Think about the visual landscape you live in, the sounds of the city that become your soundtrack as you walk to school, the smells of a crowded house party or a holiday family gathering, the textures of your clothes and skin during the Montreal winter, the learned movements of repeated action, like riding a bike or knitting a scarf.
Our interactions with the world through our senses are internalized into what anthropologists call embodied knowledge. They situate us within the environments, communities, and cultures we live in. The need to address this kind of knowledge in the academic discourse of anthropology – a field grounded in the study of culture and human experience – has been taken up in recent years by a burgeoning project in socio-cultural and media anthropology called sensory ethnography.
This sub-discipline of anthropology has been pioneered largely by the Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) at Harvard University, directed by anthropologist, professor, and filmmaker Lucien Taylor. In an essay titled Iconophobia, Taylor asserts his view that, “Because we humans express ourselves through images as well as language, and because anthropology constitutes an exploration of the human condition, it seems needlessly delimiting to conceive of the form of anthropology itself as exclusively linguistic.” As stated in the SEL mission statement, by “harnessing perspectives drawn from the human sciences, the arts, and the humanities, the Sensory Ethnography Lab aims to support innovative combinations of aesthetics and ethnography, with original nonfiction media practices that explore the bodily praxis and affective fabric of human existence.”
Anthropologists in this area of study use audio-visual media as their primary method for conducting ethnographic research. This emergent sub-discipline has not, however, been received well by all anthropologists and scholars in the social sciences.
Since text reigns in academia and scholarship, sensory ethnography has been rejected as a legitimate medium for anthropology by many in the field. This backlash raises the question of whether film, sound, and photography can be academic.
Anthropologists are scriveners of culture. They have traditionally taken up the task of conveying human experience through ethnographic research, the process of collecting information on human societies and cultures and writing about them in detailed, descriptive language. Yet words are often unable to paint a complete picture. Sensory ethnography aims to communicate aspects of human experience that language alone often fails to conjure through the use of audio-visual media.
Predominantly conducted through film, photography, sound or any combination of these mediums, sensory ethnography fuses art and scholarship. Anthropologists look to sensory ethnography as a pedagogical tool that works through showing rather than telling.
Sensory ethnography attempts to rekindle the senses: sight with sound, sound with touch, and so forth, to evoke how experiences are perceived. Film in particular is a medium that allows for this cohesion of the senses. It opens up the possibility for the viewer to experience the reality of what is shown on screen. As the viewer encounters the moving subjects, they simultaneously see, hear, and interpret. By privileging bodily experiences and embodied knowledge through film, sensory ethnographies can evoke the powerful feelings of being present in a moment.
Additionally, unlike textual ethnographies, which communicate the anthropologist’s interpretation of a cultural event, film allows viewers more freedom to unearth multiple meanings and interpret the content for themselves.
Ethnography has been the focus of social anthropologists since the early to mid-twentieth century, when the field first got off the ground. Anthropologists have incorporated audio and visual media in their work for as long as these technologies have been accessible. Early ethnographic films typically used meta-commentary and voice-overs to speak about the ritualistic dances performed by members of “exotic” tribes from faraway lands dressed in elaborate feathered costumes. Ethnographers recorded the practices and rituals of so-called “primitive” societies to preserve “dying” cultures of ancient history. They disseminated information about cultures’ local knowledge and customs from the perspective of a Western anthropologist with the intention of educating an unknowing, curious audience. You have most likely encountered some of these “educational” films in middle school or in high school world history classes.
Anthropology as it was practiced in the 1950s and earlier by European anthropologists has been heavily criticized as racist, expository, and colonialist. Some of the loudest critics of anthropology’s dark history come from within the discipline itself. They have criticized early scholarship for perpetuating colonial power imbalances on multiple counts, as well as for depriving the anthropologists’ subjects (mostly indigenous peoples) the freedom to represent and speak for themselves. Contemporary ethnographic films have very different intentions and values than those of anthropology’s past.
In the syllabus of his course “Sensory Ethnography I,” Taylor underlines the new horizons set for contemporary sensory ethnographic work, stressing the importance of sensitivity to the politics of representation: “Media anthropologists concerned to democratize or pluralize their representations, or to enable dialogue across societal lines have previously unimaginable possibilities here – for instance, in permitting the observed to return the gaze of the observers, the interviewee to answer back, reality to hold representation in check.”
With a multiplicity of definitions of what exactly comprises ethnography, the boundaries of sensory ethnography are few and far between. Professor of Anthropology and Music at the University of New Mexico, Steven Feld calls himself an “ethnographer of sound.” When recalling his forays into fusing anthropology and sound after studying ethnomusicology, he writes: “I abandoned the usual framework (e.g., ‘The Music of the Bongo-Bongo: An Ethnomusicological Analysis of their Song Texts’) and rudely called my project by a deliberate counter term: an ethnography of sound, or, an ethnography of sound as a symbol system. I wanted to study ways sound and sounding link environment, language, and musical experience and expression.”
