Power relations and the researcher's gaze are extremely relevant to the research of blind people, yet rarely documented. Based on three years of anthropological research with blind women in Israel, this paper discusses the methodological considerations raised by the ethnography of blindness and the position of a sighted-woman-researcher in the field. Employing a "reflexive interpretation," the analysis explores the ways in which research with blind participants raises specific questions regarding researcher-researched power relations and social interactions, offering a fresh approach to the discussion of the researcher's "gaze" and knowledge gathered in the field. Focusing on sight and blindness within the research process, the article addresses "sensory knowledge" raised in the field, offering a nuanced account of the ethnographic inquiry as a sensory endeavor, promoting a dialogue among disability studies, anthropology of the senses, feminist disability studies, and qualitative methodology.
Introduction: "Are you blind?"
In mid-January 2007, I sat down at the side table near the entrance to my apartment, preparing to make the first phone call to a blind woman who was a potential subject for my research. As a young graduate student in anthropology, I was nervous about the call, in which I was going to present, for the first time, my research to a woman from the "field," asking her to share her personal story with a total stranger. Haya, 2 a 57-year-old blind woman, answered my call. After reciting the short introduction to my research topic and explaining the interview structure in the most welcoming yet confident voice I could manage to produce, I heard a long pause. I held my breath, feeling the sweat dripping down my chest. A few seconds passed before Haya threw her first question at me: "are you blind?"
Haya's question was the opening shot of what became my ethnographic journey into new methodological grounds, as my "sightedness" (Michalko, 1998) and "temporary able-bodiedness" (Whyte & Ingstad, 1995) had not yet become components of my theoretical or methodological lens. In this paper, I address these kinds of methodological lacunas—voids my work with blind participants compelled me to recognize—through critically examining "blindness" and "sight" both as cultural concepts and lived identities, and by employing a reflexive sensibility both to my position in the field as a sighted-woman-ethnographer and to my research methods. I argue for the ways my encounters with both sight and blindness allow the deconstruction of typical researcher-researched power relations, and the creation of a "sensory knowledge" applicable for qualitative work in general.
Despite the central role of "reflexive orientation" (Murphy & Dingwall, 2001) within both ethnographic writing (see Davis, 2000) and disability studies (e.g., Colligan, 2001; Oliver, 1996; Shuttleworth, 2001), and the prominent critique of "visual primacy" in ethnographic methods (Clifford, 1983), the ethnography of blindness has rarely been examined in relation to central anthropological concepts and methods such as the researcher's gaze, the use of observations, and the production of insights from the field (Dundes, 1980). This article, then, not only addresses this gap, but also argues for the specificity of an ethnography of blind and visually impaired participants in challenging the "visual-centrism" (Keating & Hadder, 2010) of the anthropological endeavor (Classen & Howes, 1996; Dundes, 1980; Fabian, 1983; Kaplan-Myrth, 2000; Stoller, 1984), promoting a multi-sensory approach to social research (Classen, 1997; Feld, 1996; Howes, 2003; Pink, 2009; Stoller, 1989).
Before diving into the analysis, I will offer a methodological summary, presenting the structure of the interview and the observation sites, and locating the discussion in the "reflexive" theoretical framework I contribute to. Hence, discussion of the analytical themes that emerged from the data and their relation to the participants' social affiliations is outside the scope of this article, and addressed elsewhere (Hammer, 2012).
This article is based on ethnographic research conducted between 2007 and 2010 as part of a wider project that focuses on the gender identity of blind women and the representations of sight and blindness in the Israeli public sphere. It relies on two main methods: in-depth interviews with 40 women, most of whom are congenitally blind, 3 from varied social backgrounds in terms of age, marital status, ethnicity, geographic location, and profession; and three years of ethnographic observations in sites offering services to blind and visually impaired people and/or presenting aspects of blindness to the general public.
The semi-structured interviews followed the participant's life story, eventually focusing more specifically on gender, femininity, and sexuality in everyday life. Interviewees were obtained through word of mouth and prior to meeting I had at least one phone conversation with the participant, explaining the confidentiality of the study, the interview structure, and the general topic—which I defined as blind women's concepts of gender and femininity and social attitudes toward the blind. The location of the interviews was determined based on the interviewee's preference. Twenty-four interviews were conducted in the participant's home, six took place in the participant's work place, and ten in public spaces such as a coffee shop, a shopping center, a university, or a center for the blind. These settings allowed me to absorb various aspects of blind women's personal lives; interviews in the home at times included food, family, and the opportunity to see personal items relevant to our discussion such as clothes and items of feminine grooming, education, and professional diplomas, Braille books, computer software, and a color identifying device; interviews taking place in the public sphere occasionally included a walk, clothes shopping, a bus ride, or a stroll through the grounds of a university, allowing me to experience public space with a woman using a guide dog or a white cane and therefore observe the reactions of others toward us, and to share physical intimacy with the interviewee as she held my arm in unfamiliar environments.
