Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Limited Knowing, Possible Emplacement

Written by: on September 18, 2014

On Tuesday of this week, I was talking with a co-worker about a multi-ethnic ministry event we have coming up in November.  Santes and I were discussing the session he is going to lead at the event and he made mention of a video, a TED Talk, he would like to show a clip from as an illustration.  The name of the clip or talk is “The Danger of a Single Story” by Chimamanda Ngozi.  Chimamanda is a Nigerian story-teller who tells of her up-brining where, although being Nigerian, she only had access to British and American children’s literature.  She became an avid reader at a very young age but developed a skewed view of books and literature where she concluded all books that have been written and all books that should be written must be about little white boys and girls who eat apples and enjoy lovely whether.  Ngozi goes on to tell other stories, some laughable and others tragic, but her point builds in power and persuasion of how dangerous it is to develop what we know and understand about a person, a people group, a class, a culture or society from the perspective of one story.

Sarah Pink and her emphasis on the reflexive approach to doing ethnography, came immediately to mind.  Whether it is Pink’s “Doing Visual Ethnography” or “Doing Sensory Ethnography” the prominence of the reflexive approach that is subjective, compassionate, empathetic, multi-sensory, developing, adaptive, attentive, watchful and highly conscientious about what can be known, I believe is motivated by the danger Ngozi realized and experienced throughout the learnings of her life.  The fact that a limited touch, taste, sound, smell or view, literal and figurative, is limited from the broad claims it can make.  Pink’s greatest position and argument in her writing is limited encounters, exposures and experiences of all kinds are just that, limited and how the field of ethnography acknowledges and handles the “knowing” from the industry is paramount.  Chimamanda Ngozi stated early in her talk, “How impressionable and vulnerable we are . . . in the face of a story.”  Sarah Pink would agree.  Pink might write, “How impressionable and vulnerable we are . . . when we desire to claim anything for others from what we have seen, heard, felt, observed, remembered or experienced.”  Pink is truly emphatic about the reality of the subjective, reflexive approach to ethnography.

While there is great danger in limited knowing, it is fair to equally state the tremendous power of immersive, experiential learning and knowing.  Overall, from the reading of “Doing Sensory Ethnography” I benefited the most from the phrase, sensory emplaced learning and knowing.  If there is a single phrase that captures what I would call the aim of the process, method or even the psyche of sensory ethnography, it would be the idea of sensory emplacement.  A mentality that tries to stand in the perspective, walk in the experience, live in the existence of another to understand and capture the reality and experience through every means necessary is the greatest occasion of being able to convey to others what can be known and understood about another.  As Pink states, “Thus the notion of ethnography as a participatory practice is framed with ideas of learning as embodied, emplaced, sensorial and emphatic, rather than occurring simply through a mix of participation and observation.” [1]  To think that simple participation and observation that perpetuates a probable cultural chasm between an ethnographer and the subject is missing the remarkable opportunity we have to not only share about humanity, culture and society but to actually delve in fully and experience the opportunity to be transformed.
[1] Pink, Sarah. Doing sensory ethnography (London: Sage, 2009) 63.

About the Author

Phillip Struckmeyer

8 responses to “Limited Knowing, Possible Emplacement”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Really well done Phillip. I really enjoyed your closing thought, “To think that simple participation and observation that perpetuates a probable cultural chasm between an ethnographer and the subject is missing the remarkable opportunity we have to not only share about humanity, culture and society but to actually delve in fully and experience the opportunity to be transform.” We all have limited knowledge and experience but that shouldn’t keep us from participating and possibly being transformed. Thanks Phillip!

  2. Dave Young says:

    Thanks for the thoughtful post. I just finished a conversation with a church member who is organizing a “missions” trip to a native American reservation for this summer, as we talked our youth group met jointly with a hispanic youth (we do a lot of ministry at their church). Then I read your post and I realize while opportunities abound – I personally rarely walk in another’s shoes. I’d like to think of myself as someone who is open minded about the difference in races, the difference in socio-economics, etc. But in reality I’m rarely engaged with those who are different . Your words challenged me.

    • Jon Spellman says:

      Dave and Phil. I was going to comment that the thing that comes to my mind when reading Phil’s post was the importance of “walking a mile in another man’s shoes” before attempting to make judgments and draw conclusions about him. But Dave, you stole my thunder! I guess I’ll just boom a little more…

      Phil, it does seem that one of the very helpful outcomes of an ethnographic approach to research is the requirement to be emplaced. Whatever sub-strand of ethnography that I may be engaging, this idea of placement is vital. It makes me think of the need to be incarnational if we have any hope of being transformational.


      • Brian Yost says:

        Jon, I echo your comments on emplacement. We have to be willing to let go of our own comforts and normalities and place ourself in someone else’s world. The great limitation is that we are never truly in their world when we have the option of stepping out and returning to our own world.

  3. Mary Pandiani says:

    Phil – still in a brainfog from the long (24 hours from the Pacific NW) travel to Zambia yesterday, so forgive me if I don’t sound coherent. With your profound words, I think I hear the creative tension of being aware of how only one perspective, including only an ethnographical approach, can be dangerous while holding at the same time the value of stepping into the shoes of another – is that right? I’m grateful for offering a check in regarding Pink’s work for what could be carried out, if we don’t discern and stay attentive to where that kind of research leads. At the same time, I hear an honesty in recognizing that we need immersion in another’s world to truly understand it.
    I have a feeling we’re going to be holding these kinds of paradoxes often as we move into this doctorate program.

  4. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Phil, I believe you challenged us all! To actually jump in and experience something is transformational, but I wonder how often we all limit our exposure due to fear or other mitigating factors. To truly get engaged, we must avoid standing on the sidelines and solely observing. We must learn by true experience, where we move from “book learning” to knowing.

  5. Travis says:

    Phillip – Knowing apart from being involved is always going to leave out something important from having full knowledge. Active participation, experience, presence, time and other things are so important to knowing. In school we have to actively engage in subjects, students, assignments and that requires more than a glance at stats. I think the environment is always better measured by a person who is in it!

  6. Most of us know the cliche, ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’ But then we should all get comfortable with danger, because all we ever possess is a little knowledge. Maybe if we made friends with uncertainty, we would find ourselves better listeners and better learners – and so, better leaders. Maybe the word “maybe” opens space that is otherwise closed. In the end, wisdom is the ability to act with knowledge, while doubting what you know…
    I’ve always loved those simple words of Jesus when he sends out the disciples as learners and proclaimers of the kingdom – “take nothing for the journey.” It’s a place of radical vulnerability, but immense possibility.

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