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Comments on doing sensory ethnography

Written by: on September 30, 2013

Posted by: Raphael Samuel.

In the “Doing Sensory Ethnography”, author Sarah Pink adapts a scholarly approach in documenting and assessing the many changes unfolding in the field of ethnography. To further help her audience process these development, pink also draws on her  own experiences in research in the field of ethnography. The book is very well crafted in its outline and content. My purpose here is to reflect on a couple of the concepts that stimulated my attention as I read this book.

First, the definition of sensory ethnography as a “process of creating and representing knowledge that is based on the ethnographers’ own experiences”(p.8). This experience is directly related to society , culture, and individuals. The author identify a major shift my ethnographers away from classic observational methods to more to more innovative approaches. These are approaches that tend to involve some form of direct and sustained contacts with human agents. With new methods emerging, the author sees this scientific practice as a developing field and as such, does not seek to propose a single method of doing sensory ethnography. The focus was to list and discuss the various methods along with the critique of these methods raised by other scholars. 

One of methods that aroused my sense curiosity is the sociology of senses .This concept grew out of essay by George Simmel bearing the said title. Simmel viewed sensory perception as having two important functions. First, is the emotional and physical responses that are invoked by our impressions of others. Second, one way of graining knowledge of another person is through sense impression(p17). In support of his theories, he suggested that the most intimate perception of a person is gained by smelling their body odour. This I consider revolutionary concept that tramples on long held believes about personal space and cultural norms. First, there are popular schools of thought that elaborate on the importance of personal space or sometime referred to as protected space. The proximity suggested required to observe someone body odour appears to conflict with these long held beliefs. Secondly, in some cultures, body odour may be viewed as offensive behavior. Pink, as well as other sensory ethnographers seem to support the idea that space is  not a factor in this field of research. She cited  Ingold  who suggested that space is hardly necessary since the World is viewed by the ethnographer as a notion of entanglement. One would think that there are places where this would not be culturally or socially accepted. Think of many mid-eastern societies where it is even an offense for women to show their faces in public. It seems unthinkable that a stranger would be allowed such intimate contact in order to observe body odour.

Another intriguing discussion about methodology revolved around media. As noted by the author, Marshall McLuhan sparked these discussions by his suggestion of “our technical sense”. Describing television, the new media of his day as an extension of  our  sight-touch powers. He implied that television  had tangibility in visual contoured, sculpture mode (p.56). His views came into criticism for what was perceived to be an approach guided by technological determinism and explicit evolutionism. As a contemporary writer, I was surprised that the author did not take the opportunity to

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Raphael Samuel

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