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What is Sensory Ethnography?

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1 What is Sensory Ethnography?
Sarah Pink Loughborough University

2 What is Sensory Ethnography?
A re-thinking of ethnographic methods with attention to sensory perception, experience and categories (not simply ethnographic research about the senses) This lecture gives an overview of how this field is emerging and the types of research methods it employs

3 An introductory story (to be told at the presentation) ‘the five senses do not travel along separate channels, but interact to a degree few scientists would have believed only a decade ago’ (Richard E. Cytowic (professor of neurology) 2010: 46) See link to review at

4 What is ethnography and why do we need a sensory ethnography?
A useful minimum definition by Karen O’Reilly as: ‘iterative-inductive research (that evolves in design through the study), drawing on a family of methods, involving direct and sustained contact with human agents, within the context of their daily lives (and cultures), watching what happens, listening to what is said, asking questions, and producing a richly written account that respects the irreducibility of human experience, that acknowledges the role of theory as well as the researcher’s own role and that views humans as part object/part subject’ (O’Reilly 2005: 3). Sensory ethnography goes beyond this in a number of ways: It is informed by an understanding of the interconnected senses It incorporates ‘innovative methods’ to go beyond listening and watching, using multiple media It goes beyond the use of writing in ethnographic representation, looking towards arts practice

5 Sensory Ethnography in context from the 1990s to 2010
Several layers of re-thinkings of ethnography as: reflexive … gendered … embodied … visual … digital …sensory … (the sensory ethnographer is all these things) New ways of understanding the products of ethnographic methods – from collecting data …. to producing knowledge ... to knowing in practice A move ‘beyond text’ to the tacit, unspoken, non-verbal … from writing, to documentary film and photography to new engagements with arts practice Shifting agendas from academic research, to applied ethnography, to public ethnography, requiring new ways of engaging (with) research participants and audiences

6 Why re-think ethnography as sensory?
Theoretical impulse: the sensory turn across disciplines has produced understandings of experience, practice and knowledge as multisensory – involving all the senses, and understanding the senses as interconnected - rendering the conventional focus on observing, listening and writing/reading insufficient Methodological demand: new innovative methods being developed and a need to understand the sorts of knowledge they produce through a paradigm that recognises the sensory experiences they involve Public/applied/knowledge transfer: a context where in order to engage non-academics and wider publics with the findings of ethnographic research requires going beyond conventional written articles and reports, turning instead to participatory arts and other types of encounter

7 Principles for a sensory ethnography
The idea of a sensory ethnography responds to three contemporary theoretical challenges that disrupt the idea of ethnography being about watching and listening Emplacement – mind-body-environment (see Howes 2005) The interconnected senses, sensory perception and sensory categories (see Ingold 2000) Knowing in practice and knowing that we can’t necessarily express in words (see e.g.. Wenger 1998, Harris 2007)

8 Practicing sensory ethnography
Rethinking participant observation: From participant observation to multisensory participation Innovative methods in sensory ethnography – walking with, eating with, sensing with Rethinking the interview: The interview as a multisensory ‘event’ The interview as a way of probing sensory categories

9 From participant observation to multisensory participation
Understanding participation as producing multisensorial and emplaced ways of knowing Whereby visual observation is not necessarily privileged … … and reflexivity is a pre-condition This constitutes an important shift from conventional approaches to ethnography which have tended to understand that ‘the visual is the most important mode of understanding’ (Atkinson et al 2007: 180). Instead it builds on phenomenological arguments that experience is multisensorial and neither dominated by nor reducible to the visual In some ways multisensory participation is not so different from the basic definition of ethnography developed by O’Reilly. But it involves new forms of understanding and engagement with participants.

10 Three key elements of multisensory participation
The serendipitous sensory learning of being there (e.g. in long term ethnographic research, in research that involves intensive participation in everyday or work activities, or festive events) The ethnographer as sensory apprentice (e.g. in learning sporting, dance or other skilled practices) Joining others in embodied activities (e.g. walking and eating)

11 The serendipitous sensory learning of being there

12 The ethnographer as sensory apprentice
One of the most discussed methods in the sensory ethnography literature It is through actually engaging in the activities and environments we wish to learn about that we come to know them. On the basis of such participation the ethnographer then has to unravel the academic implications of such learning and of the ways of knowing she or he has experienced. Learning through apprenticeship requires an emplaced engagement with the practices and identities that one seeks to understand. This involves a reflexivity and self consciousness about this learning process, establishing connections between sensory experience, specific sensory categories and philosophical, moral and other value laden discourses (and the power relations and political processes they might be connected to), and creating relationships between these and theoretical scholarship Ethnographers have used different methods of participating as apprentices and of documenting their experiences of apprenticeship, e.g. including visual methods (fixed and hand held cameras) Examples are the work of: Cristina Grasseni (2007), Tomie Hahn (2007), Trevor Marchand (2007), Greg Downey (2007)

13 Walking with others For example:
Lee and Ingold’s (2006) walking ethnography in Aberdeen Adams and Bruce’s (2008) walks in Manchester Lund’s work on Walking in Spain (2008) and in Scotland (2006) And my own work on ‘Walking with Video’ (Pink 2007) and ‘The Urban Tour’ (pink 2008)

