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

“Produce knowledge by producing knowledge”

Written by: on October 26, 2017


Visual Ethnography is “capturing and expressing perceptions and social realities of people”.[1] When we gathered for this group photo on our last evening together in Cape Town, it captured the end – and beginning – of a journey which included new friendships (joy), challenging discussions (stress), rich learning (travel), fun adventures (adrenaline), and an educational goal (excitement and anxiety) of a DMin (financial strain).  I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this photo also signifies a sweet reunion for Dave and Lisa and an early return to his room (which is why he’s not in the photo).  LGP8 cohort, I challenge you to identify your perception and social reality of this photo.

Sarah Pink (author of Doing Visual Ethnography) is passionate about doing ethnography – but challenges researchers to “rethink” their ethnographic methods and consider integrating sensory ethnography (“not instead of, but in addition to”) as a reflective approach”.[2]  “The book succeeds in inspiring readers to explore the boundaries of classic approaches to ethnography and challenges the readers to include more sensory understandings of the human experience in their own research.  The book addresses sensory ethnography as a methodology, and this is the book’s strength”.[3]  Literature and reviews on ethnography are refreshingly easy to locate.  One of the best finds was a taped lecture of Pink with an accompanying PowerPoint.

The innovative, emergent method of sensory ethnography can be defined as “interconnectedness” of the senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) which moves beyond typical research methods of watching, listening, and writing.[4]  Pink further defines sensory ethnography as an approach to doing ethnography that “takes into account of sensory experience, sensory perception, and sensory categories that we use when we talk about our experiences and our everyday life”.[5]   As a social worker who understands the value and importance of sensory awareness (or multisensory observation) and utilizes it in my work with clients, I’m in agreement with its place in research.  The challenge, however, is capturing (writing/documenting) the human sensory experience.  Even Pink acknowledges this method is still emerging and challenges researchers to “don’t just report findings but document methods and write about it” so that others can gain valuable tools to implement the approach.[6]

As I think about my future research on refugee resilience (post resettlement in the United States), the visual and sensory ethnography method feels like it could be a powerful research tool.  Ideally, my research population will be Somalian refugee families living in Columbus, Ohio.  My desire is to explore how refugee families define their own resilience factors as they adjust to life in the United States.  I can envision using sensory ethnography by means of representational photography as a method for expression of family struggles and strengths – especially since there may be significant language barriers.  My concern with this method is the vulnerability required by the target population and the cultural barriers.  Valerie Smith from California State University researched and published on this very issue…Ethical and Effective Research Methods:  A Case Study with Afghan Refugees in California.  Smith’s suggests that “Ethics review committees and others who seek to understand and ameliorate these difficulties should consider developing guidelines for ethical research in the vulnerable population of refugees in general and for specific groups who are marginalized in particular and often multiple ways.”  Smith did develop ten best practices for research with refugees but instructed researchers to first acquire greater understanding of the refugees, their community, and research methods appropriate for that culture.  Specifically, Smith states the following are essential to understand:

  1. The historical conditions under which the refugees were forced to flee.
  2. The social, cultural, political, religious, economic, and linguistic factors that comprise the unique backgrounds of the refugee group.
  3. The group-defined markers of difference or division within the refugee community.
  4. The group’s deeply held cultural beliefs, values, and practices.
  5. The ethnic community’s stances toward the country of resettlement.
  6. How to develop relationships with one or more outside advisors who have international experience and will help with the investigator’s monitoring of selfcare and boundaries.
  7. How to ensure confidentiality to interview participants, including using an unsigned information sheet in the place of an informed consent form when necessary.
  8. The importance of gaining the trust and openness of a few reliable key cultural informants who can serve as cultural brokers, act as interpreters during interviews, and provide an insider’s viewpoint during data analysis and the writing of the research findings.
  9. The importance of making a conscious effort to include in the research, and account for, the needs of those refugees who experience additional multiple vulnerabilities.
  10. The importance of using the results of the research to improve the lives of refugees in the community studied. [7]

I accept Smith’s challenge to become a competent and educated researcher.  Her legwork on research with refugees is inspiring and relevant and will be intentionally integrated into my preparation for my own research.  Pink’s detailed and practical guide on visual ethnography “has made an impact for how we as ethnographers, learn and arrive at ways of knowing, imagining and understanding the experience of the other people whose lives we seek to know (about).”[8]








[1] http://methods.sagepub.com/reference/sage-encyc-qualitative-research-methods/n489.xml

[2]        Pink, Sarah (2010) What is Sensory Ethnography. In: NCRM Research Methods Festival 2010, 5th – 8th July 2010, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. (Unpublished)

[3]        Snyder, Susanna. “Book Review: Sarah Pink Doing Sensory Ethnography London: Sage 2009. 184 pp. $41.95. ISBN 13:978-1412948036.” Qualitative Health Research 21, no. 1 (2011): 144-145. Accessed October 26, 2017. doi:10.1177/1049732310374063.

[4] Pink, What is Sensory Ethnography.

[5] Pink, What is Sensory Ethnography.

[6] Pink, What is Sensory Ethnography.

[7]        Smith, Valerie J. “ETHICAL AND EFFECTIVE ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH METHODS: A CASE STUDY WITH AFGHAN REFUGEES IN CALIFORNIA.” Journal Of Empirical Research On Human Research Ethics 4, no. 3 (September 2009): 59-72. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 26, 2017).

[8]        Pink, Sarah. 2015. “Going Forward Through the World: Thinking Theoretically About First Person Perspective Digital Ethnography.” Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science 49, no. 2: 239-252. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed October 26, 2017).

