More than words – using multi-sensory methods

Like any ethnography, our project’s generation of data will centre around speaking with people, observing what they do, and reflecting on our experiences in the field. As is also the norm in ethnographic research, this data will be processed and presented in primarily written form. We intend to make full use of interview transcripts, observation notes and other fieldwork jottings. These words will form the basis of how our research is presented through articles, book chapters and blog posts. Yet while there is much that researchers can achieve through the written word, there are many elements of schools and the digital that will not be easily captured through interviews or that we will see or experience directly.


When in the field it is important to remember that digital technology use is sensually rich and varied. In other words, we need to conduct research that captures the visual, auditory, olfactory, haptic and tactile dimensions to the digital experience. We therefore need to engage in what Sarah Pink (2009) terms ‘multi-sensory ethnography’ – i.e. ethnographic work that explores education and technology “as a sensory set of encounters and resonances” (Back and Puwar 2012, p.11).


It is worth reflecting on how digital education might be investigated in terms of its touch, smell, sound and taste. How can we adequately account for the bodily movements taking place around digital technologies; the three-dimensional shaping and textures of digital devices; the beeps, clicks, whirrs and other noises of technology use? All of these elements are integral to how digital education is experienced. For example, the everyday act of using an iPad involves engaging with a carefully configured arrangement of colours, textured plastics and brush finished metallic surfaces; the faint heat of the battery; the cool-to-touch sheet of aluminosilicate glass responsive to gestural actions such as swiping, pinching, pointing and tapping. This ‘feel’ of the iPad is very different to another tablet computer, let alone a smartphone or laptop. Despite the marketing rhetoric to the contrary, using a digital device is not simply a generic matter of ‘plug and play’.


We must pursue research activities that allow us to sensualize digital education in these nuanced ways and repeatedly pose the same basic question across multiple registers: i.e. what does digital education ‘feel’ like? This will not be achieved by merely paying lip service to the token use of sound and vision – e.g. recording sounds and capturing images that end up being “little more than ‘eye candy’ or ‘background listening’ to the main event on the page” (Back 2012, p.27). Instead, we need to experiment with diverse ways of telling about education and digital technology. There are many approaches we might take. For example, there is emerging interest within social research in the use of


  • Decibel meters and light readers as research recording tools;
  • The use of audio editing software to visualize sound;
  • Fine grained ‘multimodal’ analysis of video and still images to capture the rhythms, moods, and textures existing in the school;
  • Participatory GIS – using GIS data from participants devices to map movements of people and devices;
  • Software recording traces and trails of touch on touch-responsive technologies.


dirty screen


It is undoubtedly more difficult to directly capture the smells, tastes and haptic feel of digital schooling … but we can try. A couple of initial possibilities here include the use of ….


  • Olfactometers to quantify ambient odour strengths;
  • Sensory mapping – for example, visualizing smell thresholds through smell-maps;
  • Participatory biofeedback measurements: using consumer devices such as the Fit Bit to generate a range of data relating to an individual’s heart-rate, blood pressure and other physiological reactions to sensorial stimuli.



Quite how these methods will contribute to our data corpus will unfold over the next couple of years. For the time being, we intend to remain sensorially attuned and attentive as we begin our forays into the field.



Back, L. (2012)   ‘Live sociology: social research and its futures’ in Back, L. and Purwar, N. (eds) ‘Live methods’ London, Wiley-Blackwell

Back, L. and Puwar, N.   (2012)   ‘A manifesto for live methods: provocations and capacities’ in Back, L. and Purwar, N. (eds) ‘Live methods’ London, Wiley-Blackwell

Pink, S.  (2009)   ‘Doing sensory ethnography‘  London, Sage