Someone once told me that as individuals we end up all singing the same song again and again, meaning that no matter what sermon I preach, paper I write, or even conversation I have, it usually revolves around the same guiding principle that I value and is unique to me. For me, reading Sensory Ethnography reminds me of my song: the value of reflection, becoming more self-aware in relationship to how God has made me and the rest of the world, with all of our senses.
I’ll confess to practicing Bayard’s suggestion on Sensory Ethnography by trying something I’ve not done before in my reading/non-reading. I read the first couple of pages until I landed on the phrase “reflexive attention” (by the way, I accidentally read this book first instead of Pink’s other book, so the word was new in this first read). I found the definition of “reflexive attention” to have language I use often – becoming aware, use of perception and place, allowing for imagination, and finally my favorite line: “learning as embodied, emplaced, sensorial, and empathetic” (p. 63). With my kindling interest in Pink’s articulation of this part of sensory ethnography, I searched only for places that spoke to that particular phrase. Here’s what I discovered:
When it comes to reflexive attention, the ethnographer has to be intentional in both the initial fieldwork and the ongoing personal responses. In the study of culture/people group/experience, keen observation focuses on everything going on, not just the words spoken and/or visual cues, but the underlying interaction that accompanies smells and tastes, touch and space in the ordinary and extraordinary. As Pink says, “knowledge beyond language” (p. 64) is a key component to understanding a culture from within for sensory ethnography.
Moreover, to positively compound the learning, the researcher needs to use reflexive attention to deepen the insight through ongoing analysis of his/her own internal physiological responses to the experience(s). Unless the ethnographer is aware of the personal impact, the study will be limited and even skewed.
For me, I practice sensory ethnography (before I even knew what it was) in offering spiritual direction to people. I have to constantly be aware of my own internal reactions as well as the external environment in which I offer what I hope is sacred space. While I don’t necessarily share all my internal reactions (in fact, it’s rare that I do, other than listening to what the Holy Spirit may prompt me to do with them), I know that they influence how I listen to the person sharing his/her soul with me. My greatest learning comes when I work with my Spiritual Direction supervisor to recognize and then gently hold what was going on inside of me when it comes to caring for and listening to another person.
As well, part of sacred space in spiritual direction means creating an environment that supports a person who wants to be able to listen to what God has for them. In the Eastern Orthodox world, their grasp of what it means to encounter God through the use of incense, icons, and liturgy – the sensory experience – offers a fresh expression that I wish my Evangelical tradition would use more. In my practice of spiritual direction, I want to be aware of what external influences might encourage or discourage one to recognize God, the one who has always been present, but maybe not acknowledged.
While sensory ethnography is not about creating the environment, more accurately, it’s about recording it, Pink’s focus on reflexive attention is a tool that recognizes how significant a response to an environment can be. Like Christ, we are incarnate people who are impacted by our own humanity, environment, and the work of God’s Holy Spirit, all at the same time…while singing my song J.