Inclusive Sensory Ethnography

© Meryl Alper

Sensory ethnography, introduced by Sarah Pink (2015a, 2015b), is a developing field of practice that ‘involves the researcher self-consciously and reflexively attending to the senses throughout the research process’ (2015b, p.10). And, it has contributed new ways of understanding the affective dimensions of communication technology use, studying how individuals use their senses in everyday mediated environments. Meryl Alper, a communication studies scholar at Northeastern University (USA), has taken this approach a step further and proposes  “inclusive sensory ethnography.” She proposes this methodology to be able to account for greater neurodiversity in how humans process sensory input as well as a fuller range of multi-sensory encounters with new media. 

Alper sets out the approach in the  paper “Inclusive sensory ethnography: Studying new media and neurodiversity in everyday life (2018).” Besides the five “external” senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste), concerning that which is outside the body, Alper incorporates two “internal” sensory systems, vestibular and proprioceptive. Insights from the clinical and scientific fields of occupational therapy, educational psychology, and neurobiology suggest that sensory processing also includes these two systems that convey bodily spatial positioning, i.e. how and where the body is moving. Inclusive sensory ethnography is proposed, partly, to explain how these internal senses shape participation in and exclusion from daily uses of media and technology. 

It is based on a qualitative study with children aged 3–13 on the autism spectrum with difficulties processing sensory information, Alper comes to develop the conceptualization of inclusive sensory ethnography. Alper used a combination of methods: 1) interviews with the parents and children (separately) at home, and; 2) participant observation by visiting homes and observing a media or technology activity that the focal child enjoys “doing with” another family member. She argues that shared media experiences provide various opportunities for close physical intimacy, and proprioceptive and vestibular input for children she worked with. Her article, by doing so, demonstrates that inclusive sensory ethnography sheds light to the interconnected nature of sensory experience and importance of the “internal” senses to media and technology use.

The full text of Inclusive sensory ethnography: Studying new media and neurodiversity in everyday life (2018) by Meryl Alper is available at


Pink S (2015a) Approaching media through the senses: between experience and representation. Media International Australia 154(1): 5–14. 

Pink S (2015b) Doing Sensory Ethnography. 2nd ed. London: SAGE. Pink S, Horst H, Postill J, et al. (2016) Digital Ethnography: Principles and Practice. London: SAGE.

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