Since then, his work has ranged from recording and studying the bird calls of the Bosavi rainforest region of Papua New Guinea, to the ringing of bells and other ambient sounds of cities across the world in a compilation called The Time of Bells.
Feld explores the connections between sound, history, and cultural experience through his aural compilations, however his privileging of aural media over the written word does not preclude text altogether from his work. The same holds true for other sensory ethnographers. It is not their intention to stage an artistic coup of the field through these projects, but instead to advocate for a co-existence of these contributions as valuable and necessary for the anthropological discourse of human experience.
Ethnographic film often uses long takes to evoke what Taylor deems “a tempo faithful to the rhythms of real life.” This style has been adopted by a multitude of filmmakers including Taylor himself and his wife Ilisa Barbash, who collaborated on their recent film Sweetgrass, released in 2009. The film follows sheep herders leading the last flock of sheep through the Beartooth mountains of Montana for summer pasture. With the exception of a few snippets of dialogue, language is largely absent. There are no interviews, narration, intertitles, subtitles, or profiles, as are conventionally provided in documentary film. Instead, the directors ask their viewers to observe and experience the journey of the sheep herders and the stillness of the landscape through the long shots of quiet pastures, big sky, and the movement of flocks trampling through forest brush and grazing on expansive fields. With only one monologue of a herder lamenting the hardships of the journey, the film offers viewers nothing but the experience of the herders (and the sheep) themselves, from which they are free to interpret or extrapolate what they will.
In contrast, conventional ethnographic texts are comprised of the words and interpretations of a single person: the anthropologist. Film, though still very much contrived by the filmmaker, provides more freedom for the viewers to interpret what they see and hear for themselves, opening up the possibility for multiple meanings of whatever is conveyed on screen to co-exist. Some ethnographic films, such as Forest of Bliss (1986) by Robert Gardner, offer the viewer no background information whatsoever. These choices are intentional. Voiceovers or captions about the cremation and funeral rituals conveyed on screen are absent; the only background information given is the name of the city – Benares, India – stated in a caption at the start of the film. Viewers will most likely not possess the factual background knowledge to understand the particularities of the film’s content – an oft-voiced danger of sensory ethnography – but the hope is that they come away with a rich understanding of lived experiences of being there.
Such styles of film making, with minimal editing, translation, or captions, can “reflect an ambiguity of meaning that is at the heart of human experience itself,” Taylor suggests. This is why anthropologists are so drawn to it. McGill anthropology professor Lisa Stevenson, a former student of Taylor’s, teaches a 400-level anthropology seminar on sensory ethnography.
Through this course she strives to imbue in students the value of other media for anthropology. “Film, in particular,” Stevenson stated, “can provide access to an everyday mode of knowing that is at once visual and tactile and which allows us to get about in the world, to navigate our everyday world without needing to, or even being able to, formulate how it is that we get about – in speech.”
It seems as though the bleeding of audio-visual media into anthropological discourse has been more widely received in recent years, as universities such as McGill and several others throughout Europe – particularly in the U.K. – are offering courses in the practical vein of Taylor’s at Harvard. At McGill, Stevenson’s course centres around discussions about films and soundscapes screened in class, readings, and the process of making a sensory ethnography itself – the culminating assignment at the end of the semester. Over the two semesters that the course has been taught, projects have ranged from films, installations, photographic displays, and soundscapes.
Students who have taken this course agree that working in film, sound and photography is a rare treat in the McGill arts faculty. Our friend (and a Daily staff member) Anna Leocha, who also took this course, was enthusiastic about “the sheer novelty and excitement of doing a creative project as opposed to writing a paper.” The challenge of this course is both academic and creative, but ultimately invaluable for many students’ further pursuits in academia, across all disciplines.
Anna continued, “I have returned to the themes that we discussed in sensory ethnography in so many of my other classes because you can study or think of anything as ethnographies. And when you do that you start seeing mini-cultures everywhere and that’s really exciting. You can expand and explode that idea and it can play into so many different departments and studies, and I think it’s something that anyone can relate to. These are ideas that people in any faculty can think about.”
The use of imagery and sound in anthropology is an attempt to stray from the confining limitations of language when conveying something as ambiguous and sensorial as human experience. This has led many anthropologists, scholars and artists alike to wonder if there can be a place for the non-verbal in academia, or if sensory ethnography will always fall under the nebulous category of “art.”
Academia often excludes non-linguistic media such as film, photography, or sound on the grounds that they are not recognized academic formats in and of themselves; they do not adhere to strict rules of grammar nor do they necessarily employ the approved tools of study that yield accountable data, such as surveys of customs and kinship systems. But as the significance of embodied knowledge and lived experience increases in the discipline of anthropology and other social sciences, perhaps the academic world can make a little more room for media that best represent this data, encouraging alternative methods of communication to join language with equal credibility.
We asked Stevenson what film offers anthropology. She invoked the words of 1920s Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov: “Cinema isn’t I see, it’s I fly,” and this, she continued, “I think, is a statement that coincides with the best ethnographic practice. What is it to fly with a film, to fly with a companion in the field, rather than to meticulously decode each statement they make?”