Pink’s book, Doing Sensory Ethnography, is a clever handbook for the traditional ethnographer who wishes to engage in new and additional multi-faceted methods of research. Or should I say, multisensory. For me, Pink exposes additional branches on the tree of research, which in turn provide the ethnographer with tools for producing greater fruit in one’s quest for understanding other people’s experiences, values, identities and ways of life.
For example, instead of simply engaging in observation and interview in traditional qualitative research, Pink explains how the sensory ethnographer goes one step further by engaging and participating in some kind of activity or event while interviewing. Whether literally getting on one’s bike to interview cyclists, or preparing and eating a meal with the interviewee at their home, such approaches, Pink argues, enables the interviewer to utilize far more of one’s senses and thus gain greater insight and knowledge. The smell of the participant’s home, the taste of their food, sitting in the interviewee’s chair, drinking from their cup, all these emplaced experiences add to the ethnographer’s ability to acquire in-depth knowledge instead of just sitting down together, “immobilized and simply speaking.” (1) As Pink explains, “…the sensory ethnographer would not only observe and document other people’s sensory categories and behaviours, but seek routes through which to develop experience-based empathetic understandings of what others might be experiencing and knowing.” (2)
One particular point the author makes which I found interesting is how she suggests a sensory approach to ethnography could play a moral role: how “taking a sensory approach to understanding and intervening in the world might help to make it a better place.” (3) She reminded me of a story that American pastor, Bill Hybels, recounted in a leadership conference in 2012. (4) He described how he had been trying to stimulate his church into providing financial and practical support for the care arm of their ministry, but with little success. No matter how eloquently he spoke each Sunday, how great a vision he tried to cast, the need was met with lukewarm response. So he decided to take another approach. He invited a photographer to accompany him the following week to the care center facility, and instructed him to take photographs of the empty food shelves, of the hundreds of people waiting outside in the snow to get inside the building, their inadequate clothing and so on. They spoke to participants while waiting and walking with them outside in the snow, interviewed staff inside, and walked around the facility with members to create a presentation that graphically portrayed the felt needs of this great work of the church.
The following Sunday they showed their work to the church. When the congregations saw the empty shelves, heard what people said they needed, and observed the poorly dressed people, many were moved and finally came forward to offer the help and assistance Hybels originally wanted. This is a great example of how a simple multisensory approach can generate stimulation towards compassion and support for a particular need.
Another aspect that Pink touches on that I found interesting is the need for researchers to take seriously the principle of sensory imagination. Pink quotes anthropologist, Arjun Appadurai, who rightly states how imagination has become increasingly important in our ‘postelectronic world’ because it has ‘become a part of the quotidian mental work of ordinary people in many societies.’ Pink takes this thought further by suggesting we need to see “imagination as integral to our everyday individual ways of being in the world”.(5) I found this point particularly fascinating, especially having lived in Asia for many years where many people engage in a world of imagination on a very regular basis. In South Korea, more and more people’s lives bridge two worlds: the world of reality and that of fantasy, especially through gaming.
However, even though Pink and Appadurai acknowledge that imagination plays a greater role in our high-tech generation, I believe they do not take it quite far enough. Yes, fiction and imagination play a far greater role in the lives of people. However, for some, fiction has crossed over into reality. For example, businesses such as Pizza Hut and Xbox Live have created an app whereby video gamers can purchase real, physical goods while playing online. Moreover, people who have an avatar (a graphical alternative identity through an online environment) spend significant amounts of money to purchase real world goods for it. As Paul Hemp, a senior editor for the Harvard Business Review explains, one can purchase clothing, or even skills and attributes through eBay or other auction sites. (6) For these gamers, their avatar is their new self, the person they want to be, living the life they want to live. I would suggest then that there is no longer a clear dichotomy between reality and fiction, as what we traditionally defined as fiction has become a new reality for some. Indeed, this could make for a very interesting ethnographical research project.
Overall I found Pink’s work insightful and helpful not simply for future academic research projects, but also in the area of more effective ministry. If I really want to reach people for Christ and disciple them more effectively, then I need to bet better informed about how people think and what their needs are. To do that, I can utilize Pink’s methods and engage and interact with people on their own turf. I need to move beyond simply asking questions and try to put myself in their shoes of experience. Perhaps through visiting their places of work, homes, local hangouts, or friends, and engaging in activities with them, I can acquire a greater understanding of them as individuals, which could in turn better equip me to understand and help them.
(1) Pink, Sarah, Doing Sensory Ethnography (London, UK: Sage, 2012), 85
(2) Pink, ibid., 65
(3) Pink, ibid., 59
(4) Organized by Holy Trinity Brompton, London, UK
(5) Pink, ibid., 39