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Multisensory ethnography: Sensory experience, the sentient body and cultural phenomena

Multisensory ethnography: Sensory experience, the sentient body and cultural phenomena
Thomas Jackson

2018

School of Psychology, University of Leeds, Leeds LS2 9JT, UNITED KINGDOM.

ABSTRACT

This practice-led PhD offers two contributions to the emerging discipline of sensory ethnography: a new theoretical framework for understanding the relationships between sensory experience, the sentient body and cultural phenomena and a series of new sensory research methods. It comprises the thesis presented here, a number of practical projects and a ‘dossier’ of associated outputs, including conference papers, workshops and symposiums, public engagement activities and successful funding applications. For the purposes of assessment and dissemination, all of these components have been collated into a single online presence: www.multisensoryethnography.com. The primary piece of practice associated with this PhD is a multisensory and participatory virtual archive of Temple Works, a Grade I listed building in South Leeds (Jackson, 2016a). This project, hereafter Experience Temple Works, is a proof of concept implementation of all of the methodological innovations advocated in this thesis and also embodies the theoretical contributions detailed in the writing. Experience Temple Works was created as part of a 30-month ethnography with the community of artists and makers resident within the building, hereafter Temple.Works.Leeds. The theoretical arguments presented in this thesis and the associated practice were developed in parallel and it is therefore recommended that they are ‘read’ in concert, allowing the relationships between them to be revealed. In order to facilitate this, the footnotes in this thesis regularly include links to pertinent ‘locations’ within the practice. The structure of this document intentionally blurs the conventional distinctions between the review of literature, methods and findings. These aspects of the research are inextricably linked and cannot effectively be addressed in isolation.

The thesis offers an analysis of the potentialities and problems which sensory ethnography introduces, arguing that it offers new and innovative ways of understanding the lives of others but will only be established as an enduring and meaningful development within anthropology if a number of significant challenges can be overcome. Synthesising theoretical perspectives from numerous different disciplines, the thesis argues that multisensory research methods are central to understanding the complex and interdependent relationships between the senses and culture, bringing into question ethnographic studies which attempt to separate out individual sensory modalities from the multisensory matrix of perception. A new theoretical framework for sensory ethnography is introduced which attempts to unify key concepts from a range of cognate disciplines and is based upon a helical model of evolving and reciprocal correlations between sensory experience, the sentient body and cultural phenomena. Methodological contributions are made through the evaluation of a series of new technological modes of representation (developed by the author) which not only have the potential to significantly impact upon the production, dissemination and reception of ethnographic studies, but which might also become a platform through which ethnographic knowledge is co-created with the research participants. Finally, the practical projects which implement and embody all of the methodological and theoretical contributions in this thesis are situated, with specific reference to the impact they have attained. The salient argument of this thesis is that sensory ethnography is an exciting but profoundly challenging new discipline. It has the potential to significantly impact upon any research project which implements fieldwork methods in the study of cultural phenomena but its future is dependent upon the rethinking of long-established practices related to the production and dissemination of ethnographic knowledge.