Sensory Ethnography

Dylan Yamada-Rice


This workshop started by considering how an ethnographic approach can be used to collect first-hand data that can in turn to be used to inform Information Experience Design work.

It then went on to introduce two academics that have shown how the study of seemingly everyday things can be used to provide a deep understanding of the world around us. These were Sarah Pink’s work on Sensory Ethnography and  Tim Ingold’s study of lines.


Sensory ethnography can be used:

  1. Alone to understand how we account for other people’s experiences through focusing on our senses.
  2. Combined with other new materialism/ post human theories to de-centre the human and focus on the importance of other living elements/ materials.

” … developing a precise way to analyze how the human is both distinct from and continuous with that which goes beyond it is both crucial and timely” (Kohn, 2013, p. 9)

How do I conduct Sensory Ethnography?519dBIbNaBL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_

By applying ethnographic methods to sensory perception. Traditionally these are:

• Interviews • Observations • Photography • Video

More recently sensory ethnographic methods include using digital and experimental ways to go beyond these traditional methods by using means developed from , art and design practices, such as:

• Making • Sound recordings • Smell Mapping • Performance

Some of these are discussed in more detail below.

Why are innovative research methods needed? 

Innovative methods for recording sensory experience are needed because traditional means are related more heavily to some senses than others. For example, the rough table below shows how we have developed multiple means for recording and communicating information related to vision but a lot less for smell and taste. Yet we know that humans are sensory beings and that there is a need to pay attention to things that cannot be expressed in words.

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 09.26.45.png

Screen Shot 2018-11-28 at 09.30.40McLuhan’s work on sensory ratios state that any new medium alters the existing sense ratios and proportions. In other words media changes the way we perceive the world and information through a re­balancing of different senses. See also the work of Kress (2010) on Multimodality in relation to this.

David Howes writes of the hierarchy of senses and that this differs across cultures. In my work looking at children’s understanding of semiotics in Japan the context was chosen for its developed sense of the visual.

Senses and Technology

Sarah Pink also suggests that there is an increasing need to think about what new forms of data mean in relation to the senses, For example, what does all the data collected by exercise/health tracking apps really mean to the sensory experiences of the people using them? In relation to this there are a number of video on YouTube of people hacking data, such as putting fit bits into a tumble dryer to make it look like they have exercised more. This is also in part driven by the link between health insurance premiums and the tech too.

Three examples are given next of different individuals who are creating and moving forward innovative methods for understanding the senses in relation to particular research topics.

Example 1- embodied research methods- Sol Lennox

Traditional ethnographic methods involve the researcher undertaking the daily activities of their research participants, alongside them, in order to understand their practices. Performing sensory activities together with research participants is a development of this work. Sol Lennox’s work on boxing also sought to understand how reenacting these sensory experiences can also be used as a form of data analysis and representation of the data. In his PhD study on boxing he found that writing up the data left out one of the key findings which related to the importance of sweat to those that boxed. Thus he choose to undertake his viva while simultaneously warming up for a boxing match to materialise for the examiners this missing element.

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Sol Lennox undertaking performance ethnography to understand historic boxing footage

In another workshop I have shown how he has also used performance as a means of data analysis. These can be found under the blog post on Performance Ethnography.


Example 2- Smell mapping- Kate McLean

“Kate’s is a creator of smellmaps of cities around the world. I focus on human perception of  urban smellscapes – rendering it as “eye-visible” through mapping. While the visual dominates and the digital distances, I believe we should re-connect with our sensing selves so as to relate to where, and who we are. I find the sense of smell intriguing, elusive and ephemeral… and that is of itself captivating and worthy of study.

Smells form part of our knowing, but are elusive, often disappearing before they can be described pinned down. Smell perception is an invisible and currently under-presented dataset with strong connections to emotions and memory. I am part of a small but growing number of innovative practitioners committed to the study and capture of this highly nuanced sensory field.

The tools of my trade include: individual group smellwalks, individual smellwalks (the “smellfie”), smell sketching, collaborative smellwalks, graphic design, motion graphics, smell generation and smell diffusion, all united by mapmaking.”  (Extract from Kate McLean’s website

Image by Kate McLean

Example 3 Exploring materials to understand mental well-being- Daisy Buckle

Daisy Buckle is a final year IED student who has been exploring the connection between natural materials and mental well being. Daisy began by exploring materials that can be carried to bring calm. Her work is heavily connected to that of Paula Rautio (2013) who explores how children are drawn to found materials and often collect them and place them in their pockets without thinking.

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Photo by Daisy Buckle


The brief for the workshop was to build a den that could keep out the cold. To do this groups were asked to divide into Den Builders and Sensory Ethnographers. The role of the Sensory Ethnographers was to find a means of recording the experience of Den Building by focussing on one particular mode. This idea was developed from the work of IED student Daisy Buckle who is exploring how building human sized nests might help with people’s mental and emotional well-being.

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Nest by Daisy Buckle

The three examples given above taken from the work of Sol Lennox, Kate McLean and Daisy Buckle could be used as starting points for initiating ideas for how to begin this process, i.e. how can you map the smell of building a den? What are the key movements of den building that would need to be performed in order to understand the experience?


Further Reading

Kohn, E. (2013) How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology beyond the Human. University of California Press



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