Qualitative Analysis as Sensory Performance

Annette Markham

Jan 27, 2013


I am reading about synaesthesia, the blending or blurring of senses that happens when one becomes particularly attenuated to a way of knowing that eludes a single sense.  I’ve been thinking about this for years, actually, drawing inspiration from naturalist writers like David Abrams or Diane Ackerman, who invoke Merleau-Ponty to describe our perception of the natural world.  I’m most intrigued by how synaesthesia relates to the process of interpretation, particularly in social research.

We are bodies in motion, constantly sorting out our experiences through our senses.  In online contexts, this can become more evident through the absence of certain perceptual filters. I’ve written about this in regards to interviewing and participant observation elsewhere.

Sensory analysis doesn’t get a lot of play in the social sciences, but I’m seeing more and more empirical and conceptual work emerging in a range of disciplines.  Martyna Sliwa and Kathleen Riach (2010) note this as well in a recent study that discusses how the senses can be useful as a tool for exploring the experience of change in post-socialist contexts:

Whilst there has always been an awareness that place, space and culture are both understood and mediated through the body and material experience, the explicit role of particular senses is only now emerging as a concern to social scientists. Although a range of ‘sensual’ empirical studies have mainly forefronted the importance of the visual (for example, Pink, 2007; Frers and Meier, 2007), there is a scattering of excellent commentaries on the relationship between other senses and the social (see Howes, 2005). However, as Rodaway asserts, traditional social research often induces an implicit separation of the physical, cultural and aesthetic. In developing a more central and integrated exploration of the senses in social studies, he emphasises the senses both as a relationship to the world, and the senses as in themselves a kind of structuring of space and defining of space (Rodaway, 1994, p. 4)

These issues have become more apparent to me in the past couple of years as I talk with scholars struggling to find tools that will help them grasp the elusive character of mobile, multi-modal, mediatized everyday experience. While technological mediation emphasizes the disembodied elements of expression, connection, and context, the ubiquitous features of mobile devices bring bodies (back) into full play. This shift is not simply metaphoric, but looking at the metaphors can help identify those characteristics that are highlighted and hidden.

In the early-mid 1990s, most users would consider the internet as a tool–a prosthesis that extended their bodies or a conduit for information flow.  Others talked about the internet as a place they could go, which focused attention on the architectural elements of the virtual spaces for interaction.  A smaller set of users would not talk about the technologies at all. The internet was already ubiquitous, absorbed as a framework for experience, or quite simply, a way of being (for more on this framework, see my book Life Online)

Now, in the second decade of the new century, while people still consider digital devices and the internet to be tools or sometimes places, most simply use these to carry out aspects of their everyday life.  The novelty has worn off and we’ve stepped into the frame, so we no longer see the frame, we see through it, as R.D. Laing might say.

Research methods have not caught up to the first swing of the pendulum, much less the second. This is partly because of the challenges of adjusting traditional methods to fit different contexts and partly because innovations remain one-off efforts, so we see a lot of reinventing the wheel.  More to the point Radaway is making above, many scholars are simply dissuaded from innovating beyond certain traditional boundaries. There is strong resistance to disruption.  The motivation behind this resistance is less important than the outcome, which is a severe disconnect between contemporary modes of experience and methods used for collecting, analyzing and representing this experience.

More visual and sensory methods are certainly one way to explore further. The question for me remains: How do we reconcile sensory methods– which are inevitably subjective, personal sensemaking practices– with epistemologies that privilege or demand that the researcher gather and identify discrete units of information that can be analyzed as objects? And if we’re able to embrace innovative sensemaking practices at the level of epistemology, how can we implement these in a way that would satisfy the persistent (and irritating) demand in the social sciences for ‘evidence-based’ research methods?

I don’t have the answers, but it’s something I think about a lot, and I think interventions in this arena are critical to the development of robust qualitative inquiry of digital contexts.