The interviews were documented using a tape recorder I verbally described to the interviewee during the meeting. The interviewees were asked for their permission to be taped, urged to request that the device be turned off whenever they wished, and informed that they could stop the interview at any time or withdraw from specific questions. Twenty-six women received full transcripts of their interviews upon request, and the participants were also invited to hear, read, respond to, and attend conference presentations and university classes where I presented segments of the work.
Alongside the interviews, my work consists of ethnographic observations conducted from various positions in the field, which varied in context and duration. The short-term observations typically involved my role as an outsider observer of events created, initiated, or performed for and/or by blind and visually impaired people, such as a dance class at a municipal center for the blind, a "beauty class" in an educational institute, and a museum exhibit where visitors are led through a dark space by blind and visually impaired guides. Concurrently, I conducted long-term participant observations in sites offering services to blind and visually impaired people, including three months in a "radio-drama class" in which blind and visually impaired people write and perform radio scripts, six months in a "life-skills" class for blind and visually impaired adults in a rehabilitation program, 12 months participating in a tandem cycling group which pairs blind and sighted cyclists, and 12 months in a medical massage training course in a national center for physical education and sports.
The diversity of this ethnography as a whole offered the opportunity to closely examine blindness, sightedness, and the sensory body of sighted, blind, and visually impaired people (as well as my own) in the field. Whether I was discussing nature and the landscape while riding a tandem bicycle in the Negev desert; practicing cooking, sewing, folding laundry, and shopping with participants in the life skills class; creating plots and characters in the radio drama course; or learning the nuances of physiology, anatomy, and orthopedics in medical massage training—my body was the locus though which questions regarding gender, blindness, and culture were examined and scrutinized. By positioning these sensory experiences in my work, I recognize them as suitable for scholarly discussion, understanding sight and alternative sensory experiences within anthropology as "sensuous experience."
The discussion presented in this article is situated within a "reflexive" theoretical tradition I acknowledge and build upon, combining the sensibility to methodological issues in anthropology (e.g., Clifford & Marcus, 1986; Davis, 2000; Denzin, 1997; Denzin & Lincoln 2005; Marcus & Fischer, 1986; Okely, 1994; Shuttleworth, 2001), and disability ethnography (Ablon, 1990; Battles & Manderson, 2008; Colligan, 2001; Davis, 2000; Deegan & Willett, 2001; Frank, 2000; Oliver, 1996; Phillips, 1990; Shakespeare, 1996; Shuttleworth & Kasnitz, 2004; Stone & Priestley, 1996; Whyte & Ingstad, 1995). Scholars in these lines of research proposed new ways of writing the textual product, making an effort to reflect upon concepts of authority, empowerment and truth, the sources and uses of their knowledge and methods, the researcher's multiple positions in the field, and his/her interaction with the informant's subject positions. Within disability studies, this approach influenced empowering and emancipatory research paradigms (Barton, 2005, Morris, 1992 in Petersen, 2011; Oliver 1992) expressed in qualitative research with blind and visually impaired people (Almog, 2011; Asch & Sacks, 1983; Deshen, 1992; Duckett & Pratt 2001; Fahd et al., 1997; Goldin, 1984; Hess, 2010; Jenks, 2005; Kaplan-Myrth, 2000; Kef & Bos, 2006; Macpherson, 2009; Scott, 1969; Sentumbwe, 1995), as well as in the employment of an "autoethnography" (Ellis & Bochner, 2000; Keating & Hadder, 2010). 4
Taking into consideration this scholarly tradition, my work intertwines disability ethnography and anthropology, highlighting the ways these scholarships inform each other, rethinking the role of sight within research methods and the researcher's position. Although methodological sensitivity within the "reflexive turn" in anthropology has resulted in greater attention to the subjects of power relations and the researcher's gaze—addressing, for example, "micro-relations between informants and ethnographers" (Rabinow, 1985), the interrelationship between observer and observed (Krieger, 1985), power relations between researcher and researched (Murphy & Dingwall, 2001), a "confrontation" between the ethnographer and "his informants" (Crapanzano, 1997), and the ethnographer's position in "a web of intersubjective relation" (Favret-Saad, 1977 in Clifford, 1983)—these discussions have typically referred to the gaze literally, taking for granted both the researcher's and participants' ability to see, and interpreting sight as a disciplinary act of power inflicted upon the observed. Rather than understanding sight as always-already power, this article deconstructs the visual notion of power relations, simultaneously considering the richness and complexity of staring and visual dynamics (Garland-Thomson, 2009), addressing vision and sight as "sensorially integrated, embodied and experienced" (Edwards & Bhaumik, 2008, p. 3), as well as the role of senses other than sight within the researcher-researched relations in the field. In addition, while most of the auto-ethnographies in this context are conducted by researchers with disabilities (Brueggemann, 2000; Colligan, 2001; Mitchell, 2000; Murphy, 1990; Neville-Jan, 2004; Zola, 1982), my position as a sighted researcher broadens the reflexive meaning that can be attributed to both blindness and sight as legitimate sources for inquiry through examining the ethnographer's gendered and sensory body, and bringing into fruitful conversation feminist writing on the body, anthropology of the senses, and research in visual culture.
