Posted by: Melissa De Lyser | May 5, 2014

Sensory bias in ethnography

True confession: Until I started this class, I didn’t know what ethnography was. Lindlof and Taylor’s description of ethnographers’ goals – describing and interpreting the observable relationships between social practices and systems of meaning based upon firsthand experience and exploration of a particular cultural setting – definitely clarified things. Defining ethnography as a part of field data in anthropological and/or sociological does indeed add an exotic element to the concept, invoking images of Margaret Mead in Samoa.

I was fascinated by Patricia Alder’s approach to sensory bias: Requiring students to view situations without audio and then without video. What a great exercise. I’ve always been fascinated by the sensory bias aspect of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debate. Those who heard the debate on radio felt Nixon was the victor. But 88% of Americans who saw the debate on television declared the young, handsome Kennedy the winner. Visuals – in this case appearance – biased viewer perception.

Laura Mansfield’s audio-only concept – emphasizing authentic voice – creates a participatory experience in which the listener hears the story, without the competing influence of visuals. It’s a pure form of story/ethnography: The nuance and emotion of voice without the influence/bias of visual.

It is clear that an interpretation of a situation through audio observation only can be significantly different than interpretation through audio and visual. Is the difference in interpretation through visual observation only as dramatic? Is visual bias the strongest sensory bias field worker’s should guard against?

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