Pink 2001 Ethnography Essay

As visual media proliferate and as our understanding of visual cultures deepens, visual research has grown. As the field develops, so does a need for textbooks and resources at all levels. Three sole- authored books on visual methods, published in 2001 by Marcus Banks, Gillian Rose, and Sarah Pink, may meet this need.

Pink's book looks at one type of visual analysis: visual ethnography, which is ethnographic research incorporating photography, video, or hypermedia. The book is presented in three parts. Part 1 situates ethnographic images, and ethnography itself, in a theoretical context and discusses ethical issues. Part 2 includes a chapter each on photography and video in ethnographic research and a chapter on the thorny issues of interpretation. Part 3 discusses the presentation of visual research, with chapters on images in printed text, videos, and hypertext.

Pink divides ethnography into two camps. Scientific-realist ethnography seeks 'the' truth. In contrast, reflexive ethnography asserts there is no objective truth. Academic cultures (visual, social, etc.) vary substantially from the cultures of ethnographic informants. Thus, reflexive research always explicitly considers the academic's frameworks, to make clear that a researcher's interpretation of informants' interpretations are just one form of sense-making. To Pink, who draws on ideas of ethnography as fiction, the scientific-realist approach represents an out-moded style of thinking. Her discussion of scientific-realist visual research serves as a straw person, or a foil to show the strengths of a reflexive approach. (Nevertheless, Pink points out that some images within a reflexive ethnography can serve in a 'documentary' or a 'realist' mode.)

Pink's agenda is ambitious. She sets out to open up visual ethnography to alternative modes of thought. As Pink puts it, researchers should not attach 'the visual to existing methodological principles and analytical frames' but should create new frameworks and methods, 'abandoning the possibility of a purely objective social science and rejecting the idea that the written word is essentially a superior medium of ethnographic representation' (p. 4). Objective research may be decimated by the end of the book, but the written word is not. Despite the predominance of the visual in Pink's discussion, and her score of illustrations, Pink is limited by the requirements of a printed book. She has to put forward her argument in a linear, textual form. Though she discusses a good range of studies using visual images, it is sometimes hard to 'see' her points, as her written descriptions cannot do justice to the original, visual versions. (Readers will want to look up many studies Pink cites.) This proves Pink's assertion of a difference between written and visual knowledge. Pink, however, does not wish to abandon writing altogether. As she puts it in her 'After-word', 'words are good to communicate with' (p. 176).

A key strength of Pink's book is her continual discussion of research ethics, especially the rights of research subjects. To Pink, the only ethically acceptable ethnography involves informants as active participants in the research. She highlights the importance of on-going discussions with informants, obtaining their informed consent for research and eventual publication, and of 'giving something back' to the communities who provide the fodder for ethnographic scholarship. She also discusses the ethics of publication, given that neither researchers nor informants can control how published materials are used or interpreted. Researchers must, therefore, take care that their work cannot harm informants. (She points out, however, that even the most carefully prepared publications can be interpreted by receivers such as students in ways that support racist or other untoward attitudes.)

Of the three sole-authored books on visual methods, Pinks is the thinnest, both literally and figuratively. Banks and Rose, while broadly agreeing with Pink's preference for reflexive work, cover a wider spectrum of visual theories and methodologies. Pink's book is at once narrow and amorphous. On the one hand, Pink seems to value only reflexive or 'innovative' work. Other styles of social thought are not covered or are quickly dismissed. On the other hand, since Pink argues that visual meanings are arbitrary, she seems open to an arbitrary range of techniques. She does not offer specific advice, instead suggesting that researchers tailor their work to local conditions. Pink states explicitly that she is not 'prescribing "how to" do "visual research".' Instead, she says, 'I draw from my own and other ethnographers' experiences of using images in research and representation to present a range of examples and possibilities. These are intended as a basis, or even point of contrast, from which new practices may be developed' (p. 4). While Pink covers interesting territory, she does not set out, in any concrete sense, these new practices. This task is left to the reader.

