How to get at someone else’s multisensory experience online?

The Nordic Network for Sustainable Consumption had its second workshop, again online, at the end of November. This time we focused on methods: what methods the participants had been using, how the covid-19 pandemic had affected the methods used, and how to employ new methods relying on online interaction, observations by distance and existing data sets such as social media, archives and surveys.

We ended the programme on the first day by having lunch together, online. At the same time, we did a small, digital ethnography experiment: eating together, sharing the experience and documenting the results to be discussed the next day. During the experiment, we tried to capture the taste, texture, smell, visual and audio audio elements of the experience, but also the atmosphere and emotions around this everyday consumption practice of having lunch. 

What we found out was that observing others’ eating, while eating ourselves at the same time, was anything but an easy task. Most of us talked about all the other things except food, or at least the situation at hand – we discussed public transport, flying, working and taking part in conferences at home, and so on. 

Regarding the different senses, they all proved more or less difficult to capture by distance. The sight was challenging, as we could either see each other’s plates or faces – and we all opted for faces. Only some of the breakout groups had shown their food and described it in detail, while some others preferred their co-eaters not to see what was on their plate, as it was then easier to focus on the discussion.

What we also discussed the day after was that turning off your own camera would have made the situation a lot easier. When you see your own face on the screen all the time, you are overly conscious about how you look like for others and concerned if you have food on your face, spinach in your teeth, or something else. This made some of us eat as quickly as possible, to allow focus on the discussion, while others ate more slowly than usual and avoided eating to “hide” it from others.

We also noticed that smell and taste are extremely important for getting at someone’s experience. When we eat together, we can smell each other’s food, and we often eat something rather similar – we all have pizza or Vietnamese food, and we can relate to the world of flavors on each other’s plates. We can even taste a bit, or share dishes. When each of us ordered food or heated lunch from the fridge, we did not have anything in common in what we eat, making it impossible to catch the experience in terms of smell or taste. This might have even made us less conscious about the smell and taste of our own food, as we tried to pay attention to what was happening on the screen instead of sharing the experience of tasting and smelling the food.

In general, instead of highlighting and sharing the senses, most of us tried to hide them, to be able to focus on the discussion. For research, this has interesting insights. Firstly, the observee holds much power over the situation, as the researcher can only have a “tunnel view” for what is going on. The observations are limited by the language and the things you can see and hear from the camera, and you are not able to observe the tiny things you would pick up when being physically present, and not able to link eating to other practices such as those of lighting or cooking. Secondly, doing observations online requires good preparations and becoming aware of the context and the people you are studying. It might even be more laborious than travelling to make observations in person, as you need to carefully plan the research design in a way that captures the atmosphere and the situation within which the observation takes place. Importantly, the researcher needs to be aware of the new kinds of limitations and ways to communicate that for their audiences.

Social interaction taking place online is, however, becoming the new normal. Even after the pandemic, participation in family gatherings, parties, conferences and meetings by distance is going to be something that people do. While some of the people might feel reluctant to take part in research online, and get to know the researcher and invite them in their homes in person instead, others might prefer to keep the distance and opt for online meeting tools. Having a phone in the corner, recording what you do in the kitchen, for example, can be something that people are quite fine with, having been used to the increasing ubiquity  of phones and other appliances since Covid-19. 

It is also important to remember that taking part in research is often the first time for anyone, so participants may not have experienced face-to-face interviews before taking part in an online one, and thus cannot compare the two. Mainly, it is about getting used to new methods as a researcher. So, despite the awkwardness we faced when observing each other eating, there is much potential in new, online methods for doing research and expanding the existing ways of doing ethnography and other kinds of observation to get at lived experiences.

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