Coming to Our Senses

32 minutes

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.

Read more about sensory ethnography here

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