Sensory Ethnography


Sensory Ethnography

Tom Martin, PhD


If you have made it this far into this textbook, you will be quite familiar with the idea of ‘participant observation’, the mainstay of the ethnographic method. Watching people, talking with them, and actively engaging in social practices are the participatory techniques through which the ethnographer learns to see the world as his or her participants do, rich with socially constructed and historically situated meaning. Yet the focus on seeing the world as your participants do sometimes eclipses the other sensory modes that people employ to make sense of social and material interactions. Especially in the ethnography of work, it is important to understand how your participants understand non-visual information, such as the textures of the materials they use or the feeling of the tools they operate. This embodied understanding cannot be adequately examined just by watching another person’s body; in these cases, ethnographic data collection requires feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting the physical world as well. Throughout this chapter, these non-visual methods of data collection will be collectively referred to as the techniques of sensory ethnography.


Sensory ethnography is not totally distinct from the rest of ethnography, as there is no such thing as ‘non-sensory’ ethnography. After all, the ethnographer always uses his or her eyes and ears during fieldwork, relying on the senses of sight and sound to form observations. The term ‘sensory ethnography’ is meant to remind the researcher that a myriad of other senses exist as well, many of which are routinely overlooked in studies of the social and cultural world. In this chapter, we will consider what these senses are, how they can be recorded, and how they might play into ethnographic explorations of particular kinds of work.


What are the ‘senses’?


You probably remember the classic five senses from your grade-school science class: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. These five senses are going to be the backbone of any sensory ethnography, which puts your whole body into conversation with the world around it. How do things sound? Music can play a big part in many cultures, and if you cannot describe how the music sounds, you will not be able to produce a full portrait of how that culture operates. How do things taste? Again, food can play a significant role in people’s lives, and being able to describe how different foods taste can allow you fully depict the cultures that eat those foods.


Sight as sense


‘Now wait’ you might be thinking:. ‘You said sight is one of the five senses. So isn’t observation already sensory ethnography?’. Yes, you are correct – all ethnographic data, including the simplest visual observations, comes from paying attention to one’s body. When you observe your research participants, you necessarily rely on your eyes, so you have therefore already started practicing sensory ethnography. Most sensory ethnographers, however, go beyond just describing what they see, talking instead about what it feels like for them to see certain things. For the purposes of this chapter, we can call this a difference between perception and sensation (Armstrong, 1962). Take these two excerpts as examples to illustrate the difference, starting with Eugene Cooper’s description of learning to do historic Chinese woodcarving:


…my boss, under pressure to keep me productively occupied, and not wishing to assign me any work too far beyond my limited capabilities, gave me a piece to work on that had already been begun by someone else. It was really poorly done, and for a while I wondered who was responsible. Slowly, a déjà vu took shape; the piece was really familiar. I had started it three months before. (Cooper, 1989, p. 145)


In this passage, Cooper tells us what it was like to perceive the work piece in front of him; in other words, he tells us about how he recognizes the object, rather than how it feels to see it. This kind of perceptual description is common in conventional participant observation, where the ethnographer is concerned with reporting what is happening in a particular place, and not how his or her body reacts to incoming sensations.


By contrast, consider this passage by Erin O’Connor, from an article in which she describes her experience of learning to blow glass:


I was interested in… turning and turning the glass, watching the configuration swim in the brilliant red, feeling the warmth simultaneously… I wondered if there were glassblowers who just stand [there] with the glass, never ever completing one object… At the time, this visual fantasia seemed brilliant, inspiring like a muse, and I thought surely that it must be a salient aspect of the glassblower’s pleasure of practicing her craft. (O’Connor, 2005, p. 197)


Like Cooper, O’Connor is telling us about what she saw when she was at work, learning her craft. Unlike Cooper, however, O’Connor focuses on what it felt like as the light and heat emanating from the materials reached her body, rather than just relating judgments about the appearance of the finished product. She focuses on her visual sensation of the glass-blowing process, the ‘brilliant red’ and the ‘visual fantasia’. This kind of description is the hallmark of the sensory ethnographer, who is concerned with the lived experience of the body in social and cultural practices.


Unfamiliar senses


Most people can confidently tell you about their experience of the ‘big five’ senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. While the sensory ethnographer does rely heavily on these commonly understood senses, he or she should also examine other sensations that arise in the body. Consider the following senses, as described by philosopher Mark Paterson (2007):


  • Proprioception, or “the body’s position felt as muscular tension” (p. 4). Imagine you are lying face-down on the ground, starting to do a push-up. The muscles in your upper back contract as you push against the floor, and the muscles in your upper arms fight against the weight of your body as your torso slowly rises. Even with your eyes closed, these sensations tell you where your body is in relation to the world around it.


