ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

Sensational knowledge: emotional and sensory encounters as ways of knowing
Location Science Site/Chemistry CG83
Date and Start Time 05 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • David Howes (Concordia University) email
  • Raluca Bianca Roman (University of St Andrews) email
  • Marta Sokol-Klepacka (University of St Andrews) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair David Howes (session 1), Marta Sokol Klepacka (session 2), Raluca Roman (session 3)
Discussant Raluca Roman (session 1), Raluca Roman (session 2), David Howes (session 3)

Short Abstract

The senses and emotions have migrated from the margins to play a central role in ethnographic practice and theory, displacing language and cognition. What are the implications of this shift for the production and communication of anthropological knowledge?

Long Abstract

Perceptual practices are essential to ways of knowing. The senses mediate the relations between idea and object, self and society, human and non-human animals. In order to access the ""sensational knowledge"" of a culture, fieldworkers must be attentive to local modes of making sense of the world through the senses. At the same time, the experience of fieldwork encompasses various emotional engagements with people, places and entities (gods, animals, spirits): ranging from boredom to anger, loyalty to friendship, despair to exaltation.

This panel seeks to untangle the multiple respects in which ways of sensing generate ways of knowing; it also looks at how emotions shape our experience of fieldwork and our understanding of the world(s) we study. How can we analyse emotions not just as a subject of research but as a methodological tool to understanding the experiences of others? How does perception enter into ontological concepts of time and space? What role do senses play in policing social boundaries? What can we learn from a sensorial approach to situations of war and conflict? How do we transfer senses and emotions into anthropology's ultimate product, the ethnographic writing?

By bringing ethnography to its senses, new realms of experience and meaning become available for exploration and interpretation. Hoping to debate the ways in which knowledge is not only emotional but is also shaped by specific understandings of emotions and ways of sensing the world, we invite we invite ethnographic, methodological and analytical papers that confront the issues at hand

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


"You will see!": an ethnographic encounter with a Hyena in Venda, South Africa

Author: Fraser McNeill (University of Pretoria )  email

Short Abstract

This paper unpacks the events leading up to and after a ritual expert I was working with shape-shifted into a Hyena. It raises questions of ‘evidence’, ontological obfuscations and radical alterity.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I unpack a series of ethnographic engagements which culminated in one of my interlocutors shape-shifting into a Hyena. Towards the end of my PhD fieldwork in 2005, in the former Homeland of Venda, South Africa, I was caught up in a series of supernatural encounters. Whilst defining my personal relationships with those around me, these experiences were excluded from the resulting monograph and any subsequent publications based on this research. During the process of learning certain aspects of ritual knowledge in a context beset by political and economic upheaval, I developed a sensory relationship with some ritual experts which facilitated a bewildering sense of knowing which I have, until provocation by the abstract for this panel, been reluctant to present in written work. Whilst immersed in this world, I attempted - with some success - to manipulate certain sensory/spiritual engagements as a methodological tool through which I sought to understand the supernatural dimensions of the political and economic context from which they sprung, and to which they spoke. The shape shifting incident in question was the result of anger, frustration, empathy and failed manipulation. It raises questions - partially addressed in recent debates - of 'evidence', ontological obfuscations and radical alterity. It asks how we can navigate, with honesty, the emotional entanglements between knowledge and experience, whilst maintaining professional academic integrity.

Ambivalent ways of knowing: from acoustemology to sensory deprivation. Fieldwork among long-haul truck drivers

Author: Agata Stanisz (Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań)  email

Short Abstract

In my paper, I will discuss how ways of knowing made through a multisensory observation and the application of mixed methodologies can be ambivalent. I will consider how emotional and sensual involvement affects the production more adequate representations of a fieldwork knowledge.

Long Abstract

Since 2011, I have dealt with a mobile and multisite phenomenon of road transportation. I have conducted research among long-haul truck drivers carrying material goods within Western European countries. As a part of the research, I live with them in tractor units cabins from one up to four weeks. We share the same multisensous experiences - we hear the same noises and drones, we taste the same "nationalised" food, we feel the same vibrations and the waving movement of the tractor unit, we experience the dimensions and weight of the semitrailer and the density of the transported cargo. We are also subjected to similar rules of regimes of logistics, permanent surveillance and control, evoking anxiety, stress and never-ending boredom.