Power relations and the researcher's gaze are also extremely relevant to the research of blind people, yet rarely documented. Even research specifically focused on the analysis of embodiment among blind people (Kaplan-Myrth, 2000) or the ways research with visually impaired people "should be conducted" (Duckett & Pratt, 2001) has not critically considered the researcher's or the participants' sensory experiences, nor their influence on micro-interactions in the field and on knowledge production. By studying the researcher's location in the context of the ethnography of blindness I not only identify the lack of research on this issue, but also address the reflexive call for researchers to "transform ourselves from… spectators into seers" (Stoller, 1984, p. 94), albeit examining it from the standpoint of a "blind study" (Almog, 2011, p. 50).
In addition to this paper's integration of "blind ethnography" with the wider reflexive orientation in the social sciences, it addresses the critique made by anthropology of the senses regarding the visual focus of anthropological theory and ethnographic methods. Scholars such as Classen (1997), Clifford (1983), Howes (2003), and Stoller (1989), criticized the rise of the fieldworker-theorist in the 1920s, "marked by an increased emphasis on the power of observation" (Clifford, 1983, pp. 124-5), and Geertz's later development of culture as text (1973), rather than as a dynamic multisensory event (Classen & Howes, 1996; Howes, 1991). By analyzing the role of my sensory body in the field, I address this critique, shifting the focus of the discussion from the eye and the gaze to the sensory experiences that blindness raises, and examining the concept of "observation": its theoretical legacy and the empirical framework it obliges researchers to work in. Moreover, by focusing on the meanings of sight and blindness and the researcher's sensory body both in everyday life and in the research process, this paper builds on key arguments within the anthropology of the senses, understanding the senses as organized within a culturally and socially interpretive context (e.g., Classen, 1997; Geurts, 2002; Howes, 1991; Seremetakis, 1994), continuing the development of sensory-conscious "ethnographic epistemology" (Helmreich, 2007) which is tuned to the conditions that allow and produce anthropological metaphors and accounts (p. 633).
Getting Started: De-Familiarization with Sight
Who is actually the blind one here? Who is the one that doesn't see the other? Who has a deficiency of his/her senses? And who enacts a richer sensory embodiment? (Fieldwork Journal, May 2007).
My interest in the gendered body within visual culture shaped my choice of research topic. I vividly recall the moment my decision to research blind women emerged. At the end of a long day, I had collapsed on my living room sofa with my eyes closed, the television on in the background. A commercial I had seen before came on, advertising an international fast food corporation. It featured smiling, blonde, Barbie-like, barely dressed women, moving around on skates, serving slabs of meat. The women did not speak, serving merely as an unmistakable metaphorical connection to the piece of meat on their trays. Listening to the male narrator, I wondered what messages I would be receiving if I were unable to actually see the commercial. As a woman living in a visual culture saturated with images of the female body and sexuality, I could easily imagine the beauty ideal displayed on the screen, but how, I wondered, do blind women interpret it through sound rather than sight, and in which ways does this beauty ideal affect them?