About the Author

Jean Ollis

12 responses to ““Produce knowledge by producing knowledge””

  1. Seeing that picture at the beginning of your post made me smile. I already love the people in that photo and have lots of meaning and experiences attached to them that make me feel blessed to be on this journey with them. The impact the people in that picture (incl. Dave) had on me was the most significant thing I experienced in Cape Town. I loved how you applied Pink’s book to your research and I agree that sensory awareness in our work is significant to our being successful practitioners. Thanks for highlighting this and summarizing this part of the book beautifully in your post. Also, I’m curious about your thoughts on the ethics of photographing people without their knowledge or consent and how that fits with the ethnography process? Another amazing post Jean!

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Jake! You ask a great question about photography without permission – I’m opposed to the idea (especially if it’s used to capture my target population). I can’t imagine the IRB would allow it either…I would like to have refugees to use their own phone/camera to capture images which define/symbolize their own definition of resilience. I had a colleague who used ethnography for her research on sexual assault. Her research subjects captured their story of healing from assault in pictures with symbolic photos. The project was powerful and meaningful research and healing for the survivors.

  2. M Webb says:


    I love the Elite-8 picture! My perception is “right-on” in the spirit and context of Uncle Rico’s conversation with Kip about cyberspace and time travel. (1) It might feel like we are on a type of time travel journey with this good-looking group of future doctoral graduates. Will we have our own version of cyberspace moments? According to Pink, we can create our own realities.

    Great connection between Pink and your research question on the refugee resilience factor with expatriate Somalian families in Ohio. Smith has some good “best practices” and I agree, take it slow as you enter their cultural context. I do not think they will have a “point paper” prepared to answer all Smith’s questions, but over time you can find some of the answers through the new relationships and observations you experience. Have you started anything yet with this group? I want to know more as you begin your cross-cultural research adventure.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

    1 Jared Hess and Jerusha Hess. Napoleon Dynamite. Fox Searchlight/20th Century Fox, 2004.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Mike! I haven’t started my work with refugees yet, but I have a plan to connect with a church in Columbus which agreed to host a digital school for Somalian students (who were struggling culturally and academically in Columbus Public). I have a connection with the digital academy and think the church/school connection might help me gain some trust and an “in” with the refugees. I will keep you posted!

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    Jean, you did a wonderful job showing the value of visual ethnology in regards to connecting with someone who has shared a similar experience; I remember the laughter that last night when our group photo lacked someone. I also appreciate how you pointed out the difficulty of “implementing the approach.” So how do you foresee yourself overcoming those difficulties when incorporating (should you decide to incorporate) visual ethnography in your own ministry or counseling? Furthermore, did Pink actually bring to mind any ways that you can use visual ethnography more adequately in a counseling atmosphere? I would be curious to know your opinion on that.

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Shawn!
      I think I incorporate visual ethnography informally with clients. For example, I incorporate guided visualization during sessions (asking the client to “visualize” the place/experience where they have felt the happiest, safest, and secure). I encourage clients to recall the experience using all their senses and even recommend finding a picture or piece of artwork which symbolizes this safe place. When struggling with anxiety, I ask clients to go back to this picture and meditate on how this experience tapped into all the senses. The brain can return immediately to the beautiful experience as quickly as it gets triggered for trauma.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    Challenge accepted. As you have already astutely recognized I am a bit of an introvert and it takes me awhile to warm up and feel comfortable. I went to Cape Town with a sense of dread knowing I would be there alone and have to make my way without my wife in whose company I feel more secure. When I see that photo I am amazed at the warmth of feeling I have for each face pictured (and the one not pictured) and how quickly that developed. If I indeed make it through this program it will only be a result of my affinity with this amazing group of people.

    The rest of your post is full of good insight and further research that I did not pick up. I too wondered about some of the ethical questions in this form of research and how easy it would be for us to misuse images for our own ends to the detriment of the subjects. In addition to your great find by Smith, I wonder how you intend to establish your own ethical boundaries with the Somali immigrants in order to shed light on their situation while giving them a voice and not dominating the discussion yourself.

    Great post!

    • Jean Ollis says:

      Hi Dan!
      I agree about ethical challenges with ethnography – all photos would be done by the target subject, not myself. Photos would simply be representations of how the refugee defines resilience – defined and captured by the refugee.
      I’m so glad you felt comfortable and safe in our cohort! And I’m glad I assessed you correctly :).
      We are certainly blessed with an amazing group!

  5. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Jean,

    This quote of yours impacted my thinking–“sensory ethnography can be defined as ‘interconnectedness’ of the senses (sight, smell, sound, taste, touch) which moves beyond typical research methods of watching, listening, and writing.”

    I have always appreciated the word interconnectedness when talking about the church world. But never had thought of it relating to connecting all the senses through our research. Wow, that is a good one, and so is this post!

  6. Dave Watermulder says:

    Thank you, Jean! It sounds like some visual ethnography will be helpful for you in your research project ahead. I was really interested to hear that you are focusing on the refugee community and resiliency factors as they settle in. This book had some good perspective for you in this work (or maybe you were just reflecting it already!) about how with vulnerable or less powerful populations or people, we have to take special care in how we approach representing them or “showing” their lives. This is certainly true with refugees, and I think you’ll do a careful, caring job of it as you go!

    Also, thanks for the explanation for why I’m not in that photo!

  7. Kyle Chalko says:

    Good post Jean. As christian we should lead the way in ethical research.

    As for the pictures it makes me think, why the heck did we try and take a picture around that table and flower pot? Should someone have stepped up and led more? We’re we all just too tired and didn’t care?

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