Making sense

Today I read a short research methods paper entitled Using the Senses in Qualitative Interview Research: Practical Strategies (note this link is paywalled; I accessed it through my university library), in which Marilys Guillemin & Anna Harris (2014) describe the embodied context of research interviews:

Sensory awareness means not only being attuned to potential moments of discovery during conversations, or moments when a sensory question or prompt may be appropriate, but also being aware of the sensory details of the interview setting. This might mean the taste of the cup of tea you were given by your participant, the smell and temperature of the room where you are conducting the interview, the sounds of the interview space and surrounds or the feeling of the fabric of the chair you are sitting on.

The authors give examples of research that is attuned to the senses and recommend some  question prompts for qualitative researchers: Can you describe the features of x? What did that (event, person, setting) sound like? Is there a smell that particularly reminds you of that time? What was the sensation of that movement? What did that food remind you of?

This article from Alison Phipps (2007) The sound of higher education: sensuous epistemologies and the mess of knowing is an inspiring example of an autoethnographic sensory account of academia:

On summer days, sitting in my office, I would open the window and through it I would hear the sound from the building next door, where the windows were also open and where the music practice rooms were in use. I would hear music, worked at, practised, scales, arpeggios, a cello giving me haunting melody. The sound was comforting, Romantic even, somehow connecting me in a sensory fashion to the work of the university as a body of scholars and to the work we all share, as researchers—that of practice, discipline, commitment, improvement, sounding. Recently, I noticed that I no longer heard the music in this way. That music did not permeate my world as it had done. Perhaps the practice rooms were needed for offices. This sound had died.

This reading was a prompt for me to be attentive to the sights, sounds, tastes, smells and touch of my working life. There can be a sensory sameness to my work days, so these examples were moments of noticing that were out of the ordinary this afternoon.


Sight: I walked past a building site as I was leaving work. A hollow concrete shell, the walls were marked Stay, stay, stay. It spoke to me at that particular moment. I took a picture in the fading light and mused on what keeps us connected to particular places and people.

Sound: In conversation with a colleague over lunch, we talked about the importance of humour. We laughed. I felt attuned to the sound of laughter for the rest of the day. Students laugh a lot. Staff less so, but it’s there when you listen.

Smell: The smell of laundry powder hit me as I walked past the exhaust fan at my son’s childcare centre. Clean sheets. All that goodness and comfort. It felt like coming home at the end of a long day.

Taste: The glovebox stockpile of snacks my son consumes on the way home were all gone. Five minutes before I picked him up, I bought a ‘healthy’ choc chip biscuit. Of course, I had to test the taste. Mouthful of honey.

Touch: my son held my hand, twisted behind me from the driver’s seat, while we waited in traffic. It took three changes of traffic lights to exit the university. Holding hands made it bearable for both of us.

2 thoughts on “Making sense

  1. Pingback: Joy | The Slow Academic

  2. Pingback: A year of books and questions | The Slow Academic

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