This moment on the sofa integrated my theoretical interest in the gendered gaze with my own body experience, raising an awareness of both my gendered and sighted body and de-familiarizing my own social affiliation and the "natural" meaning of sight. I embraced this awareness and continued to employ it in my empirical and theoretical work and also in the field, which caused me to rethink the visual framework of my work, and reexamine the definitions of terms such as blindness and sight, ability and disability, body function, and movement. Within my theoretical considerations, it guided me to contextualize the research within the framework of feminist disability studies, which integrates the feminist interest in women's bodies with disability studies' critique on bodily norms, function, and appearance (e.g., Garland-Thomson, 2002; Gerschick, 2000; Hall, 2011).
Nevertheless, my awareness of blindness and sight at that moment was informed by a somewhat naïve, simplistic division between sight and blindness as two worlds of meanings. As the next sections reveal, examining day-to-day encounters in the field, specifically the challenges and interactions with interviewees, and engaging in dialogue with people in the field complicated my understanding of sight and blindness, as I came to realize that the visual dimension indeed exists in the lives of both blind and sighted women who are being seen. Developing this acknowledgment, I formulated the nuanced perception I ask to employ in my methodological lens, which is to address the ways blind women "do gender" (West & Zimmerman, 1987) in their everyday lives, as active interpretive subjects.
Deconstructing Power Relations: Day-to-Day Ethnography in the Field
The ethnography of blindness raises specific complexities resulting from the potential of emphasizing imbalanced power relations and the researcher's gaze, replicating the participants' social location as "spectacles"—a position which characterizes their everyday lives as blind and disabled (Brueggemann, Garland-Thomson, & Kleege, 2005; Garland-Thomson, 2009). As previously mentioned, my research required me to develop an alternative sensory-sensitivity which challenges typical researcher-researched relations and the common association of knowledge with seeing and sight. The following discussion consists of two sections, one referring to the ways interviewees challenged my position as a sighted researcher, inquiring about my method and position in the field, and the other to the ways a heightened awareness of verbal communication, bodily intimacy, and the role of the researcher's body as a source of knowledge has developed in my work.
"It's really scary, like, what am I, a tribe that you research?": Researcher-Participant Power Relations
Look, I can tell you that your questions are very-very good, but, again, they're very general. I think it's… I mean, I don't know if you want to get to something more specific, there're many questions it's hard to answer…. I think that you need questions a little bit narrower… it needs to be broken down into more concrete things, less abstract. But this is only my personal opinion. Do whatever you'd like.
Ayelet, a 33-year-old congenitally blind woman, also raised concerns, asking, "so… what are you taking from all this? Not only from my interview, from all of us?" In response, I elaborated on the "life-story" format of the interview, and the "grounded theory" I employ in analyzing my research materials from the field. Ayelet asked, unsatisfied: "And what do you mean by a field, a research field? What is this 'field'?" I addressed the varied meanings of a "research field" in contemporary anthropology, which, I told her, in the past might have included a remote tribe, but today is more likely to relate to a specific social, religious, or ethnic group. Ayelet replied angrily: "But that's really scary, it's like, what am I, a tribe that you research? You understand?"
As the conversation continued, I explained my sensitivity to power relations which had emerged from my interest in gender and women, as I began to fear losing one of the most interesting interviewees I had met. Ayelet raised her final question, directing it toward my own identity in the field, inquiring:
"Are you a feminist?"
Surprised, and unsure what the "right" answer might be, I quietly said "yes," simply delivering the truth. To my relief, Ayelet responded, "well done."
Whether it was conscious or not, the women often made me the object of study, putting themselves in the place of the researcher, as frequently happens within ethnographic research when the object of study takes an active role in navigating the terms and settings of the empirical process (e.g., El-Or, 2010; Krumer-Nevo, 2006). Some of the participants enacted this role reversal with subtlety, seemingly inspired by sincere curiosity, while others, such as Ayelet, approached it with a sense of challenge, to gauge whether I was worthy of their time and trust.
"As soon as you gave me your hand I felt that you were very slim": Sensory Awareness in the Field
During the course of my work I also discovered the importance of non-visual gestures while interviewing a blind person, as well as the use of words, sounds, and touch within research observations. While the typical interview method involves "visual cues" (Almog, 2011, p. 36) such as facial expressions and body language, interviews with a blind woman emphasize a non-visual interaction. My interviews compelled me to exercise what I identify as "participant listening," 5 verbalizing my presence, responses, questions, and feelings, and paying attention to sonic and audio dynamics. The importance of non-visual communication was also present in the observations, where blind participants identified me mainly by hearing my voice and body movements. Therefore, the participants' ability to recognize me was not taken-for-granted, but a sign of the familiarity I developed with people in the field.
