Years ago I found myself in a mall. I wanted to kill some time, so I wandered into a Bose outlet store. As a musician, I was familiar with Bose sound equipment and always loved their speakers. I was familiar with their slogan “Bose for the Pros”, but this was my first exposure to their home sound systems. I watched a very impressive multimedia presentation about their equipment. During the demonstration, they showed a scene without music and without sound effects. They then showed the same scene in surround sound. Their comment was, “Your eyes tell you what to believe, your ears tell you how to feel about what you see and believe.” The addition of quality audio completely changed the experience.
The more senses we can engage the more complete our understanding of another person’s perspective. I believe this is one reason why shared experiences are so critical in developing relationships. Sensory ethnography is a way to gain knowledge of people and cultures through engaging the senses. The more we can step into the lives of others and engage the world as they engage the world, the better our will be our ability to understand the world through their eyes. Sarah Pink states, “Long-term fieldwork … enables ethnographers to live in the same environment as their research participants, experiencing the sensory rhythms and material practices of that environment.” This means that part of our research includes entering into the world of those whom we hope to understand, smelling the same smells, hearing the same sounds, tasting the same food, etc. Pink says, “The idea of the ethnographer playing a role of apprentice who learns about another culture by engaging and learning first-hand the practices and routines of local people has long since been part of the idea of participant observation.”
A few years ago I taught a missions class to Mexican ministerial students preparing for the mission field. After several weeks of studying culture in the classroom, it was time for a practical experience. We had “American Night” at the Yost house. The students came to our house for an American dinner shared with my family. From the moment they entered the house, it was as if we were in the United States. My wife, kids, and myself spoke no Spanish and pretended to not understand. This forced the students to try to communicate in English or motions. We ate roast beef and mashed potatoes. There were no tortillas and no salsa, which was highly distressing for some of the students. We ate family style and discovered that some of the students did not know how to ask for a dish or pass a dish. We concluded with a game of Uno. Each student had a sheet of paper to write observations and questions. Before the next class, they had to prepare a report on American culture.
The next class period was very insightful. The students presented their reports and then spent the rest of the class period interviewing me. Little things like taking their shoes off when they entered the house was not only confusing, but difficult. For many Mexicans, taking your shoes off at someone’s house is considered impolite. Their questions ranged from why we didn’t have tortillas to why we put toilet paper in the toilet. Without knowing it, the students engaged in sensory ethnography. Without knowing it myself, I have engaged in sensory ethnography many times over the years as I have sought to gain a better understanding of people and culture.
One final observation; sensory ethnography takes time. We must be careful to not assume we understand a people or culture based on limited experience. While engaging in a multi-sensory experience is insightful, we can easily reach wrong conclusions. While experiencing life together and asking questions is very insightful, I have often found that people do not always know why they do what they do.
Just a final thought, would my dissertation more effective if it were scratch and sniff?
 Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography (Sage Publications, 2009), 66.
 Ibid., 69.