand against a white background. The photographer should stand two meters from the participant. Please provide two headshots of the participant’s face from the shoulders up. All participants should be fully clothed. Please ensure that the participant’s mouth is fully closed and their eyes are open. If the participant has long hair it should be tied back in a ponytail. The first headshot should be a front facing portrait with a relaxed neutral expression. The second headshot should be a side profile portrait of the participant facing right with a relaxed neutral expression.

Please send the photographs along with detailed responses to the ten questions to the following email address: Results from this study will be published later in the year. Please check back!

Efram Sera-Shriar F.R.A.I.
Science and Technology Studies Programme
York University in Toronto, Canada


Image: Photograph and Bertillon record of Francis Galton (age 73) created upon Galton’s visit to Bertillon’s laboratory in 1893. Scanned from Karl Pearson’s The Life, Letters, and Labors of Francis Galton, vol. 2, ch. 13, plate LII (between 382 and 383). Wikimedia Commons.

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