Some of the scientific interests within this research are multisitedness and mobility of truckers, as well as infrastructure landscapes specific for road transportation. Trucker's agenda is situated in spaces that from the anthropological perspective can be labelled as non-places. Very often the waiting and dwelling in such spaces generates peculiar experiences of sensory deprivation and, as a result, calls into question the movement associated with transportation, road infrastructures and profession of a truck driver. Apart from methodologies of multisite ethnography and "new mobilities paradigm", to investigate this ambivalent socio-cultural reality I make use of an audiovisual anthropology. In my paper, I will show how these theoretical tools work in practice and how their application is not only intertwined with the specificity of fieldwork, but also improves its multisensous "description".

Moving the body forward, bringing the mind back in? A methodological future

Author: Kitty Wheater (University of Oxford)  email

Short Abstract

The turn to embodiment and the senses has revitalised anthropological horizons, but might it replicate the epistemological problems of its predecessor? If embodied anthropology is to continue to light up new territories, ongoing dialogue with discursive theory and method will be necessary.

Long Abstract

The turn to embodiment and the senses has been a welcome theoretical reorientation in anthropology. But should its displacement of language be a triumphant assertion of the primacy of body over mind in theory and method; or should we endeavour to bring mind and body into fertile equality? I argue that language about bodies, and language about language, are sources of knowledge about a culture that are just as vital as the embodied experience of both bodies (self and other) and language. I argue that ways of knowing in anthropological method need not be a zero-sum game, whereby one is either sensorial or discursive in orientation. Instead, we might conceptualise more 'complete' anthropological knowledge as the emergent property of both specialisms, in dialectic.

By way of illustration, this paper draws on ESRC-funded fieldwork with mindfulness-based intervention (MBI) practitioners in the UK. MBIs are psychological programmes used in clinical and non-clinical settings to prevent recurrent depression and reduce stress. Their own methods include both meticulous language and embodied meditation practices, on the grounds that discourse is incompletely transformative without 'the body'. I demonstrate that to understand both their knowledge, and its politics, an embodied, sensory methodology in the field was imperative; simultaneously, it was incomplete without conversation. In practice, few anthropologists would dispute the necessity of the latter; yet in methodological narrative, too, a future direction for those working on embodiment and sensory anthropology must be to seize the initiative of the subjective turn, and turn again on our own terms.

Learning through love: the role of senses in understanding relationships between people and ponies in Shetland

Author: Catherine Munro (University of Aberdeen)  email

Short Abstract

In this paper I explore the role of sensory experiences in understanding the relationships between people and ponies in Shetland, with a particular focus on my changing fieldwork experience after I adopted a Shetland pony mare and foal.

Long Abstract

During my fieldwork on relationships between people and ponies in Shetland, participants often described the importance of getting to know their ponies by spending time with them. By watching and listening to them, they make decisions about what type of Shetland pony each is and what role that pony is suited for. A large part of my fieldwork has been spent trying to understand more about these sensory encounters where people and ponies learn from each other and exploring how these experiences are part of emerging identities among breeders and ponies.

While on fieldwork I got a Shetland pony mare and foal on loan and had the task of training the foal. This experience of getting to know the foal, learning her moods, guiding and responding to her movement and growing to love her has been hugely influential to my fieldwork.

In this paper I will explore the ways my experiences with the foal shaped my attention towards embodied, sensory ways of learning, helping me better understand the relationships between people and ponies.

Throughout fieldwork many of my engagements with ponies have been filmed and I will examine the ways this has shaped my understandings of these interactions and raised questions about the most effective formats to represent sensory experiences. For the duration of the presentation I will play a silent ethnographic film showing my experiences of getting to know the foal.

Time and the senses in the Andes

Author: Constance Classen  email

Short Abstract

This presentation explores the sensorial dimensions of temporal concepts in the Andes as exemplified through traditional practices, myths and artifacts. It goes on to examine the Andean reception of the Western linear notion of time.

Long Abstract

Indigenous concepts of time can differ significantly from the Western linear notion of time. Such differences can lead to conflicts and misunderstandings between indigenous peoples and Western institutions and agencies which assume that 'one time fits all'. The Andean region offers a striking example of an indigenous model of time which is not only non-linear, but also embodied and sensory. This presentation will explore the interrelationships among time, corporeality and the senses in the Andes as exemplified in traditional practices, myths and artifacts, such as the Inca recording device called the quipu. It concludes by examining Andean responses to and interpretations of the standard Western model of time within the historical context of the Andean experience of European culture.

