Sensory Ethnography: Methods for moving beyond the human and a reliance on words

crossing paths - tractor tyre tracks, bird and goat footprints in mud on a small-scale GM maize farm in the Eastern Cape South Africa

Crossing Paths – tractor tyre tracks and bird and goat footprints in mud on a small-scale GM maize farm in the Eastern Cape South Africa

Over the past few months I have been exploring how I may be able to move beyond a sole reliance on interviews and spoken words to collect information about each of the three small-scale maize agri/culture systems I will be exploring in South Africa (these are defined by the kind of maize seed being used – traditional, hybrid or GM seed) . As the intention is to map socio-ecological relationships, I have been searching for methods that are suited to exploring the human-nature relationships happening in each part of the agri/culture system.

In a previous post ‘Unlikely’ protagonists: a multispecies approach, I wrote about a multi-species approach as a methodology that may help the researcher move beyond a human centered narrative by focusing on other species vital for the existence of the agricultural system. Building onto this, a sensory ethnography approach could also offer a way of engaging beyond the human and carrying out such a multispecies inquiry.


An interest in the multi-species world and in socio-ecological relationships requires methodologies that work beyond words. It requires approaches that can expand the ‘sensory noticing’ of the researcher in each space.

A ‘sensorial turn’ has gained interest in a number of disciplines over the past decade – e.g. through ‘sensuous scholarship’, ‘sensuous geography’, ‘sociology of the senses’ etc. Within visual anthropology, this turn has lead to the development of Sensory Ethnography.

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (HSEL) define Sensory Ethnography as:

“combinations of aesthetics and ethnography as a means of engaging in research that is beyond a reliance on language”, encouraging “attention to the many dimensions of the world, both animate and inanimate, that may only with difficulty, if it all, be rendered with propositional prose” (Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab).

The Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) promotes innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography to explore the natural and unnatural world and points of intersection. Artists and Ethnographers experiment with how this way of being in the field opens up new types of noticing and awareness that may be missed if attention is mostly focused on language. Sarah Pink’s (2015) book Doing Sensory Ethnography offers a valuable field guide to the research being done within this realm and urges that the “greater use of multi-sensory-experimental data (vision, taste, hearing touch etc)” be used in combination with other ethnographic methods. I feel that sensory ethnography offers an exciting approach for engaging in nature/culture research and multi-species engagements and therefore intend to use it in combination with more traditional interview techniques.


For my project, the sensory component will involve using observational drawings, photography, film, and sound recordings as a way of observing and engaging with each site. As each site is different, the kinds of activities I choose to undertake will depend on the site. Sound recordings may be appropriate in agricultural fields, whereas photography may offer a useful way of observing and recording a laboratory. Drawings may present a way of expressing location, proximity, or geographical relationships, such as how close GM varieties are planted next to traditional varieties. In addition, Sensory Ethnography could offer an interesting way of engaging in dialogue with human actors in the spaces I enter. The sensory material could then present a set of interactive materials able to stimulate and help facilitate conversations with farmers, scientists or other stakeholders. Furthermore, this process will build an archive ‘other than words’ about each system that will provide a valuable set of interactive communication tools and potentially material for an exhibition at the end of the project.

In January I will be traveling to Hlabisa in KwaZulu Natal with some other researchers who are looking at GM maize adoption in South Africa. They will be conducting focus groups with small-scale GM maize adopters and during this trip I plan to begin exploring the use of some sensory ethnography methods. I hope to report back on this in my next post!

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