Sensory Ethnography – News – Research and Education Portal in the Field of Intelligence – Higher School of Economics at the National Research University

Sensory Ethnography – News – Research and Education Portal in the Field of Intelligence – Higher School of Economics at the National Research University

Sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch are by no means only physiological phenomena. Sensory experiences say a lot about the social and cultural life of a community. It is no coincidence that scientists are increasingly including the analysis of sensory experience in research. How this enriches knowledge about society, we understand with the help of an article by a sociologist from the Higher School of Economics of the National Research University Polina Vanevskaya.

What is sensory ethnography?

This is the scientific method. He suggests that “feelings are everywhere,” and our physical experience is a mediator in the perception of the world. Therefore, researchers who practice it need an empathetic participation in “practices and places” that are meaningful to their informant. As a proponent of this method, anthropologist Sarah Pink explains, sensory ethnography involves “the production of meaning” in the context of joint activities with research participants. We are talking about interviews, walks, joint viewing and discussion of pictures, listening to music, etc., in essence, this is the production of knowledge between the self of the researcher and respondents, co-creation.

How is sensory ethnography different from traditional ethnography?

“Classical” ethnography also includes a long stay in the natural environment of the informants, regular observations of their contacts, interviews, and the collection of artifacts. The difference is that sensory ethnography prioritizes people’s feelings: their sensory experience appears to be the “main way of knowing the social world”. The researcher not only creates a “rich description” of culture, but also reconstructs its sensory system – the norms and patterns of feelings that people share.

Consider, for example, the video-walking method (video-walking), developed by the same Pink. She walked with the informants along the routes they had collected and made video recordings of the surrounding space. The tracks were supposed to include things of particular interest to the study participants, causing them to have certain feelings.

And what can be learned in this way?

For example, the identity of the inhabitants of a particular area. You can, for example, ask the researcher to show the researcher all the most important places in the region – those that reflect the past, the main geographical and cultural features, etc. It makes sense to ask informants to draw mind maps – as a way to fix people’s ideas about particular spaces. Biographical aspects are also practiced – in places related to the life of a particular person or community.

Primary organs – the sense organs themselves?

yes. A sensor is a sensory device as an operational complex that helps to understand the features of culture, human life and society. Differences in cultures can be seen in part as differences in the sensory system, whose organization, on the one hand, is partly determined by culture, but at the same time “creates culture”.

Sociologically speaking, people in social groups appear to be “sensory communities” that share “common ways of using their senses and perceiving their senses”, a common sensory system. People internalize sensory norms and reproduce them in bodily practices. Moreover, there are an infinite number of such practices. As the researchers note, social life “cannot take place without human production of the sensations of noise, heat, taste, smell, and spectacle” – by talking, screaming, singing, music, dancing, heating, sweating, hugging, treating, cooking, bathing, smoking, wearing perfume, dressing, lighting candles, and so on.

What is the philosophical concept behind sensory ethnography?

The theory of “embodied consciousness” by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty can be considered the basic theory. Physical practices (including pre-reflexology) mediate the perception of reality. Sensory experience is a specific form of construction of the world of life, which is then embodied in human actions. In other words, emotions contribute to cognition, act as “decisive mediators” in the process of generating data about the world, and influence our behaviour.

It is thought that there has been a sensory shift in the social sciences and humanities, but how and when?

The origins of the perceptual turn can be found in the work of the theorists of the Toronto School of Communication in the 1960s, Herbert Marshall McLuhan and colleagues. McLuhan’s media theory, based on the assumption that communication technologies determine the way society thinks and lives, “directed” researchers’ attention toward the sensory dimension of culture as a whole. It is known that McLuhan observed the transition from the auditory perception of reality by a person from an uneducated society to the visual one, which is characteristic of societies with well-developed writing. McLuhan emphasized that “phonetic writing” contributes to “man’s transition from the tribal world to the civilized world and gives him an eye instead of an ear.” This thesis was developed by another representative of the Toronto School – Walter J. Ong, author of Sensory Concept. He has been called “the author of the primary theories of the anthropology of the senses”.

Institutionalization of sensory transformation began in the second half of the eighties. Starting point “anthropology of the senses– A project by the Canadian researcher David Howes and his colleagues “Variety of Sensory Experiences” in 1987, and after that they published a collection of articles with the same name in 1991. The trend began to develop in Canada, the United States of America and Great Britain. In 2006, the first issue of the magazine was published.The senses and societyWith an introduction by David Howes, Michael Ball, Paul Gilroy, and Douglas Kahn. They demonstrated the formation of a new field of research and placed sensory experience in a social context: “Feelings mediate the relationship between the self-conscious individual and society, mind and body, and idea and object.”