Next to sound, touch plays a central role in my interactions with research participants, who at times created an unexpected body proximity and personal intimacy, such as when interviewees held my hand or sat very close to me. Almog (2011) describes a similar experience in her work, discussing how walking anagage (arm in arm) with a visually impaired interviewee created a "rather unusual situation of getting into someone's personal space, on the basis of such a short relationship" (p. 37). It is important to mention that the kind of touch and bodily intimacy created in the field does not express stigmatized-romanticized notions of the "blind touch," which assumes blind people's congenitally heightened tactile ability, and their habit of regularly touching others' faces, even those of strangers, as a way for them to learn what others look like (Kleege, 2006, p. 213). Research participants were aware of my personal space, taking my hand or arm rather than touching more intimate body parts, and our bodily intimacy was created in specific situations such as when requesting the participants' opinion on a clothing item, introducing them to the tape recorder, or when participating in a physical activity which involved the lived body, such as practicing massage techniques or riding tandem bicycles. The kind of intimacy I refer to resembles the way Classen (2007) identifies touch as inviting an "intimate engagement" between people and between objects and people, not only verifying sight, but also "providing information not accessible to the eye" (p. 901). 6
This kind of physical proximity, "fleshly companionship," in Wacquant's term (2005), occurred in my interview with Tamar, a 24-year-old congenitally blind woman, with whom I met and walked through a large central bus station as she held my arm with one hand and her guide dog with the other, entering the elevator, the restroom and the coffee shop. Our intimacy allowed the exchange of bodily information which I usually do not experience upon first acquaintance, such as body shape, walking pace, and body odor. Bodily intimacy was also present within research observations, and most explicitly carried out in the medical massage course which trains blind and visually impaired participants as professional masseurs. After three months of observing the group of 12 students, I moved from observer to participant-researcher when I agreed to pair with one of the students who needed someone to practice on. Exposing my half naked body to her hands felt unusual; however it not only created an intimate bond between us as a "massage pair," but also allowed me access to tactile knowledge about the class and the ways blind people learn anatomical nuances, knowledge I could not have accessed otherwise.
This bodily intimacy created in research with blind participants has an important methodological meaning, and Almog (2011) even argues for its "necessity" when "one side (or both sides) is blind" (p. 38). I agree with this notion, but see the need to avoid a "compulsory intimacy," which might take advantage of blind people. As long as the researcher makes an effort to ask permission to touch, and to create physical contact only on the participant's terms, the intimacy can serve as a platform for attentive relations with research participants and access to a nuanced sensory knowledge. As the next section reveals, bodily intimacy and sensory knowledge are not driven by touch alone, but rather by multi-layered sensory experiences which conceives touch as a physical encounter consisting of complicated haptic sensations and somatosensory movements.
The Role of the Researcher's Body
Additional challenges to the observer-observed relations occurred through the central role of my own body in the field, which functioned as a source of knowledge in two ways: first, when research participants related to and commented on my appearance within the interviews, and second when I used my body as a tool in collecting data and knowledge within research observation, experiencing my body as a "vehicle for bonding and a vessel for the transmission of knowledge" (Colligan, 2001, p. 119).
Interviewees expressed knowledge regarding my appearance and behavior, demonstrating their ability to access and interpret visual information—an interesting shift within a research addressing blind women's appearance management as one of its components (Hammer, 2012)—complicating questions of the nature of knowledge and knowing, and challenging its widespread association with sight and light (Schillmeier, 2006).
Interviewees commented on my voice, touch, shape, smell, and taste on several occasions. At one point Aviva responded to my voice, saying: "You sound to me like a very delicate girl, so maybe I'm too honest for you." Rinat, a 44-year-old visually impaired woman, made a similar remark during our interview, addressing my tone: "I'm sorry Gili, I'm being really honest with you, and it sounds like it embarrasses you. But this is the topic you chose." In other situations, such as my meeting with Orly, a 30-year-old congenitally blind woman, I received a comment on my smell, a compliment on the pleasant aroma coming from my hands.
