In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Multimodal Ethnography

  • Introduction
  • Overview: The Multimodal and the Multisensorial
  • Legitimizing Multimodality in Anthropology
  • Key Methodological Texts
  • Reimagining Film through Multimodality
  • Other Multimodal Approaches
  • Multimodal Centers and Labs
  • Journals and Web-Based Publishing Projects
  • Multimodal-Friendly University Presses
  • Multimodal Ethnographies—Working across Forms

Anthropology Multimodal Ethnography
Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 June 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0296


This entry foregrounds how multimodality has come to signal a recalibration of ethnography within (and beyond) anthropology. Multimodality encourages a move toward the extra-textual to more faithfully represent the embodied nature of ethnographic research while opening new strategies to effectively move between abstraction, affect, and analysis. Multimodality also points toward an aspiration to initiate interdisciplinary conversation and to engage with broader publics. Films, art installations, websites, photo essays, and theater performances, to name a few types of multimodal output, invite a different and broader spectatorship that text-based ethnographic exegesis alone can muster. Finally, multimodality signals, for many, a reinvigorated interest in collaborative approaches to producing knowledge that harken to previous disciplinary desires (and projects) to create a shared ethnography through the sensuous and imaginative potentials of the camera. Multimodality anticipates, in this sense, the proliferation of digital tools and platforms that invite opportunities for shared ethnographic storytelling even as it doesn’t reduce its potential to technologically determined approaches and methodologies. In foregrounding the multimodal potentials of ethnography, this entry brackets a detailed discussion of how multimodality has been developed in communication studies, semiotics, and sociolinguistics as a way to understand and analyze multiple and concurrent modes of signification. It also steers clear of a discussion regarding the digital humanities, although it is important to note that initiatives under the banner of digital humanities have greatly impacted publishing in ways that have benefitted multimodal ethnography. The entry offers, rather, an introduction to multimodality as an ethnographic approach, output, and digital curatorial practice, by drawing attention to creative scholarship that moves beyond logocentric scholarly methods and modes of production—that is, approaches that take an external reference as an epistemological starting point—and toward multisensory engagements with knowing and being.

Overview: The Multimodal and the Multisensorial

Early and explicit engagements with multimodality attempted to synthesize its use as an analytic in semiotics, as in Kress and van Leeuwen 2001, with the growing literature on multisensory approaches to ethnography in anthropology, as in Howes 2003. In the early 2010s, for instance, Pink 2011 (cited under Legitimizing Multimodality in Anthropology) concluded multimodality—as theorized by semioticians as a way to analyze and approach multiple modes of signification—should be brought into productive conversation with ethnography in ways that, for instance, collapse the analytic and representational distance between images and text. Meanwhile, multisensorial approaches to doing visual anthropology were already in vogue. Nakamura 2013 offers a clear and concise history of the move toward sensorial approaches in ethnographic filmmaking, specifically, and visual anthropology, more broadly, highlighting the work of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab (SEL) from the late 1990s as a key site where approaches took up existing observational documentary approaches and intensified—through creative sound design and innovative camera work—its immersive and seemingly unmediated capacity to engage with worlds. As Westmoreland 2022 and Gill 2021 argue, ethnographic film is already always multimodal and multisensorial in its deployment of sound, image, and text, but also in its incorporation of live events (the screening, the talkback, etc.), circulations of film stills, film trailers, clips, and, in some cases, multiple versions of the same film. SEL, with its focus on amplifying the effects of sound, in particular, to create immersive possibilities, simply draws out films’ multisensorial capacities. Vidali 2016, meanwhile, develops the multisensorial (and multimodal) beyond ethnographic film, pushing for a more foundational attention to epistemological shifts that become possible when a variety of forms and modes are utilized to ethnographically engage with the sensuous aspects of the social and the political. As importantly, Vidali draws attention to the ways artificial boundaries between fieldwork, analysis, and representation reproduce a logocentric approach to ethnographic research, arguing that a more multisensorial/multimodal approach offers ways to reflexively reveal process and relation across and between different stages of ethnographic research.

  • Gill, Harjant. 2021. Decolonizing visual anthropology: Locating transnational, diasporic, queers-of-color voices in ethnographic cinema. American Anthropologist 123.1: 36–49.

    DOI: 10.1111/aman.13510

    Article focuses on creating an alternative queers-of-color canon for visual anthropology but also points to the ways film is already always multimodal.

  • Howes, David. 2003. Sensing culture: Engaging the senses in culture and social theory. Ann Arbor: Univ. of Michigan Press.

    Germinal text on the potentials of a sensorially attuned ethnography.

  • Kress, Gunther, and Theo van Leeuwen. 2001. Multimodal discourse: The modes and media of contemporary communication. London: Arnold.

    Early article that theorizes multimodality as a key analytic for semiotics and communications studies.

  • Nakamura, Karen. 2013. Making sense of sensory ethnography: The sensual and the multisensory. American Anthropologist 115.1: 132–135.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1548-1433.2012.01544.x

    Details the rise of sensory ethnography and its potentials.

  • Vidali, Debra Spitulnik. 2016. Multisensory anthropology: A retrofit cracking open of the field. American Anthropologist 118.2: 395–400.

    DOI: 10.1111/aman.12595

    Concise article that offers a clear sense of what it means (and looks like) to move beyond logocentric approaches to doing anthropology.

  • Westmoreland, Mark. 2022. Multimodality: Reshaping anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 51:173–194.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-121319-071409

    Thorough annual review article that touches on the key methodological and theoretical developments in anthropology that fall under the banner of multimodality.

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