Is it believed that Western culture has always nullified visual perception?

Yes, this is true, but it was clear that in non-Western cultures, other modes of perception may take the lead. Anthropologists have reasonably noted that “only by developing a rigorous awareness of the visual and textual biases of the Western episteme” can one hope to understand how to “live life in other cultural settings”. In other words, auditory, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory sensations cannot be ignored.

In the latter half of the 1970s, Anthony Seeger conducted research on the Suya people who live in the Mato Grosso region of Brazil. It turns out that speech and hearing in the sensory arrangement of these tribes are in the foreground. Unique ears are the main tool for understanding the world. They are round discs that are inserted into the perforations of the lips and ears and emphasize the social importance of speech and hearing.

Also known is Stephen Field’s work on the role of traditional drum sounds in the lives of the Kaloli people of Papua New Guinea. It is also an example of an uneducated society, where hearing is the main sensory mode. The sound of the drums used in rituals has an aesthetic, emotional and social content.

Today’s subject areaanthropology of the senses»It is the diversity of perceptual patterns in different cultures, the difference in the symbolic content of a particular pattern and its social significance. That is, the modern anthropology of emotion focuses on multisensory perception and the construction of reality.

How about searching for smell perception?

Anthony Seno has prepared a cohort study on research into the cultural dimension of the olfactory experience. “Scents are endowed with meanings that are culturally relevant and involved in social life as a way of learning about and interacting with the world.” For example, smells are signs of social identity (gender, race, class). Men and women view olfactory practices differently, such as the use of perfume. By the way, the study’s co-authors also published individual works devoted to the cultural history of touch and the sociology of personality.

There are studies of how the sense of smell stimulates memory, causing a person to associate with the emotional state he has already experienced in a similar olfactory experience. affects behavior. A simple example: in the study, a detective could not stand the smell of alcohol, because it reminded her of a traumatic childhood experience – her father’s alcoholism. As a result, at the wedding dinner, when the smell of wine was present, the respondent felt very uncomfortable.

Has sensory transformation affected sociology in the same way?

It is now clear that “sensory relationships are social relationships” because they affect how people perceive each other. Sensory transformation was actively taking place in sociology in 2010. But it was identified a century earlier: for example, sociology classicist Georg Simmel pointed out the importance of the sensory aspect in communication between people. In his essay A Journey into the Sociology of Feelings, he emphasized that sensory impressions are a means of knowing the Other: “The data about a person I receive when I see, hear, feel, <...> Just the bridge I take along <...> object.” Simmel studied the “social roles” of sight, hearing, and smell, and saw in smells as signs of social boundaries.

Much later, in the 80s, Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of taste as a set of preferences, in which not only a person’s lifestyle is manifested, but also his position in society and the level of cultural capital. According to him, different social groups also have different sensory preferences.

Interest in sensory experience then increased in the 1990s in the context of the development of sociology of the body. Its pioneer was the aforementioned Anthony Sennott, who studied the social functions of scent.

How was the language of the sociology of feelings formed?

The conceptual apparatus of the sociology of emotion began to take shape in 2012 with the publication of a cohort study by Philippe Vanini, Denis Wascala, and Simon Gottschalk. They rejected the dualist ontology in which experience and meaning operate separately. Instead, researchers have proposed a synthesis of sensation and perception (cognitive experience). They demonstrated the “feeling as interaction” approach, which allows “to understand sensitivity as social, and social experience as sensitivity”. The concept of “sensory communities” was also introduced.

In the same study, the concept of “physical labor” appeared. It represents everyday sensory practices that involve following ‘bodily rules’ that are relevant to particular contexts. All this serves to maintain the sensory system.

However, the sensory arrangement is not always straightforward. How do you discover it?

It is deeply ingrained in everyday life. The sensory system requires reflexive efforts or a violation of expectations in order to detect it. “It’s there, but you don’t know it until it’s bothered, until you suddenly come to life like thunder on a sunny day, annoying laughter coming through a blank wall of white noise, and a sudden stench in your living room,” they explain.

The sensory system has a symbolic dimension, because sensory perception includes the aesthetic and moral values ​​embedded in the sensory standards of a social group. Thus, the absence of an unpleasant odor in the human body is associated with hygiene, health, attractiveness, etc. In addition, the sensory system contextualizes the relevance and intensity of sensory manifestations. For example, excessive use of perfume or smoking in public places can irritate others – as a violation of sensory norms.


Study author:

Polina Vanevskaya, Research Intern, Center for Sociology of Culture, Institute of Education, National Research University, Higher School of Economics

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