The Dynamics of Researching With – Noor Jones-Bey

“If you have come to help me, then you are wasting your time . But if you have come because your destiny is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Australian Aboriginal Woman

Sarah Pink writes, “The practice of sensory ethnography involves the researchers’ empathetic engagement with the practices and places that are important to the people participating in the research. And by association it does not therefore principally involve the collection of data about them that can later be analyzed. Rather it involves the production of meaning in participation with them through a shared activity in a shared place.”  In this passage the author offers a way to produce knowledge that recognizes that knowledge production is a multi-sensory experience made with and among people. Traditional ethnographers, like Geertz, provided a method which asks for a researcher to collect data, a process that indirectly and directly places a one way relationship between people and therefore, the roles participant and researcher, where the researcher extracts from the experience of the participant in order to understand their actions and life ways. The turn that Sara Pink offers asks for research to expand toward the embodied theory and practices of Theaster Gates and Matta Clark. Pink’s sensorial ethnographic approach begins by engaging in relationship with people as they conduct their lives as a means to understand their full experiences and life ways.  She writes, “In ethnography, interviews might range from the form of a more casual conversation to sitting down with an audio recorder to discuss specific issues in a focused way. Whatever the context, I understand the interview less as a data collecting exercise than as a shared conversation through which new ways of knowing are produced.” These moves reflect on what everyday and theoretical decisions are necessary to shift the traditional approaches of social science research practices toward more humanistic and relational methods that ask for people to work together non-hierarchically to build knowledge and learn from one another.

In terms of Sensory Ethnography, Sarah Pink offers, “By asking a research participant to guide one around a particular locality (in my work this has included homes, a garden and a town) that holds meaning for him/her, and in which he/ she is engaged practically on a regular basis, enables the researcher to move through and be in and part of an environment with the participant. When viewing the subsequent video recording the researcher is thus re-experiencing a route through a material, sensory and meaningful world, as already seen through the viewfinder. This is rather different from the perspective of looking at and reading from video-as-data from which cultural meanings can be interpreted/read.” In this way, Sarah Pink shows how necessary it is for researchers to become fully immersed in the sensorial experience which calls for a deeper connection to the various meaning that are produced across the lifeways of individuals she is learning from. Thus researcher’s are asked to call on their own embodied experiences with the research participant, which is asks for a level of self reflexivity in the analytical process.  Matta Clark was successful in building art spaces, like Food, that became hubs for social life but wasn’t able to address social inequality in the sustained ways Theater Gates has in Chicago. I wonder what this means for research that isn’t interested in just producing theory but aims to support action and social change. Is there a certain rootedness and commitment that is necessary for social change research, whether that is art based or not? What possibilities are visible for Theaster Gates as a artist, designer, developer, researcher who grew, learned and worked with the same community for 20 years versus a visiting artist developing an art center? What relationships (within and outside of the community) were at the foundation of his work and create a fertile ground for sustainable art based social change methods?

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