Comments were directed more specifically to my visual appearance at times. During the interview with Anat, a 34-year-old congenitally blind woman, I asked, as usual, about her feminine grooming, and the reason she does not wear makeup. To this question, Anat replied: "No, I don't. But we also didn't talk about why you're not wearing any." Similarly, during my interview with Roni, a 27-year-old congenitally blind woman, the touch of our hands came up when discussing the fact that Roni considers herself fat. When I asked about the ways she developed this notion without seeing herself and others, she addressed my own appearance, and explained:
People told me [that I'm fat], and… I don't know, I found out. There were these insensitive people who told me so, but I also found out […] In your case for example, when I took your hand I could tell that you're really skinny. As soon as I gave you my hand I felt that you were… very slim. You see, and this is without actually seeing you, only because I took your hand [laughing]… Yes!
I was surprised to hear this comment—a surprise which Roni probably felt, and so continued to explain:
I'll tell you another thing. Many people make fun of me, even today, because when I'm combing my hair, I stand in front of the mirror. Yes. […] I don't know [why], I can also distinguish between light and darkness, so many times I turn the light on, and people tell me "but you don't need to, you can't see." But I do need it, it comes naturally, I don't ask myself why. And sometimes I stand in front of the mirror and say, "wow, how pretty I am," because I feel it from the inside.
Roni's account expresses a complicated dialogue with the visual dimension; on one hand, she interprets and comments on my looks, and even uses a mirror. At the same time, she does not refer to herself as sighted, and relies on touch ("I took your hand"), sound ("people told me so"), and inner sensations ("I feel it from the inside"), in gaining visual knowledge. Even though a psychological analysis of the reasons Roni uses the mirror are outside the considerations of my work, her intriguing reference to this experience demonstrates the richness of sensations and feelings research participants expressed, integrating visual and blind culture, and challenging binary distinctions such as visual/corporeal, external/internal, and feelings/looks. 7
Interviewees' reactions to my body in the field allow broadening the ethnographic sensitivity to sensory meanings, not only addressing visible sounds, voices, sights, and tastes the ethnographer experiences in his/her work, but also the subtle messages he/she delivers through body odor, tone of voice, or his/her hands and touch, while interacting in the field. This awareness enriches the researcher's understandings of his/her body and the collection and production of knowledge, taking into account non-visual interaction, and challenging the ways the "peripheral" senses other than sight have been commonly placed in opposition to the rationality and objectivism of the eye (Macpherson, 2009).
Somewhat similar to Colligan's work with Karaites in Israel, in which she learned from the community she visited and lived with and from the ways her informants spoke of and handled her own body (2001), my experiences in the field transformed my body and bodily processes into an "open book" in Colligan's words, focusing on bodily processes yielded from a heightened awareness of the senses. An example of this kind of sensory knowledge and awareness occurred at the medical massage training for blind and visually impaired people I observed. Throughout the course, a special emphasis was given to the senses in order to teach anatomy, physiology, and massage techniques to those relying mainly on senses other than sight. In this situation, the visual maps and diagrams of the muscles and the human body became verbal metaphors and tactile sensations of models and body organs, addressing the weight, location, size, and structure of each limb and bone. When discussing clinical diagnoses, for example, the students practiced how to diagnose by paying attention to the patient's walk: The sound, type, length, and force of the movement, as well as the temperature of the knee or ankle. The teachers (mainly sighted but some blind and visually impaired) paid special attention to verbal explanations and body movements, identifying words as their "most important tool," when stimulating the students' imagination and understanding. As in other research sites, in time I noticed that the course compelled me to consider ways I can use this verbal awareness while teaching, writing, and researching. The class also sharpened my awareness of space, as I noticed that during the year of observing it I identified different shades of green through the classroom window, noticed the texture and incline of the sidewalk, the composition of the billboard in the training center, and the changes of wind, light, and temperature at the sports institute from one visit to the other. All these nuances were not only a new part of my life but also an integral element of the research observation and the knowledge I gathered in the field. Sitting for ten months in a context so sensitive to the lived body and the smallest anatomical nuances, I could feel my own body "speak" in these observations, absorbing and capturing the experiences; experiences pleasurable at times, and on other occasions challenging and difficult, such as pain, hunger, discomfort, confusion, embarrassment, and exhaustion.
Following Pink's (2009) examination of "sensory ethnography" as a "process of doing ethnography that accounts for how this multisensoriality is integral both to the lives of people who participate in our research and to how we ethnographers practice our craft" (p. 1), I employed this sensory awareness outside the field and while analyzing empirical materials. I noticed that my everyday activities received a heightened awareness, adding to the dominant visual dimension, as I became aware of aspects of texture, liquidity, temperature, shape, and sound, recognizing haptic, olfactory, and gastronomic experiences as legitimate sources of knowledge.
