Coming to Our Senses

In this Conversations episode of This Anthro Life, Adam Gamwell and Ryan Collins explore the subject of sensory ethnography –  a focus in anthropology that tends to deemphasize the written word to explore visual, acoustic, and other sensory perceptions. Today, researchers explore senses increasing in the media through virtual simulations, visual and auditory stimuli that cause different reactions (fostering disorientation or meditative states), and of course art. But, how we perceive the world around us can also be influenced by culture and our surroundings, from music, to dance, to collective effervescence. After all, viral examples in recent years (like the infamous dress), demonstrate that human perception varies visually from person to person (often in the recognition of more or less recognized colors in the light spectrum). Individual distinctions aside, as humans we’re limited in our generally ability to sense and see the world around (infrared and ultraviolet light are imperceptible to us, for example). Yet, tactile sense is intrinsic to our relatively unique to our ability to produce and use tools. Though it tends to overlooked and under recognized in most anthropological settings, sense is critical to the human experience. This episode explores just a few examples of projects related to sensory ethnography and how they take us beyond our everyday experience of the perceived world around us.

What is Sensory Ethnography

Sense and perception has always been part of ethnographic work, but it hasn’t always been emphasized. According to David Howes, studies focused on sense perception have been documented as early as the 16th century, when smell, auditory, and visual perceptions were emphasized. In 20th Century ethnography, however, the senses took a backseat. Switching again in recent years, with broadly accessible digital video and auditory technologies, the senses have once again come back into focus.

From Sarah Pink’s book ‘Doing Sensory Ethnography,’ this focusing on the senses accounts for and expands upon scholarship that reconceptualized ethnography as gendered, embodied and more. In doing so it draws from theories of human perception and place to propose a framework for understanding the ethnographic process and the ethnographer’s practice as contextually embedded, embodied, and emerging through the senses. Thus the idea of a sensory ethnography involves not only attending to the senses in research and representation, but reaches towards a more sophisticated set of ideas to understand human experience.

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab takes more distilled approach to their definition, stating that sensory ethnography is any “creative work and research that is constitutively visual or acoustic—conducted through audiovisual media rather than purely verbal sign systems.”

But, why does this matter? Sometimes you just know something, like your laundry is clean by the smell or feel of it. That’s harder to write down or put into words outside of poetry. And even then, why do we privilege the written? Ernst Karel puts sensory studies this way:

they engage with the ways in which our sensory experience is pre-or non-linguistic, and part of our bodily being in the world. It takes advantage of the fact that our cognitive awareness – conscious as well as unconscious – consists of multiple strands of signification, woven of shifting fragments of imagery, sensation and malleable memory. Works of sensory media are capable of echoing or reflecting or embodying these kinds of multiple simultaneous strands of signification.

Heightening Sensory Experiences through Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)

Secrets of the Empire is a hyper reality experience collaboration between ILMX Lab and The Void. Hyper-reality are VR experiences built on real sets with props, smells, temperature changes, and 3D sounds. In other words it is a merging of virtual reality, where you wear a virtual interface, and augmented reality, that places virtual objects in the real world, on steroids because hyperreality adds temperature, humidity and scents to totally transform your experience of reality. Imagine the possibilities of conducting studies in hyperreality centers where parts of our brains and our emotional selves can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is virtual.

Steven Feld – Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression

Acoustemology is the field of study of experiences of space mediated by speech and action; also looks at the inter-vocal or acoustic dimension of social relationships. Steven Feld is widely considered to be the pioneer of acoustemological studies that focus on sound as one of the most important senses, particularly in his work amongst the Kaluil of Papua New Guinea who live in dense jungle vegetation. Depending largely on sound as a means to know one’s location and as a way to understand home and place, leads one to an inclination to a relational ontology; we aren’t the only species in the world.

