Sensory walking: teaching methods in motion

Participants of the sensory walk in the Portuguese National Library in Lisbon, at the workshop during the Why the World Needs Anthropologists event, half of them walking eyes closed. October, 27, 2018.

BY: Rajko Muršič 
redni profesor / Prof.

In teaching anthropology, it is extremely important for students not to equate ethnographic fieldwork with interviewing, especially if they had to submit frequent written assignments based on interviews or even transcripts. They can easily forget that the most important observation “device” they use as researchers is their own body. It is bodily, sensorial experience that is typically ruled out in classical teaching settings. Sensory walks may become a very efficient supplement; they may provide specific experiential-based perspectives, especially in introductory practical classes in ethnographic method.

Sensory walking is a technique developed from various sources. Its main source is soundscape experience in soundwalk. In the late 1960s, composers Raymond Murray Schafer, Hildegard Westerkamp and some others initiated World Soundscape Project to explore acoustic environments. Soundwalk itself developed into a widely used technique of exploring the sounds of the city, nature or any environment human beings may enter or populate. It is especially popular among ethnomusicologists.  

The rules of soundwalking are very simple. A group of people follows the leader of the walk and concentrate on any sound they might perceive, walking or standing, obeying strict rule not to talk, write, take photographs or do anything else than listening and moving. After the walk they reflect their experience by writing notes and discussion. There are at least two aspects of this experience relevant for anthropologists, especially when giving instructions on fieldwork. The first one is awareness of sound environment, whose perception dramatically changes during soundwalk, the second one is stimulation of discussion after the walking in silence: words become more precious means of communication than before. At the same time, walkers experience specific awareness of the body.

Sensory walk is a very similar experience. Here, all sensory perception, including hearing, is employed. To be able to put attention to sight and touch, during sensory walk, at part of a walk, half of the group might walk with eyes closed, both on open space and in buildings. It is not only approximation of the first-hand experience of a deprivation of a sense, but as well brings specific bodily awareness of the importance of touch – a sense that is perhaps the most neglected one in Western worlds, although it had been not so long ago considered as the most close to “true” reality.

Sensorial revolution in social sciences and humanities brought forward some other similar techniques and methods. The field is wide open. For the comparative project Sensotra on change in sensing urban environment among pre-digital generation in the 1950s and the youngest generations of “digital natives” in Turku, Ljubljana and Brighton, Finnish ethnomusicologist Helmi Järviluoma developed a method of sensobiographic walk. It is another essentially very simple research technique: a pair of a younger and an older walker walk a path meaningful for a leader of the walk. In contrast to sensory walk, by walking, or occasionally standing at spots important for them, they talk to each other. Before the walk, the researcher who accompany them, ask them to pay attention and use all senses during the walk, and reflect them on the spot. In these cases, the sense of smell, another typically neglected sense, very often becomes the trigger of memories. Whichever senses are employed in specific moments, they connect individuals, no matter of their age, with they own bodily memories, which are basically holistic memories of specific places and environments.

Students making notes after the sensory walk at the Konitsa Summer School. July 24, 2018.

In education, such experience may be very precious and effective. We can adapt it in various means and for various purposes. Recently, I started using it as the way to introduce freshmen at the beginning of the academic year, or students who attend summer schools. Typical rounds of self-introduction might be very uncomfortable for at least some students. But if they walk and talk to each other, and later present the partner in dialogue, attitudes and atmosphere is completely different: lively, loose, and without fear of performance. Again, this approach is as simple as possible. You ask them to form random pairs, usually colleagues sitting together, and then walk out together and talk.

There are, naturally many similar possibilities we could, and should, develop and employ in our teaching.

Rajko Muršič 
redni profesor / Prof.

Oddelek za etnologijo in kulturno antropologijo / Dept. of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology

Filozofska fakulteta / Faculty of arts

ERC raziskava Sensotra / ERC project Sensotra

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