The interviewees' role in the field, described in these sections, exposes their distance from the role of passive subjects, operating their conscious judgment and active agency regarding the research settings they take part in, the person with whom they speak, and the researcher by whom they are being observed.
Conclusion: Sensory Knowledge and Carnal Experiences
My encounters with research participants challenged traditional power relations and multiple meanings of the researcher's gaze, highlighting what I identify as "sensory knowledge" which emphasizes everyday "carnal experiences" (Wacquant, 2004) of the lived body, and serves as a significant source of scholarly knowledge. My discussion of this term is located within the contemporary "embodied" approach to the research of social life, expressed in "carnal sociology" (Wacquant, 2005), which promotes "visceral know-how" skills and knowledge (p. 467), as well as in anthropology of the body, directing attention to the performative aspects of human and cultural experience (Kohavi, 2007). These scholars have emphasized the "necessity of a sociology not only of the body, in the sense of object, but also from the body, that is, deploying the body as a tool of inquiry and vector of knowledge" (Wacquant, 2004, p. viii), addressing the researcher's body as the location through which he/she inhabits, comprehends, inquires, and interprets the field.
Although my research is indeed influenced by this line of research, it offers a unique perspective within the research "of" and "from" the body, integrating the sociology and anthropology of the body together with the attention given to corporeal experiences within disability studies and the study of blindness. The majority of the existing ethnographic literature on the body is culled either from participatory research or observations of a specific group/profession; in the first (participatory research), the ethnographer is an "observant participant" (Wacquant, 2004) in a wide range of activities involving a "high level of embodiment" (Kohavi 2007), such as Lindy Hop dancing (Wade, 2011), Samba dancing (Browning, 1995), practicing Japanese Martial Arts (Bar-On Cohen, 2006), Yoga (Buckingham & Degen, 2012), mountaineering (Lund, 2005), cycling (Spinney, 2006), and boxing (Wacquant, 2004); in the last example (observations of a specific group/profession), the ethnographer focuses on a profession requiring a heightened awareness of the body, such as dance, as in Kohavi's examination of modern-contemporary dance (2007) or Ophir's analysis of female dance teachers (2012).
Unlike these studies, my ethnography of blind women and the cultural representations of sight and blindness does not (and cannot) involve my role as an "observant participant;" throughout my work I neither pretended to "go-blind" nor imagined that I can learn how blindness feels. In addition, the study of blindness does not focus on a specific bodily practice such as dance, cycling or boxing, shared by a closed group of tourists, fans or professionals, but rather examines the everyday life of our sensory body, as shared by sighted, blind, and visually impaired people, deconstructing the "naturalness" of sight by referring to it as a social and cultural "skill" (Kleege, 2005, p. 188) that people "do" in everyday life in the same way that one "does" gender. Moreover, my work is not only atypical in its object of study, it also integrates sociology and anthropology of the body with disability studies. This perspective intertwines existing "embodied ethnography" with the corporeal realities of pain, illness, and impairment in the everyday lives of people with disabilities, accounting for the body as a "bio-social entity" (Thomas, 2002, p. 75) that lies at the intersection of culture, society, and embodiment (Casper & Talley, 2005). By adopting these perspectives, giving special attention to the sensory realities blindness evokes, I conceive my position in the field not simply as a sighted researcher observing blind participants, but as a person with a material body and visual skills, engaging in research with other people of varied corporeal experiences, addressing the "multisensoriality of experience, perception, knowing and practice" (Pink, 2009, p. 1).
To conclude, ethnography of blindness offers important ways of rethinking the researcher's gaze, researcher-researched power relations, and the visual focus of the qualitative inquiry, applicable both to qualitative works in disability studies, and ethnographic research in general. My position as a sighted researcher observing blind participants offers the opportunity to examine core methodological questions within a situation consisting of extreme imbalanced power relations, which nevertheless are surprisingly deconstructed and challenged in multiple ways. Addressing the interactions I encountered in the field allows a fresh perspective on the agency participants express, the (non-visual) meanings of knowledge and knowing, the role of bodily intimacy and physical proximity with those that are being researched, the aspects of otherness and the role of the outsider within the research process, and the researcher's use of his/her senses, promoting the production of "sensory knowledge." The examples described in this paper are only few instances of the presence of the sensory body during my three years of ethnographic research with blind women. This experience heightened my attention to my senses, feelings, and movements within mundane activities and ordinary tasks in and outside the field: While using a knife in the kitchen, crossing a street in the neighborhood, listening to the sound of the needle going through the fabric while sewing, feeling the texture and shape of clothes while folding laundry, sensing temperature, weight, shape, smell, sound, taste, and touch while cooking, accounting for the feelings and sensations of my students while teaching, or acknowledging the sensuous aspects of research materials and the writing experience.
