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

Smells, Sights and Sounds …

Written by: on September 20, 2013

I have a confession.  This book had me before I reached the end of the first page in the Introduction.  Three simple words: place, memory, and imagination did it for me.  If sensory ethnography includes these things then I am “in.”  When we think about senses we think of the five senses we grew up learning about (maybe in a health or science class?).  Some of us may even have had our senses explained through a song in a Sunday School classroom years earlier.  Did anyone ever sing, “Be careful little eyes what you see; be careful little ears what you hear?”  Maybe it is a good thing that I do not remember the rest of the words!  But rather than wrap place, memory and imagination around our senses, Pink peeks into the linkages so that we might approach research and discovery invested in awareness of and practice in perception, meanings and values, and categories utilizing sensory practices.  Utilizing sensory ethnography opens the door for new ways of knowing.[1]  It provides another vantage point from which to recognize and understand what is before us.

The highlight of reading (and digesting) Pink’s writing comes when she applies theories to practice.  I did not expect to be reading about the home “as an environment that is constituted, experienced, understood, evaluated and maintained through all the senses.”[2]  But it absolutely is.

As she was writing about the British and Spanish research participants I was thinking about what I learned from my mother and how I thought that changing the sheets on the bed and ironing was always done on Saturdays. Traditions surrounding holidays and special occasions all had a particular rhythm and expectation.  I recognized how these subtle habits of home involved the senses.  I also confess that there was one particular smell that I thoroughly enjoyed; it brought anticipation until I realized what it meant.  I recall falls days coming home from swim practice, approaching the back door when I would catch the scent of fried onions, which meant only one thing, liver and onions for dinner.  Let’s just say my now-adult children have never ever had liver for dinner.  Some memories that were not so wonderful still provide a sense of place.

Throughout the book I found that I was relating to sensory ethnography through two distinctions.  One was my own personal experience and the other involved my imagination, more precisely my imagination (and wonder) concerning sensory ethnography and the Church.  When Pink wrote, “It is in these types of place that most often become the locations for and subjects/objects of ethnography as researches strive to understand how people’s lives are lived out and felt and they inhabit and move through, for instance, the home, a city or a hospital.”[3] On the book’s margin I wrote, “What is the relationship to church as place?  How do we understand how people’s lives are lived and felt, how do they move through and interact with their church space?”

Reflecting on young adults leaving the church I found myself wondering what might we discover if we were considered embodied knowledge, what would we find?  How is knowledge transferred?  How is it passed on?  Referring to the work of Tim Ingold, it is not a formula that conveys knowledge, but in paying attention, engaging in perception and action.  We learn by doing, through practice.  When we do something alongside another the potential exists that it will become our experience.[4]

As I consider possible areas for research I wonder what would our churches tell us?  What memories are embedded in ritual and practice that we may have ignored?  How might we utilize memory and imagination?[5]  How might we help them remember?  What is it they need to be reminded of?  Rather than think of imagination as something pretend, Pink sees imagination as an integral aspect of our everyday individual lives and our ways of being in the world. Imagination may draw from the past experience of one person and the present experience of another, these experiences may merge together.[6]  How does the Church embody imagination?

If sensory ethnography is part of “an approach to understanding other people’s experiences, values, identities and ways of life,”[7] then it is necessary for us to develop strategies to reflect upon our role, sensory subjectivity as well as understand how our relationship with those we are researching may flux and change, sensory inter-subjectivity.[8]  Even in developing strategies we have to be aware that Sensory Ethnography is more reflective and we need to be adaptable and flexible in our approach.  Pink included section titles with words like “Being There,” “Intentionally Joining Others,” “Eating Together,” and “Walking with Others”[9] in her chapter on “Re-sensing Participant Observation.”  It might be a slight stretch but as I read Pink I continued to think about Paul’s references to the Church as the Body of Christ.  These words may be tools for ethnography but they are also words of spiritual praxis.

A few years ago there was a movie out which replayed the same action again and again, each time from another point of view.  It was redundant, even boring at times, because any fresh insights seemed inconsequential. However, bit-by-bit the pieces – the sounds, the smells, and the actions of those in the crowd all were significant in realizing the full story.  One person’s viewpoint was just that; it provided limited knowledge.  Utilizing sensory ethnography we have an opportunity to not allow what I see to dominate, but to engage my senses, connect with my emotions and to turn to those participating to give their voice opportunity to speak, to respond, to connect with their senses.  I wonder what we will learn from one another and with one another.



[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography.  (London: Sage Publications, 2009), 10.

[2] Ibid., 13

[3] Ibid., 31. Types of places referenced include home-place, workplace and visiting place (Casey, 1996:44)

[4]  Ibid., 35.

[5]  Ibid., 38.

[6] Ibid., 39, 40.

[7] Ibid., 45

[8] Ibid., 53.

[9] Ibid., 65, 72, 73 & 76.

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

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