In one famous story, Feld was asking about bird taxonomy and identification. His respondent blurted out one day “Listen-to you they are birds, to me they are are voices of the forest.” Feld realized he had been imposing his own method of knowledge construction onto a domain of experience that Kaluli do not isolate or reduce. Birds are voices because Kaluli recognize and acknowledge their existence primarily through sound, and because they are spirit reflections…of deceased men and women (1982: 45). This is sung in a poetry form called “bird sound words”, sequentially name places and co-occurring environmental features of vegetation, light and sound. Songs become what Kaluli call a “path”, namely a series of place-names that link the cartography of the rainforest to the movement of its past and present inhabitants. These song paths are also linked to the spirit world of birds, whose flight patterns weave through trails and water courses, connecting a spirit cosmology above to local histories on the ground – Acoustic Ecology

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Immersive Visual Production

On Leviathan, a film we suggest is probably more about sensory overload than about New England’s Fishing Industry. Film embracing sensory ethnography is as much art as it research. In many ways, such productions offer very little in way of interpretation and leave that up to the viewer. This has left viewers divided on productions like Castaing-Taylor and Paravel’s Leviathan, a film that “offers not information but immersion: 90 minutes of wind, water, grinding machinery and piscine agony (Stevenson and Kohn 2015).”

  1. The Dismissive Perspective: Because of sensory overload, some viewers may find the film gimmicky or doing work that is less than anthropologically oriented. On this, Stevenson and Kohn (2015) state that, “some have left Leviathan feeling frustrated; others feeling that Castaing-Taylor and Paravel have ignored the one unassailable rule of a committed and engaged anthropology: let your subjects speak for themselves… if anthropology is good for nothing else, at the very minimum, it can restore speech to the people it attempts to study.”
  2. The Engaging Perspective: On the other hand, some viewers choose to play along and laud lims like Leviathan for their ability to facilitate responses that are deeply related to big questions on the human condition. On this Stevenson and Kohn and ask, “What if the political generativity of the film actually lies in learning to listen to the myriad voices of the world in which we find ourselves—today, now—voices from which we can no longer (if we want to continue to survive on this planet) claim to separate ourselves based on the facile assertion that we have language, or speech, and they do not?…  Is it possible that through the title’s reference to the early modern political thought of Hobbes, the film is also about all of us who live, work, and kill under the sovereign rule of capitalism? Politics in the Anthropocene—this time of ours in which humans have become a palpable “force of nature”—may well need something of the monstrous politics to which Leviathan seems to gesture, a politics that cannot be reduced to restoring speech to humans but rather one that, as a first step, involves developing an ethnographic attunement to the voices that haunt our world.”



Panels, dates and times

Tweet us @thisanthrolife and use the hashtag #AmAnth17


  • Story Slamming Anthropology: Ethnography for the Rest of Us
  • Thursday November 30th from 2:00 to 3:45pm
  • Ryan and Adam are serving as discussants for the panel and are co-authoring papers. Will be hearing about topics on cyber security, space exploration, sexual harassment and survivorship, diversity and comic books, and superfood

Presentations from your TAL hosts:

  • “Making Captain America Great Again: A Look at the Rising Tensions Between Representations on Nationalism in Spite of Diversity in Comics”, at 2:30pm presented by Nina and Ryan.  
  • “The Superfood Revolution will be Televised: What Superfoods Tell us about our Obsessions with Nutrition and Health” at  3:00-3:15 presented by Adam, co-authored with Corinna Howland.



  • Crowdsourcing the Conversation: On the Future of Podcasting, Public Engagement, and Exercising the Anthropological Toolkit, at 8:00am with Ryan and Adam. We’ll be talking about how TaL survived for five years, and what we’ve learned along the way about podcasting, media, and the anthropological quest.

Patreon is a crowdfunding platform where you can directly support This Anthro Life programming you know and love. You may have noticed we’ve been a little absent in the past few months. This is in part because our usual crazy load of juggling stuff got a bit crazier. Instead of oranges we’re now juggling chainsaws – of dissertation finishing, job finding, staying sane, family life, and professionalizing TAL. We’ve been working a ton behind the scenes with the podcast and are finally emerging again to the public facing side, bringing you new and exciting interviews, conversations. Patreon helps us keep going. We’ve brought you over 95 episodes so far and over 35,000 of you have joined up. We’re trying a first push to get 10% of our subscriber base to give a dollar or more a month to TaL. If you get something out of TAL, will you help put something back in? Think of TaL as your new favorite publicly funded media source 🙂

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