  • Kinaesthesia, “the sense of the movement of body and limbs” (p. 4). When you are running, dancing, or playing a sport, you perceive the movement in your arms and legs without and visual clues to indicate that they are moving. You sense your muscles expanding and contracting in constant, reliable patterns, which you interpret as movement through space. In addition, the momentum you perceive as you speed up, stop short, or turn a corner signals to your body that your direction has changed, allowing you to perceive your bodily movement even when you are not in control of it (e.g., while riding in a car).


  • Vestibular Sense, which relates a sense of balance derived from information in the inner ear” (p. 4). If you have ever been on a boat in choppy water, you are already very familiar with the vestibular sense, which can be uniquely unsettling. Closing your eyes when you feel seasick does not make you feel better, because you still sense the up-and-down movement of the boat, even if you cannot see the rising and falling seas. Likewise, if you close your eyes while riding your bike, you will sense the moment you begin to fall off, since the body has this mechanism for determining when it is upright.


To consider the role of these other bodily senses in human action, take a look at this passage from Caroline Potter’s sensory ethnography of a dance studio:


Phrases employed by contemporary dance instructors such as ‘melt into the floor’, ‘feel the weight of the head’, and ‘anchor the [heavy] pelvis into the ground’ prompted students to bring the body’s relationship with gravity to explicit attention. A focal point for this attention was ‘the center’, a conceptual area of the torso where the dancing body’s ‘connected’ movements are meant to originate. In classical ballet the center is indicated in the region of the rib cage and is used for ‘pulling up’, the action of lifting the upper torso away from the pelvis to give the appearance of lightness in the upper body, creating an ethereal quality to the movement. In contrast, contemporary dancers tend to indicate a lower position of the center, in the region of the pelvis, which translates to movement qualities of ‘weight’ and ‘groundedness’ (Potter, 2008, p. 450; edited for American spelling).


Which senses do you recognize Potter relying upon, outside of the ‘classic five’?


Whose senses?


As you may have noticed from the ethnographies quoted above, there are two main ways to conduct a sensory-ethnographic observation. The first way is to closely examine your own experience of your body, normally while conducting some  kind of culturally situated practice; we can call that sensory introspection. The second way is to ask someone else to describe their sensory experience to you, which is called sensory-ethnographic interview.

Sensory introspection


Introspection has a long history in psychology, where it was a popular research method until the beginning of the twentieth century (Titchener, 1987). Eventually, introspection was abandoned by psychologists in favor of observational experiments, which were thought to be better at demonstrating cause-and-effect relationships (Locke, 2009). As ethnographers, however, we are not primarily concerned with discovering hard and fast laws that govern human behavior, as many psychologists are. Instead, we are interested in exploring the nuances of human experience and the intersection between experience and culture. As a consequence, introspection is still well-suited to ethnographic investigation.


So what exactly is introspection? Think of it as simply reflecting on the sensations that arise in your body – how they feel, where they come from, and what they mean. Imagine doing a sensory ethnography of learning to ride a bike. At first, you would probably experience an unintelligible storm of sensations as you twist your handlebars back and forth until you fall over. As you start to get the hang of it, however, you take note of particular sensations and relate them to different outcomes in performance. You might notice that you are much less wobbly at higher speeds, as if the bike starts to pull you upright as you go faster. You may notice that when you turn to one side or the other, the momentum in your body tries to carry you forward, and you need to lean into the turn to stay on the bike. You could even notice that pressing the brakes too hard suddenly pushes all your weight forward, causing you to feel yourself sailing over the handlebars and through the air – until, of course, you feel the texture of the pavement as it makes contact with your body.


All of the thoughts that you recorded in your ethnography of riding a bicycle are introspective, in that they record your first-person bodily experience. This kind of sensory auto-ethnography comes naturally when you are learning something new, since you are already listening very intently to your body and relating new sensations to the performance of the task at hand. Sports, dance, and craft skills are all great topics for introspective ethnography, since they require you to spend a lot of time focused on sensations in your body and their relationship to the goals you are trying to achieve. While experiencing these new sensations comes naturally, though, capturing them in language presents a more difficult challenge. What did it feel like when you first fell off the bike, versus when you fell off it for the tenth time? Did you have time to reflect on the feeling of your body in space as you were falling, or were you too busy worrying about hitting the ground? Are you able to reflect on these experiences in the past, or are they clouded by the passage of time?


