DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Doing Sensory Ethnography as a Christian

Written by: on September 15, 2016


After reading “Doing Sensory Ethnography” by Sarah Pink, I realized that without knowing that it was called “sensory ethnography”, I have probably been practicing a “process of creating and representing knowledge or ways of knowing that are based on ethnographers’ own experiences and the way these intersect with the persons, places and things encountered during that process.” (p.5, quoting from Pink, 2013: 35) We learned a lot about “Reflexivity” in our Intercultural Studies classes. The value in Pink’s book is the guidelines and examples she uses to teach the applications of ethnography to every field.

This is a seminary class on Global Perspectives. The Great Commission is a global task. In the late nineteenth century the Student Missionary Movement aimed to reach the whole world with the Gospel. There was a popular saying, “The sun never sets on British soil.” This made Christian college students very hopeful at that time because there were missionaries in all parts of the world. Maybe Christ would come in their lifetime! (Mt. 24:14)

Today with satellites, GPS, easier travel, a bit more openness between countries, mission emphasis on serving, and exciting new learning technologies such as sensory ethnography, I am really excited to think that maybe we will reach the lost in every part of the globe and Christ will come in our generation!

Some principles learned in Sarah Pink’s book might help: here are my observations:

  1. As a Christian I evaluate books from a Biblical perspective. How will using sensory ethnography help as I witness to others? As I try to know other people’s experiences, memories, and places I can be more in tune with them. It is not for my own knowledge, but in order to be able to draw in the person to participate in the discussion. We want to engage the person as a participant in the discussion, not an object of our experiment. How true for us as we share Christ with others. It is for Christ’s sake and theirs.
  2. I had no idea of the metaphysical, epistemological, and ontological depth of knowledge one could gain from watching a woman do her laundry. (Sorry, couldn’t help myself.)
  3. The “interview” is very important. One thing I really appreciated was the discussion on digital mediation. I am an amateur videographer and I look forward to planning more carefully those videos that will enhance imagination and memory.

However, I do have a concern. I once had to interview people for a class on spirituality. One person I interviewed was an inmate at Oregon State Penitentiary. They don’t let you take electronic devices in there! Two other helpful participants, a pastor’s wife and an immigrant from India, were uncomfortable with recording devices. I did the interviews the old fashioned way with a note pad and a pen. So, I am excited about technology, but people’s feelings are more important. We can still utilize the other senses – sound, smell, touch, and taste (sharing tea).

  1. One drawback for me, and the reason I could not just scan this book in spite of the encouragement of our intrepid professor, was the field-specific techno-jargon. At times I felt that Pink was writing more for her own colleagues than for us lay people. Still, the summaries at the end of each chapter clarified ideas immensely. Looking back, if I had needed to scan this book in the interests of time, I believe that I might have been able to get the important points from her excellently written summaries.
  2. Pink places a lot of importance on experience. I was concerned when her definition of ethnography went on to say, “Therefore visual ethnography, as I interpret it, does not claim to produce an objective or truthful account of reality, but should aim to offer versions of ethnographers’ experiences of reality that are as loyal as possible to the context, the embodied, sensory and affective experiences, and the negotiations and intersubjectivities through which the knowledge was produced.” (p. 5. Quoting from Pink, 2013: 35.)

Pink occasionally refers to research as valid knowledge, but experience and subjectivity triumph throughout the book. Without going too deeply into epistemology, I think that both a posteriori knowledge and a priori knowledge are important. There can be dangers to making sure we have the same experiences as someone else because we don’t believe we can address the issue unless we’ve “walked in their shoes”.

Pink even gives us an example to ponder in her book. In discussing apprenticeship experience, Pink tells the story of Paul Stoller who wrote an essay entitled, “The Sorcerer’s Body”. Did anyone else wonder if Paul Stoller’s illness was caused by demons? (p. 104). I don’t want to experience demon afflictions. I think we can safely believe what the Scriptures tell us about demons. A priori knowledge can be enough.

  1. To be sure, some things can be understood better as we experience them. I really loved the concept of the “walking with” in sensory research. The concept of serving one another is certainly Biblical (Gal. 6:2). How pleasurable for both researcher and participant.

I certainly look forward to walking with you all in London!





About the Author

Mary Walker

5 responses to “Doing Sensory Ethnography as a Christian”

  1. Lynda Gittens says:

    Hi Mary,

    I agree that the summaries did provide some light for me. In fact, it provided the important points in the chapter.
    One of your focus points was the inability to use electronics. Pinks point on utilizing online visuals would be helpful if your were able to find some that present the statement you want to present.

  2. Mary I appreciated your review and your critic of the book. I literally Laughed Out Loud when I read your #2 comment about watching a woman do her laundry. Although I could completely understand your point, I did enjoy the humor inferred in your statement. I do believe that whether a researcher uses technology or they us a pen and paper, either method warrants a “walk with” connectivity that should be experienced as we conduct our research.

  3. Good reminder that we can still research people without a camera by using our built in camera: our senses. Looking forward to walking through London with you.

  4. Jim Sabella says:

    Enjoyed your post, Mary. Your story about going into the state penitentiary and having to use paper and pen to take notes, brought a thought to mind. At one time, paper and pen were the modern media of the day and they are still technological wonders. They need no batteries, are portable, work under low light conditions. In many cases, they are still the best technology for research and not so “old fashioned” after all.

  5. mm Chip Stapleton says:

    I enjoyed your post and the focus on visual ethnography as a Christian.
    As I looked through my notes, at one point, I wrote down something to the effect of ‘visual ethnography has to be the most postmodern of social sciences’….Pink’s focus on experience and comfort with ambiguity highlights that idea in my mind.

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