Sensory entanglements: sense-based research and communication in anthropology

Author: David Howes (Concordia University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper provides an introduction to the field of sensory museology and draws out its implications for the reform of current museum display practices and the creation of performative, intercultural multisensory environments

Long Abstract

This paper begins by charting the emergence of sensory studies as an autonomous field and method of inquiry. Its genesis is traced to the sensory turn in a range of humanities and social science disciplines, which gave rise to such fields as the history of the senses, anthropology of the senses, and, most recently, sensory museology. Incorporating a sensory studies approach into the curation of indigenous artifacts has resulted in a radical transformation of "the exhibitionary complex." In place of didactic displays which isolate artifacts in glass cases, the emphasis now is on the museum space as a kind of sensory gymnasium in which visitors are invited to experiment with alternate ways of sensing through encounters with objects of diverse provenance. Citing examples which range from Iroquois false face masks to the Inca quipu (a 3-D mnemonic device composed of knotted strings of varying colours), this paper makes a case for sense-based investigations of the varieties of aesthetic experience across cultures. In so doing, the paper also reports on some of the findings of the "Sensory Entanglements" project, a joint venture with Chris Salter (holder of the Concordia University Research Chair in New Media, Technology and the Senses) that has involved creating intercultural, performative multisensory environments for the communication of anthropological knowledge, as an alternative to both the ethnographic monograph and ethnographic film.

Being with another: performance, co-presence, and the transmission of the ineffable

Author: Omotayo Jolaosho (University of South Florida)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation considers performance as a sensory encounter that transmits and transcends experiential knowledge through a case study of activists in a South African social movement.

Long Abstract

How do marginalized individuals constitute oppositional publics? What are the interiorities of such opposition? How are these interiorities transmitted during fieldwork and through ethnographic writing? The challenge of articulating one's experience, as well as that of apprehending another's, persists in making meaning of research encounters. Such a challenge is compounded when research entails grappling with the (in)accessibility of human suffering. The experience of poverty is often rendered defeatingly invisible and inscrutable to those distanced by social positioning. This presentation considers the contributions of performance in grappling with these challenges through a case study of activists in a South African social movement opposing their continued marginalization despite the country's democratic turn. I focus on the potential of performance to evoke and transmit seemingly impenetrable emotions and sensory experience. I show how the activists with whom I worked relied on performance practices including freedom songs and protest dances to convey the depth of ineffable sensations and emotions. I consider my own sensorial receptivity and attempts to establish co-presence, in particular how the manner of my listening, and the embodied experiences that I shared facilitated the kinds of intersubjective engagement I sought to understand. Finally, I discuss how performance remains critical to post-fieldwork ethnographic praxis. Performative writing and performance ethnography as dissemination methods re-configure and transcend fieldwork experiences. Challenging scriptocentric engagement, performance enlivens, introducing an emergence fraught with possibilities for manifesting something that exceeds our knowledge.

Embodied learning in Bharatanatyam: the making of sensory knowledge

Author: Jamila Dorner (SOAS)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will explore the learning environment in which Bharatanatyam practitioners make knowledge, as they fine-tune their sensory perceptions and hone their bodily skills. It will also reflect on the production and communication of anthropological knowledge with regard to embodied learning.

Long Abstract

This paper will examine embodied learning in the South Indian dance Bharatanatyam. The hallmark of Bharatanatyam lies in its highly-synchronized combination of music, dance movements with hand gestures, and facial expressions that tell stories imbued with philosophical and spiritual messages. To do so, the entire body is used as a tool for "embodying" qualities of daily life and human sentiments and for representing various characters or animals.

To investigate Bharatanatyam as a way of knowing, I will explore the learning environment in which practitioners come to know, thereby developing their motor, sensory and social skills. This environment is simultaneously visual, tactile, and sonic. Language and cognition also play an important role. For instance, teachers combine tactile guidance and verbal instructions to hone a skill. I will discuss and reflect on my methodology that combined apprentice-style and visual methods (photo and video) in order to experience, capture and analyse this multisensory environment. I will present some case examples of my fieldwork that took place in a local dance school of Chennai in 2014 and illustrate my observations with the use of photos and video footage during my presentation.

