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Does the “Sensory Turn” mean the End of Ethnographic Storytelling?

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Zainabu Jallo

As a research method, ethnography is a process of investigation that involves a deep and long-term engagement with a field site in order to accurately document codes and conducts, demeanour and interactions within a given group or community of people. Ethnographic research offers detailed and context-specific analyses and accounts of the social lives and cultures of a group of people studied via a range of methods. Sensory Ethnography as the name implies, belongs to the range of ethnographic methods. It sets out to critically explore and apply the diverse dimensions of the senses during ethnographic research along with the researcher`s corporeal encounters. Employing the senses to ethnographic inquiry proffers experimenting with the idea of generating alternative ways of understanding everyday life through sensorial investigations. It calls “for a rethinking of the ethnographic process through a theory of space and place that can engage with both the phenomenology of place and the politics of space.” (Pink 2009:23)

A still from my ongoing Sensory Ethnographic Project " My Feet Know More Sories than My Mouth Can Tell" © Zainabu Jallo
A still shot from my ongoing Sensory Project, "My Feet Know More Stories than My Mouth Can Tell" © Zainabu Jallo

What then is the sensory turn? David Howes[1] situates the sensory turn in the 1980s when researchers began to explore how they could apply their own corporeality and senses to ethnographic analysis, and then relate their experiences via different media. This is indeed a very personal technique of interpretation which “experiments with multiple media for the registration and communication of cultural facts and theories” (Howes 2013:3). Prior to the sensory turn, ethnographic research was largely text-based. Howes designates Johan Huizinga and Lucien Febvre, both cultural historians, as the forerunners of the sensory turn with their engagements with imagination and attention to sounds and smell over other senses. Ethnographic research, in addition to field notes, included sound recordings and films in a bid to develop alternative ways of approaching social concerns with materiality and sensoriality as amplified through technology. By this, I also mean the medium through which the research outcome is interpreted and circulated. For example, the ethnographic method of soundwalking[2] engages the aural senses and for the researcher to be able to “tell”, “describe” or near-accurately relate and represent the sounds of his/her research interest, a good sound recording device is required.

The art of storytelling is ineluctable to humanity. Storytelling, whether factual or fabricated has propelled the advancement of humanity; from hieroglyphic cave drawings to primal oral traditions, storytelling to this day remains a foremost medium of communication. From Pablo Picasso`s Guernica (1937) to Edward Curtis` In the Land of the War Canoes (1914) the art of storytelling has come to incorporate different methods. Ethnographic storytelling, for a non- ethnographer could conjure an idea of traditional story telling which is an art of relating events, either for didactic or amusement purposes etc. Ethnographic storytelling is however not too far from the general understanding of storytelling. Although one might beg the question: Is storytelling merely understood as a “strategy for transforming private into public meanings?”(Jackson 2002). How then, has ethnographic storytelling utilised the transformation of meanings through the engagement of the senses? How is ethnographic storytelling different for any other form of storytelling?

Storytelling in an ethnographic sense is a scientific method engaged in elucidating,

comprehending, and deciphering cultural and social evolution. It is a way of making sense of

the world by relating or rather “telling” observations and theoretically re-telling stories that researchers encounter during their fieldwork. This is not a new development in ethnography, what is new however, are the modes of telling that have come to include not only innovative ways of knowledge production which in turn keeps modifying the various modes of ethnographic storytelling. Methods such as “soundwalking” (Westerkamp 2001) “go-alongs” (Kusenbach 2003) “moving dialogues” (Irwing 2001) have come to complement sensorial inquiry such as Andrew Irwing`s complex investigations into the “interior dialogue”[3] that elicits newer perceptions and meanings to ethnographic storytelling. What the sensory turn has contributed to ethnographic inquiry as whole is also the acknowledgement of imagination and inventiveness as substantial practices in the interpretation of human social relations.

© Zainabu Jallo

The sensory turn thereof, acknowledges that sensoriality is essential to how we study, cognise and interpret lives of other people or how researchers guide their participants to tell their own stories. Can we then conceive of sensory ethnographic storytelling without technology? Innovations in technology have had a tremendous impact on visual media storytelling within ethnographic research. Digital stories can be accessed from anywhere in the world through the internet. These inventions have made audio-visual technologies lighter and more easily accessible therefore facilitating a change in the practice of ethnographic storytelling. More often than not, the positionality of the ethnographer and the potential effect that their position has on the research process is questioned. Questions such as: To what degree are ethnographic stories constructed through decisions that ethnographers make during their research? Whose ethnographic story is really being told? are often asked. The empirical knowledge of the researcher has an important and dynamic way of examining the social cultures; ethnographic accounts of cultural practices for instance are given in detailed and persuasive narratives. Ethnographic investigation is therefore situated at the crossroads where various kinds of storytelling and phenomenology exist. I refer to this positionality to elucidate where the sensory ethnographer appears within the storytelling frame.