At the beginning of this section, it was noted that psychologists rarely use introspective methods these days because they are not considered adequately reliable. While questions of reliability are less pressing for ethnographers, given the relative emphasis on interpretation over objectivity, you will still need to convince the reader that you really felt what you say you felt. Providing ‘evidence’ of sensory experience is nearly impossible, but you can put your readers at ease by taking these factors, as explained by Lincoln and Guba (1985), into account:


  • Credibility: Show the reader that you did everything necessary to support credible observations of your own experience. If you are writing about learning ballet, your results are unlikely to seem credible if you only attend one dance class; make sure to attend as many sessions as it takes for you to really ‘get a feel’ for the activity.


  • Dependability: Make sure to be specific about how you recorded your experience, from start to finish. If you took notes, tell the reader when and how, and explain whether you suspect your memory of the experience changed between when it happened and when you wrote it down. The better your reader can follow your process of documentation and analysis, the more dependable your work will appear.


  • Confirmability: Is your sensory-ethnographic study something that other people could repeat? Something very common, like learning to throw clay pots, is an excellent topic for a sensory ethnography, since many readers will be able to confirm that you were likely to have felt what you report feeling.


Sensory-ethnographic interview


Sensory-ethnographic interviewing is, as you may have guessed, interviewing other people about their sensory experience. In a way, sensory interviews are easier to conduct than sensory introspection, since you do not need to interpret the sensations arising in your own body, which can be a tricky task. On the other hand, sensory interviews just push this problem of introspection onto another person, who is much less likely to have thought through all of the prickly questions around sensory ethnography in the level of detail that you have (once you have finished this chapter, that is).


The key to a successful sensory-ethnographic interview, as with all interviews, is preparation. Begin by thinking hard about the questions you want to include on your interview schedule. If you are asking a potter what it feels like to throw pots, the question “What does it feel like to throw pots?” is not going to cut it; your interviewee will undoubtedly be confused, and give you a vague answer (e.g., “It feels great!”). You might start instead by asking about the steps in the process, having the person narrate the construction of pottery from start to finish. At each step of their description, ask specific probing questions, exploring what movements they use to achieve different goals. Once your conversation reaches that level of specificity, you can start to ask questions about sensation, like asking how the potter knows the clay is mixed well enough that it is ready to work. Finally, do not discount responses that initially seem disappointing. If someone tells you “I just know – that’s how it feels to me”, write this down and think of how to probe it more deeply in a follow-up interview.


Sarah Pink (2009) suggests conducting sensory-ethnographic interviews while doing the same activity that your interviewee is describing, as this co-participation ensures that the experience will be fresh in the person’s mind. Furthermore, by participating alongside the interviewee, you are given a frame of reference for understanding what he or she is describing; in Pink’s example of riding bicycles together with the person you are interviewing (p. 85), it is easy to imagine the interviewee pointing to parts of your bike as you both ride along, or telling you to pay attention to certain sensory experiences that they recognize as important. Just remember to be careful in whatever you are doing – if you are a novice and the interviewee is an expert in whatever activity you have chosen to study, make sure you can safely keep up!


Sensory research topics in the world of work


Now that you have a handle on what sensory ethnography is, you might be asking yourself what it has to do with an Ethnographies of Work course. Most likely, your study of the world of work will not involve riding a bicycle or doing ballet. But work, no matter what kind, always involves the human body in one way or another, and your ethnographies will be improved by asking how the senses are engaged within the workplace. Take the following research topics as examples of how sensory ethnography can illuminate a study of work:


  • Embodied skills: Skilled practical work often involves seeing, feeling, hearing, or otherwise sensorially encountering tools and materials in ways that only experts in particular trades can understand (Roth, 2012). You might be interested in asking craftspeople, construction workers, or professional artists how they perceive the materials that they work with, as well as how they developed this kind of understanding. If you have the time and resources, you may even be interested in learning the basics of a new trade yourself – apprenticing oneself to master craftsperson is a time-honored anthropological tradition (see Coy, 1989).