Ultimately, this paper will argue that for 'anthropologies to come' to shed light on what it is to be human, it is necessary to examine the senses, emotions, language and cognition as an entangled ensemble. None of these can be disregarded if we are to understand how humans develop a skilled set.

Becoming indigenous by feeling indigenous: the contemporary production of indigeneity in Bogota, Colombia.

Author: Maria Fernanda Esteban Palma (University of Pennsylvania)  email

Short Abstract

Indigenous revitalization is frequently framed as instrumentalist in Latin America because groups are assessed against a universal model of indigeneity. By undertaking a more experiential and sensorial ethnography of indigenous production, their cultural pluriverses can be better understood.

Long Abstract

Many Latin American countries adopted a politics of multiculturalism in the 1990s, providing special rights to what they framed as "culturally diverse" groups, including indigenous groups. Soon after, several groups began to request recognition on the basis of cultural alterity. Most anthropological studies on the contemporary production of indigenous alterity in Latin America have focused on authenticity, and many have framed this phenomenon as instrumentalist. Such an approach is based on western epistemological trajectories that rely on universalisms and detached observations of social life that are assessed against fixed models. But as indigeneity has proven to be fluid and pluriversal, a more engaged fieldwork experience is needed to understand its nuances. In this paper, I argue that a sensorial and affective anthropology of indigeneity can liberate scholarship from falling into the trap of assessing authenticity against generalizing models. I explore how the members of an indigenous group framed as instrumentalist -the Muisca group of Bogota, Colombia-, are constructing and appropriating their indigenous alterity by means of daily collective experience, even after centuries of cultural assimilation as mestizos. By fully participating in daily activities, ceremonies and administrative meetings, as well as interviewing members about their own experiences during those activities, I explore the impact that life histories, living conditions and hopes for the future have on how indigeneity is sensed (physically) and felt (affectively) by indigenous people-in-the-making.

Sensory knowledge as ways of knowing: non-verbal means of communication and sensing of 'home' of Latin Americans in Edinburgh

Author: Marta Sokol-Klepacka (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the role of sensory knowledge as ways of knowing for particular individuals as well as for the researchers. It looks at the sensorial life experiences of Latin Americans living in Edinburgh and explores their sensing of ‘home’.

Long Abstract

It is in human condition to have sensorial life experiences that comprise of the use of various senses. Affective experiences are the emotions and moods, evaluative experiences are based on how one's life is by looking at evaluative standards and aspirations (Rojas 2016). This paper focuses on the sensory knowledge that I gained by looking at non-verbal means of communication of Latin Americans in Edinburgh among whom I carried out my research and looks at the cross-cultural communication differences that these individuals acknowledged they sensed when living in Edinburgh.

Subsequently, the paper explores how individuals, here different Latin Americans living in Edinburgh, construct 'home' away from 'home' in particular moments of their lives and experience it through senses. Finally, the paper examines the emotions and memories that are evoked through senses such as sound, smell, taste, vision and imagination in the 'home-making' process.

Half an hour in Belfast: a sensational experience… and a haircut

Author: Karen Lane (University of St Andrews)  email

Short Abstract

Through analysis of an intense sensory and emotional experience that occurred during fieldwork, I consider how in-the-moment sensory knowledge can be retained and understood and how this way of knowing can best be disseminated.

Long Abstract

There were a few times in my fieldwork when I experienced intense sensory and emotional engagements while participating with those I sought to understand. I was acutely aware in those moments that the bodily knowledge I was gaining was an important part of my fieldwork experience but I had no idea at the time what it meant; the profundity of the sensory and emotional overload trumped in-the-moment cognitive understanding. Temporal, geographic and sensory distance from fieldwork has opened a space for cognitive analysis, but that is a different type of knowing. How do I capture, retain and understand the sensory knowledge I gained? Should I (can I?) disentangle my experiential understanding of my self and extrapolate it to an understanding of the other?

This paper will explore one of those 'ethnographic moments', when I anticipated an innocuous visit to a hairdresser but found I was plunged into a dramatic performance, where social boundaries were simultaneously observed and disrupted and the expected script was not followed. I will explore the sensory knowledge I gained at the time, alongside a review of my subsequent academic (re)presentation of this experience - as fieldnotes, as a chapter, as a theatrical performance, and as a more traditional 'academic paper' - to consider how experiential, individual, present-tense sensory knowledge can best be understood and disseminated.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.