The ethnographer is liable to tell critical stories about other people's narratives. When the senses (and taking into account that their volume of application cannot be gauged or weighed) are applied to enrich the stories or concretise them from a phenomenological standpoint, could there be a risk of the researcher over-applying their senses? Nonetheless, phenomenological research within ethnography offers rewarding insights for ethnographers and non-ethnographers alike. This is increasingly being proven by ethnographic story telling such as Lucien Castaing-Taylor`s Leviathan (2012), and Alyssa Grossman`s, Lumina amintirii (2010). Castaing-Taylor and Grossman, through visual techniques, bring a remarkable degree of defamiliarization to their ways of ethnographic storytelling. In Leviathan, one sees familiar things differently such as the clear distinctions between sounds of the same element; water. We encounter human and non-human actants on the same pedestal. Here, we can perceive ethnographic storytelling as a profoundly ethical practice that heightens the role of human senses not just for the storyteller but also for the audience.

"Olha pra cima!" © Zainabu Jallo

The sensory turn has therefore, unlocked more channels of ethnographic interpretation and storytelling, it has generated new age ethnographic storytellers who engage a series of theoretical and applied techniques that support them to contemplate, sense and describe data dynamics within scientific settings. Sensory ethnographic storytelling is a defamiliarized lens towards socio-cultural phenomena. It is a form of storytelling that does not give prominence to verbal or written forms of story telling.

Rather than the end of ethnographic storytelling, the sensory turn enriches ethnographic storytelling in an innovative way of expression that closely follows the rapid developments in technology. It elicits a different kind of reaction, often richer and with a wider reach, nudging the receiver to fully engage their own senses too. The sensory turn has aided ethnographic storytelling to move along with technological advancement that enriches ethnographic storytelling; expanding its audiences beyond the academic sphere.

[1] See, David Howes. 2013. “The Expanding Field of Sensory Studies”, in Sensory Studies: [2] Soundwalking is described as a physical excursion with the aim of listening to the environment. See, Hildegard Westerkamp. (2001) “Soundwalking”, also see Margarethe Kusenbach. (2003) “street Phenomenology” [3] The notion of interiority here refers to an individual ́s inner consciousness. Giving centrality to the inner voice of his research participants, Irwing`s mode of enquiry is constructed to fit a complex psychological context thereby producing an alternative way of ethnographic storytelling by means of the senses. It is quite interesting also note that ethnographic story telling is not restricted to the researcher’s narratives but in Irwing`s case we see him positioned as a facilitator or an intermediary where research participants can tell their own stories without the interference or interpretation of an ethnographer.

see Andrew Irving. 2001. “Strange Distance: Towards an Anthropology of Interior Dialogue.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 25, no. 1 (2011). Also see, Andrew Irving. 2016. “The Lives of other Citizens”, in Mining Imagination. Ethnographic Approaches Beyond the Written Word, edited by Michaela Schäuble. AnthroVision 4.2. WORKS CITED Andrew Irving. 2016. “The Lives of other Citizens”, in Mining Imagination. Ethnographic Approaches Beyond the Written Word, edited by Michaela Schäuble. AnthroVision 4.2.:

Edward Curtis. 1914. Reel. In the Land of War Canoes. New York: Milestone Film and video.

Hildegard Westerkamp.2019, The Disruptive Nature of Listening: Today, Yesterday, Tomorrow.” Sound, Media, Ecology, pp. 45–63.

Margarethe Kusenbach. 2003. “Street Phenomenology: The Go-Along as Ethnographic Research Tool” Vol. 4, No. 3, Special issue: Phenomenology in Ethnography pp. 455-485

Michael Jackson. 2002. The Politics of Storytelling. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanu1l1 Press, 14-15. Pablo Picasso. 1937. Guernica. oil on canvas, 349 cm × 776 cm. (Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Sarah Pink. 2012. “Principles for Sensory Ethnography: Perception, Place, Knowing, Memory and Imagination”, in dies.: Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE, pp. 23-43.

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