  • Painful professions: One unfortunate truth about the world of work is that some jobs have negative effects on the bodies of the people who carry them out. Manual trades are often repetitive and physically demanding, leading to both chronic and acute injuries. As an ethnographer of work, you will sometimes need to explore how particular jobs damage workers’ bodies, and what daily work feels like for someone who has developed arthritis, back pain, or repetitive stress injuries from problems on the job. These negative consequences can be less obvious as well; a waitress who is required to wear a short skirt in a heavily air-conditioned restaurant will undoubted have a lot to say about the sensory aspects of her job.


  • Vivid environments: Even if your research questions are not primarily focused on sensory data, consider adding some sensory texture to your descriptions of the ethnographic setting. For example, if the site you are investigating is very loud or very quiet, let the readers know, so that they can better imagine being there. Describing the temperature, the ambient smells, or the textures of commonly encountered surfaces will help the reader experience the world as you perceive it. For example, how comfortable are the chairs in the office you are observing? Does the room smell like freshly-brewed coffee, or carpet-cleaning chemicals? All of this description will help to put your reader into the space you are describing – and you may even discover meaningful connections between sensory data and cultural experience that you had not previously considered.




Remember that participant observation – the ethnographer’s classic technique – is not necessarily limited to visual observation. Investigating certain questions about the world of work will require you to employ your whole body as a research instrument, examining the sounds, smells, and physical textures of the workplace. Once you start asking these questions, a raft of interesting challenges will arise: How do you capture your embodied experience in the moment? How do you describe fleeting sensations, or the sense of your body’s position in space? These challenges are what make sensory ethnography illuminating and interesting – not to mention, fun to conduct!


This short chapter is meant as a quick introduction to the idea of sensory ethnography, rather than a complete how-to manual. If you want to explore this topic further, take a look at the reference list below for in-depth exploration of sensory theories and methods. In particular, Sarah Pink’s Doing Sensory Ethnography (2009) provides an excellent introduction for the beginner embodied ethnographer.


In summary:


  • Think about using your whole body to gather data while conducting a workplace ethnography
  • Consider senses past the ‘classic five’, including your senses of balance and bodily movement
  • Make sure to have a plan for making credible, dependable, and confirmable Convince the reader that you put enough time and energy into your fieldwork to make believable claims about your sensory experience.


Study Questions


  1. What is the difference between sensation and perception?


  1. What bodily senses can you use to conduct ethnographic research?


  1. When is introspective sensory research appropriate, and when are sensory interviews a better choice?


  1. How can you convince the reader that you actually experienced the sensations that you report in your ethnography?


  1. What topics would you like to explore from a sensory perspective? Would sensory methods could help you to conduct your workplace ethnographies?


Key Terms


Sensory ethnography: A mode of ethnographic observation that takes sensory data into account, including (but not limited to) the sensations of touch, hearing, and smell, as well as the roles that these senses play in cultural and social interactions.


Sensation: Feelings arising from interactions between the environment and the physical body. Examples include the sense of heat, brightness, pain, or movement. Sensations are raw physical input, rather than interpretations of what the input represents (compare perception).


Perception: Interpretation of sensory input signaling the presence of meaningful objects or events. For example, the perception of a coffee mug is based on interpretation of the sensation of light reflecting off it and hitting the eye. Perception is generally instantaneous, rather than consciously considered.


Proprioception: The perception of the position of the body, interpreted through the sensation of muscular tension.


Kinaesthesia: The perception of bodily movement; closely linked to proprioception.


Vestibular Sense: The perception of bodily balance, interpreted through sensations arising in the inner ear.




Armstrong, D. M. (1962). Bodily sensations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cooper, E. (1989). Apprenticeship as field method: Lessons from Hong Kong. In M. Coy (Ed.), Apprenticeship: From Theory to Method and Back Again. New York: State University of New York Press.

Coy, M. (1989). Being what we pretend to be: The usefulness of apprenticeship as a field method. In M. Coy (Ed.), Apprenticeship: From Theory to Method and Back Again. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Locke, E. A. (2009). It’s Time We Brought Introspection Out of the Closet. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 4, 24–25.

O’Connor, E. (2005). Embodied knowledge: The experience of meaning and the struggle towards proficiency in glassblowing. Ethnography, 6, 183–204.

Paterson, M. (2007). The senses of touch: Haptics, affects and technologies. Oxford: Berg.

Pink, S. (2009). Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: Sage.

Potter, C. (2008). Sense of Motion, Senses of Self: Becoming a Dancer. Ethnos, 73, 444–465.

Roth, W.M. (2012). First-person methods: Toward an empirical phenomenology of experience. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Titchener, E. B. (1987). Introspection. The American Journal of Psychology, 100, 705–707.