14 Rethinking the interview: as a multisensory event
Whereas traditional approaches to p-o focus on vision, traditional approaches to the interview concentrate on talking – conceptualizing the interview as a kind of conversation. A sensory ethnography approach rethinks the interview as a multisensory encounter and as part of a specific environment Talking and conversation are still of interest, but these are situated within ecologies of place and embodied practices

15 Learning about sensory categories in interviews
J Well I do, yes, as long as I say its gone through there [through the washing machine], even if its got a teeny little stain, and I couldn’t get it out with the … [laundry detergent], I mean but generally I’ve not got, no I don’t think I’ve got anything like that … S … and do things feel different when they’re clean? J Ooh yes I think so definitely, yes, they do. S How do they feel? J Um, they just feel, well as I say, nicely pressed they do, fresh and certainly fresher, yeah. S What do you mean by fresher? J Um, just, well as I say when they are dirty and all that they’ve got that sweaty smell about them and grimy on the collar and everything, so as I say, just, they’re just, they’re nicer to put on. S Yeah, and um how do you know if something is dirty? … You said it might smell of something. J Its smelly! Its smelly! Because as I say I know when its dirty … but if its white you cannot help but get a grimy colour. Ever so strange, so [with shirts] as I say, usually by the collar

16 Representing sensory ethnography (or is it non-representational?)
New practices for communicating the findings of sensory ethnography are emerging They sometimes involve scholarly writing, some are calling ethnographic filmmaking sensory ethnography now, they also include collaborations with artists This is an emergent field, with new opportunities to respond to the challenges or finding ways to communicate in ways that are comprehensible to scholarly and public audiences about sensory ways of knowing in other people’s worlds Examples to explore (as well as Ch9 of Doing Sensory Ethnography) Christina Lammer’s work at and her blog at And Walking, Ethnography and Arts Practice, a Special Issue of Visual Studies (Hubbard et al 2010)

17 Summing up Sensory ethnography is the latest in a series of revisions of ethnography that respond to theoretical developments and applied/public research agenda It acknowledges the interconnectedness of the senses and the importance of research that goes beyond watching, listening and writing It reflexively uses ‘innovative methods’ and multiple media in research and in the communication of research to diverse audiences It creates new possibilities for interdisciplinary collaborations Sensory ethnography is still an emergent field of practice

18 And finally … looking to the future
Interest in this area is growing considerably but there has been surprising little reflection on the use of sensory methods in the existing literature. It is an emergent field of methodological interest, and more discussion is needed If you do sensory ethnography don’t just report on your findings, but document and reflect on your methods to contribute to the development of this field

19 References See also my book Doing Sensory Ethnography (Pink 2009) for further references to and discussion of sensory ethnography Adams, M. and N. Bruce (2008) ‘Soundwalking as methodology for understanding soundscapes’ in Proceedings of the Institute of Acoustics 30(2). Atkinson, P., S. Delamont, W. Housley (2007) Contours of Culture: Complex Ethnography and the Ethnography of Complexity, Rowman & Littlefield Cytowic, R. (2010) ‘Our hidden superpowers’ New Scientist, 24th April 2010, p46. Downey, G. (2007) ‘Seeing With a “Sideways Glance”: Visuomotor “knowing” and the Plasticity of Perception’ in M. Harris (ed) Ways of Knowing, New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning Oxford: Berghahn. Grasseni (2007) ‘Communities of practice and forms of life: towards a rehabilitation of vision’ in M. Harris (ed) Ways of Knowing, New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning Oxford: Berghahn. Hahn, T. (2007) Sensational Knowledge—Embodying Culture through Japanese Dance. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. Harris, M. (2007) ‘Introduction: Ways of Knowing’ in M. Harris (ed) Ways of Knowing, New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning Oxford: Berghahn. Howes, D. (2005) Introduction to D. Howes (ed) Empire of the Senses: The Sensory Culture Reader, Oxford: Berg Hubbard, P. M. O’Neill, S. Pink and A. Radley (eds) (2010) Walking, art and ethnography a guest edited issue of Visual Studies. Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment, London: Routledge. Lund, K. (2006) ‘Seeing in Motion and the Touching Eye: Walking over Scotland’s mountains’ in Bendix R. and D. Brenneis Guest Editors ‘Senses’ Etnofoor. Anthropological Journal, Volume 18 (1): Lund, K. (2008) ‘Listen to the Sound of Time: Walking with Saints in an Andalusian Village’ in T. Ingold and J. Lee Vergunst (eds) Fieldwork on Foot. Ashgate. Lee, J. and T. Ingold (2006) 'Fieldwork on foot: perceiving, routing, socializing', in S. Coleman, P. Collins (ed), Locating the Field. Space, Place and Context in Anthropology. pp O’Reilly, K. (2005) Ethnographic Methods. London: Routledge. Pink, S. (2007) ‘Walking with Video’ in Visual Studies 22(3): 240 – 252. Pink, S. (2008) ‘An Urban Tour’ in Ethnography, 9(2): Pink. S. (2009) Doing Sensory Ethnography, London: Sage Marchand, T. (2007) ‘Crafting Knowledge: the role of “parsing and production” in the communication of skill-based knowledge among masons’ in M. Harris (ed) Ways of Knowing, New Approaches in the Anthropology of Experience and Learning Oxford: Berghahn. Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

20 What is Sensory Ethnography?
Sarah Pink Loughborough University

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