I recommend this book to postgraduate students who are grappling with the issues Pink discusses and who will follow up on the literature she provides as exemplars. The book does not offer enough scope or background for beginners, failing to cover a range of approaches. Its theoretical sections assume a level of understanding that will be absent from many undergraduates. Undergraduates may also find much of Pink's advice vague or amorphous. On the other hand, experts may find some of Pink's advice quite basic. In the end, however, Pink has put forth many interesting issues which bear both thought and discussion.

Victoria Alexander
University of Surrey

In recent years, sensory ethnography has emerged in response to the way that anthropology has represented its human subjects in media, primarily through film. This new discipline, which has its roots in field recordings, sound art and ethnographic films, tries to develop a way of approaching anthropology's social concerns, maintaining its methodological imperative to clearly and accurately represent its subjects, while at the same time acknowledging that the audience for such research also makes up part of the meaning that it creates. In short, sensory ethnography is an attempt to resolve the subjective, artistic approaches needed to make effective and engaging work out of empirical data, at the same time as accurately representing its observations. (source)

"The practice of making nonfiction work which goes under the names media anthropology or sensory ethnography is based on the understanding that human meaning does not emerge only from language; it engages with the ways in which our sensory experience is pre-or non-linguistic, and part of our bodily being in the world. It takes advantage of the fact that our cognitive awareness – conscious as well as unconscious – consists of multiple strands of signification, woven of shifting fragments of imagery, sensation and malleable memory. Works of sensory media are capable of echoing or reflecting or embodying these kinds of multiple simultaneous strands of signification." (Ernst Karel, interviewed in Earroom)




  • Lucien Castaing-Taylor (ed.), Visualizing Theory, University of California Press, 1994. (English)
  • Anna Grimshaw, The Ethnographer’s Eye: Ways of Seeing in Modern Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, 2001. (English)
  • François Laplantine, Le social et le sensible: introduction à une anthropologie modale, Paris: Téraèdre, 2005, 220 pp. [1](French)
  • David MacDougall, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography and the Senses, Princeton University Press, 2005, 328 pp. (English)
  • Sarah Pink, The Future of Visual Anthropology: Engaging the Senses, Routledge, 2006. (English)
  • Sarah Pink, Doing Sensory Ethnography, Sage, 2009. (English)
  • Michael Bull, Jon P. Mitchell (eds.), Ritual, Performance and the Senses, London: Bloomsbury, 2015, 224 pp. [2](English)
Papers and articles
  • Sarah Pink, "Mobilising Visual Ethnography: Making Routes, Making Place and Making Images", Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research 9:3 (Sep 2008). (English)
  • Sarah Pink, with responses by David Howes, "The Future of Sensory Anthropology/The Anthropology of the Senses", Social Anthropology 18:3 (2010), pp 331-340. (English)
  • Sarah Pink, "Sensory Digital Photography: Re-thinking Moving and the Image", Visual Studies 26:1 (2011), pp 4-13. (English)
  • Tim Ingold, "Worlds of Sense and Sensing the World: A Response to Sarah Pink and David Howes", Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 19:3 (2011), pp 313-317. (English)
  • Dennis Lim, "The Merger of Academia and Art House: Harvard Filmmakers’ Messy World", The New York Times, 31 August 2012. (English)

See also[edit]

Anthropology, Field recording


Fields and theories: Classics, Art history, History of architecture, Anthropology, Semiotics, Philosophy of technology, Marxist aesthetics, Design research, Humanities computing, Structuralism, Poststructuralism, Mediology, Media archaeology, Cyberfeminism, Cultural techniques, Neuroaesthetics, Posthumanities, Sensory ethnography, Media ecology, Digital humanities, Software studies, Modern periodical studies, Accelerationism.
Concepts: Faktura, Ostranenie, Biomechanics, Commons, Postmedia, Evil media.
Related theories: Systems theory, Information theory, Cybernetics.

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