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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

Sensory ways of knowing

When research tunes into emotions

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Faces, by Mollus via DeviantArt [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]
Faces, by Mollus via DeviantArt [CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

The conversation is loud, animated, fuelled with chuckles, giggles, exclamations and vigorous body gestures; necks pushed forward in earnest, arms waving and on occasions, Simão's whole body suddenly stands up to emphasize a point. The TV is on and sometimes the room goes quiet as the conversations dries up and everyone follows the soap opera until somebody makes another comment that triggers off a new wave of spirited conversations.

I am unable to understand them all, especially when Simão talks, because he speaks Creole very fast and there is no time to solicit an explanation when everybody has exploded into laughter spraying seeds which are already sprouting into the next round of spicy comments, comic tones, and body gestures.

I too find myself laughing even though I have not understood everything because the atmosphere is so contagious… There were times when somebody present did take the time to explain to me what I had missed but in the very act of explanation they transformed what was spontaneous into something more self conscious and stylized which nonetheless provided more detail and often triggered new conversations.

This extract from my field notes was written after having spent the evening in November 2012 in the living room of a Cape Verdean couple and their visiting Cape Verdean friends who were students in a small town in northern Portugal. We were all sitting on sofas, sharing a meal and enjoying each other's company. When I arrived home, I wrote up my notes as soon as I could.

Participant observation cannot be a method but rather it is the anthropologist who is, in one sense, the method.

In the same way that we take photos to capture a moment, I wanted to capture the very visceral moments I had experienced–tasting and bathing in the sensory sounds of Creole. I wanted to by-pass intellectual meaning for a change; to focus–no, even the word focus is too focused… I wanted to try to recreate the sense of abandon I had experienced as a participant observer, or perhaps, in this case I had become a participant absorber of the energized vibes that filled the room, created by the highly charged waves of words that swept not just through the room, but through our very bodies, reverberating in ripples of laughter and physical gesture.

In her book Culture and the Senses, Kathryn Geurts (2003:60-61) refers to the "dynamic power that words can contain" beyond their meaning.

Many West Africans believe that when you produce speech you indeed can feel it moving through you, and as others speak, your body registers or experiences the impact of their speech… In Anlo contexts … the 'transferential nature' of nufolo (speaking) included more than imparting meaning or 'mental ideas.' Furthermore, words uttered by one person were considered to form a direct link between the speaker and the addressee, so that a circular flow of energy was set in motion.

The essence of this perspective was that a person could not say something (or project something from his or her mouth) without feeling something, too. As an analogy, when one strikes a fist or palm against an object, the contact causes vibrations to reverberate through one's own body as well as having an impact on the object struck; when engaging in nufolo, the sound waves affect the speaker whilst simultaneously travelling outward and enveloping the listener.

These bodily experiences–sensory ways of knowing–are hard to capture in research methods that rely on models, questionnaires, and statistics, because these bypass the body. The anthropologist Maya Unnithan (2006: 129), conducting research on kinship as a native anthropologist in India, writes about "sensing" or "feeling" the field.

I increasingly feel that I 'carry' the field along wherever I am. This 'body' of field-generated knowing is continuously shaping and shaped by my shifting sense of self and bodily awareness.

In the earnest endeavour of data collection, the search for meaning may blind us to how the everyday experience of simply being alive may also constitute a form of data. The anthropologist Tim Ingold examines this idea in depth in his book entitled Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description in which he claims that "[t]he spectator who stands at a distance, in order to make an objective study, is observationally blind" (2011:224).

Participant observation is a form of data collection that distinguishes anthropology from the other social sciences. Elizabeth Tonkin, who also challenges the dualisms of body and mind in her work on oral history (1984:221), argues that participant observation cannot be a method but rather it is the anthropologist who is, in one sense, the method.

This is not to argue against the research methods referred to above; anthropologists also take recourse to them. Yet, when anthropologists present their work to each other they rarely discuss methodology–or at least they don't feel the need to discuss participant observation, because everybody is pretty much in the know. This is not the case in interdisciplinary forums in which I think we anthropologists can sometimes come across as frustratingly obscure to our colleagues who want more information on exactly how we collected our data.

Participant observation then becomes the elephant in the room that nobody talks about. "Physicists don't have to explain Einstein's theory every time they present their work," I once read somewhere, "is it really necessary to spell out what participant observation is?"

Consider the attempt to do so in the following definition by McCall and Simmons (1969) quoted in Ethnographic Research: A Guide to General Conduct (1984:17)

[A] characteristic blend or combination of methods and techniques…that involves some amount of genuinely social interaction in the field with the subjects of the study, some direct observations of relevant events, some formal and a great deal of informal interviewing, some systematic counting, some collection of documents and artifacts, and open-endedness in the direction the study takes.

It is the social interaction and the open-endedness of participant observation–" experience as a valid source of scholarly understanding," to quote Elizabeth Tonkin (1984:218)–that led me to take a research detour to reflect upon the sensory experiences of hearing and talking Creole.

In other words, participation is blended with observation in a form of attentive abandonment or, if you prefer, abandoned attentiveness.

Perhaps instead of thinking of it as a method, we could approach participant observation as an art. The anthropologist, like the artist, cannot separate his or her work from the personal experience involved in producing it.

I have become attached to the memory of that particular evening–it has stayed inside me as an embodied emotion. In order to remember exactly what we spoke about, I would have to consult my notes.


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