Book review by Craig Owen
In this text, Laura Ellingson provides a theoretical approach, a methodological philosophy, and a range of practical tips and examples for how to attend to the meaningful presence of your own and your research participants’ bodies throughout all stages of the research process.
Laura starts by taking a poststructuralist approach to theorising embodiment. She calls on us to recognise how the body is always in a process of becoming, a liminal state that is shifting and never fixed or finalised. The goal of research on embodiment is thus to shine a light on this dynamic process, to capture snapshots of these transitions, changes and movements of the body over time.
To achieve this goal, Laura sketches out the benefits of a flexible and inclusive methodology, one that is open to embracing a wide range of methods and theories, and one not afraid of crossing paradigmatic, methodological and disciplinary boundaries. Adopting this approach allows us to openly acknowledge how qualitative research, just like everyday life, is a messy business. By embracing the mess, that is, being open to mistakes, mis-directions, unexpected opportunities and unanticipated tangents in research practice, we are better placed to engage with the multiple, slippery and fuzzy realities of embodied life. For Laura, such an approach is not haphazard, nor lacking in rigor, but rather reflects “a creative, generative commitment to embodied pragmatism” (p.192).
To help bring the body into our research in a more deliberate and creative manner, Laura also provides a range of practical guidelines and flexible starting points for experimentation. She encourages us to actively engage with sensuousness, to (re)learn our own senses, carefully attending to how, through our engagements in new research contexts and interactions, we and others learn new skills of how to see, taste, feel and hear in different ways.
Of course, reflexivity is crucial here. Laura suggests that we can reflect on the specific parts of our body-self that are relevant in our research, to consider what our body has learned, how our senses have changed over course of the fieldwork, and how we come to recognise discourses circulating through our body and those of our participants.
In the course of planning and conducting interviews, focus groups, or any other form of communicative interaction, Laura suggests planning questions that explicitly encourage participants to reflect on touch, taste, smell, texture, temperature and movement. When conducting ethnographic fieldwork, she advises us to spend time focusing on and describing one specific sense. It is also essential for us to enhance our note-taking practice; getting in the habit of making notes about a range of sensations and emotions during important moments of understanding and connection. By jotting down more visceral, messy and sensorially rich notes, this will hopefully help spark our imagination and reflections when we return to (re)analyse the data at a later date.
To succinctly illustrate the benefits of this approach, at the beginning of each chapter, Laura provides eloquent examples where she creatively writes her own and others’ bodies into her research. Reading these descriptively rich and flowing sections of prose, I felt like I was getting to know Laura, her passion for research, her attention to specific details in the field, her quirky way of reflecting on her own disability, and her strange hankering for sugar-free fizzy pop. If only I could write in such an evocative and engaging way. As an early career researcher, I’m still struggling to get to grips with what I see as the staid academic style. But this embodied style is so much more gripping and reader friendly.
Ultimately, reading this text has helped me recognise that I need to experiment with my research practice and writing style, specifically, enriching my vocabulary, getting in the habit of describing single events in more holistic sensory ways, and experimenting with more imaginative, figurative and poetic language. No doubt, this will not be an easy task. But, if we take Laura’s advice that our progress will be as much a result of our mistakes and accidents as our plans and successes, we need only try.