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

My thoughts on sensory ethnography

Written by: on September 18, 2014

Sensory ethnography explores the way “that perception and senses impact one’s view of culture.   The ethnographer is, in fact, part of the sensory material and, as such, is subject to having political or ideological agendas.”[1] There is an interrelationship between the body, mind and environment, which impacts the way that we interact and perceive cultural or social data. Therefore, the “ethnographic practice entails our multisensorial embodied engagements with others (perhaps through participation in activities, or exploring their understandings in part verbally) and with their social, material, discursive and sensory environments.”[2]

The term ‘embodiment’ refers to someone or something that is a perfect representative or example of a quality, idea, etc.[3] For example, the gentleman embodies grace, wisdom and impeccable taste. I immediately picture an older gentleman with fine-tuned manners and a more formal, polished presentation. In psychology, the term is also used to emphasize the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Pink, in her book Doing Sensory Ethnography, used the term ’embodiment’ to describe the purpose of doing ethnographic practice. Capturing and presenting sensory information in the most truthful and complete manner will aid in understanding of individuals, situations, and cultures.

After reading Pink’s book, I immediately thought about my early career days when I worked as a nurse. To best understand a patient and their medical concerns, I needed to assess the entire picture. What was the patient’s mood, emotional state, physical state, behavior, appearance, etc.? Further, I assessed the patient’s environment and support system to better understand their situation – including what was their relationship with others. I’ve always been taught to look at a person holistically, and to avoid making assumptions. In assessing a patient, I need to be aware that the current situation could be impacted by my presence. For example, is the patient exhibiting signs of fear because I’m going to give them an injection? While fear may not be a normal, routine emotion for this person, my personal interaction and the situation contributed to this change. It is possible that their fear could also drive a high blood pressure result. In this case, it would be incorrect of me to make the assumption that the patient has chronic high blood pressure based on the data from my visit. I must use my awareness and observation to accurately assess and read the patient. My perception of the situation should embody the patient’s whole situation, and should not rely on a few data points that could misconstrue the truth.

“The challenge for ethnographers is to present information in such a way that invites our audiences to imagine themselves into the places of others, while simultaneously invoking theoretical and practical points of meaning and learning.”[4] As a nurse, I was responsible to accurately document and reflect a patient’s situation to the doctor and other healthcare providers. I believe this also describes Pink’s challenge. We must document and use the sensory data that we collect in order to paint a clear and meaningful picture to the audience, one that allows them to envision a true representation.

Today, I find that I am much more likely to engage with multiple forms of media to broaden my knowledge than what I would have done five or ten years ago. Pink discusses the relationship between media and imagination, and the idea that ethnographers can influence the mental processes of the reader based on the material format in which information is presented. The evolution of media has allowed an individual to share their own memories and perceptions in a manner that engages the imagination and memories unlike a written work. Going back to my nursing experience, ten years ago a procedure was often explained to another person by word of mouth. A nurse would explain the procedure to a patient from her own understanding and point of view, yet the patient often had no true picture of what the procedure would entail. Today, patients are shown videos to give them a better idea of what to expect.  They can go online and hear about other people’s experiences and memories, so they enter into a procedure with a much more accurate representation of what to expect.

I find that I am much more able to ‘do sensory ethnography’ when I slow down and take the time to properly assess people and situations. My bias and assumptions need to be set aside, and I must seek to truly sense the truth about the object that I am studying. My view must be both broad and detailed, and my account to others must embody the truest picture possible.

[1] Pink, Sarah (2012-06-30). Doing Sensory Ethnography (p. 23). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

[2] Pink, Sarah (2012-06-30). Doing Sensory Ethnography (pp. 25-26). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.

[3] “Embodiment.” Merriam-Webster.com. Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/embodiment.

[4] Pink, Sarah (2012-06-30). Doing Sensory Ethnography (p. 42). SAGE Publications. Kindle Edition.


About the Author

Dawnel Volzke

Christ follower, wife, mom, teacher, student, professional...my passion is to serve Christ and my calling is to help organizations become great at fulfilling their mission.

7 responses to “My thoughts on sensory ethnography”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    I really appreciated your comparison to nursing. We make fun of my wife because she passes out every time a nurse walks with a needle! It really makes sense that a nurse would be trained to assess more then just the physical aliments but also the emotional. Knowing the whole person is important to treating the whole person is important. Thanks Dawnel.

  2. Jon Spellman says:

    Holistic! There’s another great word to add to the list of research values that I am forming as a result of this reading and discussion.

    Thanks Dawnel. If I don’t get anything else out of this whole thing, that was worth the cost of admission.

  3. Dave Young says:

    Another great reflection. I appreciated the connection to your work as a nurse, how you had to perceive your patient’s circumstances from varied perspectives. Reminds me that when I’m offering spiritual direction, or just being a friend that I really need to practice the art of being curious. Too often I jump in thinking I know what the person is communicating, or what their “issue” is when really what I need to do is ask a lot more questions. Thanks for the reminder. Dave

    • Dawnel Volzke says:

      Thanks Dave, I think many of us tend to jump in thinking we know what a person is communicating…I love your phrase “the art of being curious.” I am typically curious person, but my curiosity is limited to those things that interest me the most. Being curious enough to engage deeply with people, even when I am bored or in a hurry, is something that I need to improve upon.

  4. Travis says:

    Blessings Dawnel,

    I totally agree with you in assessing by perception the atmosphere you are in. In most situation this is paramount in understanding that atmosphere. Even in business before a deal is made you want to know the way your client is leaning before laying it all on the table. I coach football at a high school and I’ve played in division 2 football. The majority of the coaches i coach with never played high school or college football. I am able to sense the feelings and temperature of the athlete a lot better because I have had to play myself. It always helps when you can pick up the temperature of your environment so to speak!

  5. Brian Yost says:

    Good post Dawnel. I can image that sensory ethnography would be essential if one wants to be a good nurse. Your challenge to slow down is also well taken. I wonder how many “misreads” we have of people simply because we are too busy to be in the moment with them.

  6. […] Volzke recently wrote a thoughtful article discussing sensory ethnography referencing Sarah Pink’s book Doing Sensory Ethnography. Volzke uses her own work as a nurse to […]

Leave a Reply