This analytical investigation was also accompanied by an emotional sensory journey I went through during this project. First, I went through a process of "de-familiarization" with sight, getting closer to the experiences of blind people and feeling alienated from sight as I knew it. Five years later, I went through a process of "re-familiarization" with sight, learning to see differently. Sight became thicker, consisting of ranges and nuances, heat and temperature, lights and shadows, concrete and abstract shapes, peripheral and central fields, fused and fragmented landscapes, including colors, shapes, lights, sensations, depth, and movements. It was no longer a mechanical "thing," the "sighted" possess and the "blind" lack. In her book Sight Unseen, Kleege (1998) writes that she "finds it easy to imagine what it's like to be sighted." She "had to write this book to learn what it means to be blind" (p. 3). In my case, I had to conduct this research not only in order to better understand the life experiences of a blind woman, but to learn what it means to be a sighted woman, and more specifically, what it means to experience sightedness. By developing a more nuanced understanding of sight and blindness, of observations, insights, and the researcher's gaze, I ask researchers to practice a sensory embodiment in the field, one that is sensitive to the non-visual interactions and locations from which scholarly knowledge is represented and produced, acknowledging blind people's acute listening to the senses and to their place within the ethnographic research process.
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I wish to express my gratitude to Tamar El-Or, Georgina Kleege, Catherine Kudlick, and Terry Tracy, for their engaged reading of this paper; for Aziza Khazzoom's support of this project; for Janet Christensen's insightful editorial help; and for DSQ's guest editors and anonymous reviewers who carefully guided my work, providing thoughtful critiques and comments. This paper is part of my doctoral research which is funded by the Dean's Fellowship for Excellence in the Faculty of Social Science, The Shaine Centre for Research in Social Sciences, The Levi Eshkol Economic and Political Research in Israel, and Lafer Center for Women and Gender Studies, all at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel. It was also made possible by research grants from NA`AMAT Movement of Working Women & Volunteers, and the United States-Israel Educational Foundation's Fulbright Doctoral Student Grant. Above all, it was made possible by the research participants, to whom I am thankful for raising my awareness of my sensory body, providing me new methods of researching social life.
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Pseudonyms are used for all participants.
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My choice to interview mainly congenitally blind rather than visually impaired women stemmed from my interest in the gender performance of women who do not rely on sight as a central mode of perception yet retain a limited memory of colors, visual images, and people's appearance. By focusing on this population, my work challenges the visual focus within gender and feminism, and integrates the studies of disability and blindness into the discussion.
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For autobiographical accounts of blindness, refer to, for example: Frame, 2004; French, 1999; Hull, 1991; Keller, 1905; Kent, 2002; Kleege, 1998; Kudlick, 2005; Kuusisto, 2006; Michalko, 1998; and Saerberg, 2010. These accounts cannot be simply roofed under the same genre, or examined solely in the light of "disability narratives" versus "illness narratives" (Tracy, 2012).
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Forsey, in his article Ethnography as participant listening (2010), argues for the need to better acknowledge the importance of "engaged listening" in ethnography, decoupling the strong association of ethnography with participant observation. Nevertheless, while Forsey focuses mainly on interview-based studies and the role of conversation and dialogue with research participants, I emphasize listening within the settings of both interviews and observations, focusing on the sounds produced by my physical environment, the participant's body and my own.
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Elsewhere in my work I offer an elaborated discussion of the traits and history of the sense of touch and its relation to vision. For further reading refer to: Classen, 2005.
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Previous accounts of the mirror as a tool of socialization have been made by symbolic interactionism scholars such as Cooley ( 2001) and Mead (1934), mainly referring to the ways people's notions of themselves are shaped through interaction with others and based on other people's perspectives of themselves. For additional discussion of the mirror from the standpoint of blindness and disability studies, refer to: Mitchell, 2002; Pfau, 2007.
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