Yesterday I was talking with a colleague about their experiences while living in Minnesota. During the discussion the topic of lutefisk came up. For those not familiar with lutefisk, it is fish soaked in lye. The lye preserves it, makes it gelatinous, and depending on the type of original fish, can be particularly pungent. Lutefisk finds its origins in Northern Europe, and is traditionally eaten by Norwegians, Swedes, and Finns. Minnesota has a large population of Norwegian and Swedish immigrants and their descendent families. My colleague explained that Lutefisk was often served at traditional Christmas dinners in Minnesota. He detailed how the Norwegians visiting Minnesota were at times surprised that lutefisk was served as a holiday meal, while the Minnesotans went to great lengths to incorporate it into their traditional meals.
While lutefisk is culturally a Norwegian (and other) food, the time and place in which it is eaten has different meaning based on location. The European Norwegians visiting Minnesota were heard to snark about lutefisk being eaten at home because there was nothing else to eat. For them it was common, and not necessarily pleasant. For the Minnesotans, the experience of making the lutefisk with family and enjoying it on holidays restored a sense of family, connection and brought up warm memories. The meaning of lutefisk is clearly tied to the time, place, and history of the people and/or culture experiencing it. Finally, for my colleague, who is neither from Minnesota nor Norwegian, the very thought of eating lutefisk was nauseating.
Pink, in her book Doing Sensory Ethnography,[i] discusses the theory and practice of sensory ethnography. She defines ethnography as, “ the process of creating and representing knowledge (about society, culture and individuals) that is based on ethnographers’ own experience.” (p. 8). In sensory ethnography the researcher utilizes all of the senses, as the culture defines them, to create this knowledge. She goes on to explain how sensory ethnography must consider place, location, social norms, perceptions, and other factors, to ascertain the meaning of experience. Thus, for the European Norwegians, their experience of lutefisk was normal and mundane, not celebratory. However, for the Minnesotan Norwegians it represented a family and cultural tie and was special, not ordinary. For my colleague, for whom lutefisk is neither normal nor celebratory, it was incongruent with his cultural ideas and norms.
My colleague’s repulsion toward lutefisk raises another key aspect for the ethnographer. Pink argues that the ethnographer can never be purely objective, but rather is in fact infused with their own biases and perspectives. She also suggests that the ethnographer should be self aware, and develop a detachment from their own cultural biases in order to gain better understanding of another perspective or culture. In my social work courses I teach about the use of intercultural skills when working with people of different backgrounds, cultures and values. One of these skills is called “Tolerance of Ambiguity”, in which one learns to tolerate one’s own discomfort with a cultural practice that is incongruent with their own or perhaps is not fully understood. In either description, when working or researching across cultures, in order to tolerate one’s own discomfort, one must be able to name it, and then move forward anyway.
Pink’s book provides a sky-view of sensory ethnography. She suggests a research approach in which the ethnographer immerses themselves in the full sensory experience of another culture as much as possible in order to gain understanding. This may be accomplished through long term immersion or short term, sporadic contact. Multiple strategies may be employed, which may or may not include participant interviews. Pink writes with a specific point of view, and incorporates certain assumptions into her writing. First, she assumes the reader has an understanding of her theoretical orientations and language. Thus at times her writing language uses words that are specific to her orientation and may not be as familiar to a reader from a different discipline. She also assumes that the reader has a fair understanding of ethnography as a practice, and avoids rather foundational instruction. Her work is more principle oriented than prescriptive.
Pink also suggests an approach to understanding others that I find rather profound. In some ways it is almost like a glorious re-discovery of the human condition. In Western cultures, our approaches can be academic, detached, specifically objective. We value quantitative scientific inquiry. Sensory ethnography doesn’t throw out scientific inquiry, but rather expands the inquiry to be all that can be experienced, through all of our senses. This re-connection of sensory experience to knowledge and knowing goes beyond intellectualization to emotional and empathetic responses. In fact, Pink concludes with this assertion:
The ethnographer’s task is often not to simply represent, but to convince. She or he seeks to invite empathetic engagements and in doing so to invoke a sense of intimacy and sympathy in the viewer/reader/user. (p. 153)
This goal might be viewed by some as quite controversial. However, in the practice of ministry and education, perhaps it might prove to be a useful strategy.
My research goals are to create a replicable model of international partnership between the university where I teach and several ministries or non-governmental organizations in developing nations. Through these partnerships students will be able to build relationship with people of another setting and culture, and apply the skills that they are learning in the classroom in local and international service. The question becomes: how do we motivate students to be involved in international service? Sensory ethnography can be a tool in which students expand their understanding of the other group or culture while gaining an emotional and sensory connection. It seems to follow that motivation increases when people feel connected to one another.
In ministry I envision even greater possibility. I live in the Western United States, in a “traditional” western culture in which we go about task – even in church – and are more prone to miss the emotional, relational, sensual context of our lives. I can only begin to imagine what might happen if we were to intentionally incorporate more sensory experience into our practice of faith. How would our feelings toward one another change? How would our expression of faith and love and honor and awe toward God change? How could we appropriately incorporate such methodology without being manipulative, but opening up the experiences of our faith families to a broader/deeper understanding? As I move away from the intellectual analysis of the sensory ethnography material, I begin to get a deeper passion for how we might engage our people more in simply living and worshiping God. And that excites me.
[i] Pink, S. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. Los Angeles: Sage.