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

Scratch and Sniff

Written by: on September 18, 2014

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.”[1]   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.”[2]

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?




[1] Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography (Sage Publications, 2009), 66.

[2] Ibid., 69.

About the Author


Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

8 responses to “Scratch and Sniff”

  1. Dawnel Volzke says:

    Brian – very perceptive post. You mentioned that sensory ethnography takes time. In my post, I also mentioned that I do much better when I slow down and take time to really absorb my surroundings and to engage with the people around me. In America, we move so fast and at such an impersonal level. We have some Amish friends and have been doing ministry in their community for several years. I find that I must “go slow to go fast”. By slowing down and taking the time to understand and get to know one another, my ministry efforts are better received.

    I also have family and friends who immigrated to the U.S. Coming to America and integrating into our culture was totally overwhelming to them. They perceived us as rude and uncaring, because we move so fast that we often don’t take the time to build relationships.

  2. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Brian. I love your Pink quote about being an apprentice. The point of an apprentice is to take a lot of time to learn from the people/master. Jesus and the disciples being an obvious example for us. It’s a great reminder that we are all students. Thanks.

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Brian, I also want to pick on the thought strand of ethnography being a research method that takes a long time. Specifically what I’m wondering is how effectively I will be able to engage in the kind of info gathering that is needed for my proposed dissertation… I find myself connecting with the values and methodology embraced by ethnographers and thinking that over the long haul of life, I am cut out for it but I’m concerned that only having two years won’t give the time needed to really answer the requisite research questions.

    And finally, if you could figure out a way to have a scratch and sniff dissertation, I think you would be a rich man some day!

  4. mm Dave Young says:


    Thanks for the great post, what a good idea – an American night. When I lived in Thailand, I was so focused on learning the Thai culture, trying to see things through another’s perspective I didn’t really focus on bringing Thais into my American culture. To host an “American” night then to debrief with that group about their experience would have been fun and enlightening for both of us. Thanks for sharing your experience and your ideas.


  5. Travis says:

    Brian – Time spent with other people from other cultures is paramount in getting to understand them at least better than not participating with them. Cultural rhythms are not really clearly understood unless you are spending time in more than one area in that culture. You can’t get to know anybody or culture without unbiased time spent with them. I think this is important because just getting a quick glimpse of a culture from already predetermined set of opinions, will not give you a good definition of that culture. Sad to say people do this all the time and instead of really participating they are just judging a culture by what they had already determined!

  6. Mary says:

    Staying here in Zambia just a week, I’m overwhelmed by the sensory overload, asking as your students did, “why do the Zambians do this? and that? and what was that?” But what has fascinated me the most here, and reminded through your experience with Bose, I needed music to actually feel all those questions (if that makes sense) in order to have a sense of really knowing the answers.
    (Can’t log in like normal-post from Mary)

  7. Brian, I read an article about research – couple months ago – that IBM scientists have now created an LCD screen that can project texture. Yes – run your finger over that screen and feel.. sand, or paper, or water, or …? One step toward that interesting dissertation! But until we have that ability, how about a dissertation with images and a digital version with links to images or video or sound? ANd how about connecting your project on missions to music and its impact on bridging cultures – or on bringing the global to local? Just a thought 😉

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