Coronavirus Updates: Cornell is working with campus partners, as well as local and state resources, to protect the health and well-being of the Cornell community. Learn more ⟶

You are here

Graduate Spotlight: Making the Unfamiliar Familiar: Engaging the Senses to Overcome Culture Shock in the Field

Marilyn Brody

by Marilyn Brody, MPS, international development, 2017

There is nothing that can truly prepare one for the experience of culture shock.

I’ll never forget my first night in the Leuser Ecosystem of Northern Sumatra, Indonesia—the enormous winged insects, the humidity, the unfamiliar foods, and my stiff neck from sleeping on the floorboards. A sweaty ten-hour day of primate tracking followed night one. After four leeches attached themselves to my head, neck, and legs, I was ready to leave the forest and not return.

 As I began to navigate this unfamiliar territory, I sought encouragement from anthropologists. In his book Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Cultural and Social Theory, David Howes invites researchers to engage all senses as they step beyond the boundaries of their comfort zone. Having only had prior field experience in marine environments, the dense, dark forest was certainly an unfamiliar territory for me. Howes describes this opposition of land and sea, noting that “oceans are purifying and uplifting, while dense land areas can feel heavy with no escape from the smell of fermenting life.”[i] This perfectly describes my struggle.

Anthropology provides many definitions for culture. One, in particular, that I became acquainted with in the forest is the idea that culture is collectively the things we take for granted. It is easy to take our comforts such as a bed for granted until we end up in strange places without them.

Interestingly, it is this same strangeness that draws us as researchers to explore unfamiliar places. I traveled to Indonesia to pursue a greater understanding of the extraordinary Leuser Ecosystem—the only remaining place on Earth where orangutans, tigers, elephants, and rhinos still live together among lush greenery. Conducting research in the Indonesian forests, I chose to overcome the challenges of leaving my comfort zone by immersing myself in the sensations of this new place: the tingling of the river on my skin after a long day in the field; the brilliance of the stars at night and the sounds of the forest at sunrise; the prickly hairs on the rough head of Tanti, the elephant; the taste of the local spices flavoring fresh-caught fish from the river. These sensations became part of my routine. They became familiar, and in familiarity I found comfort.

Such intimate encounters with the Indonesian tropical forests deepened my awareness for this unique and sensitive landscape. As a researcher and conservationist, my desire is both to retell and relive the story of my experiences. I found that photography was the perfect medium for my research. Photography engages other people, enabling them to witness the beauty and value of critical natural environments without traveling to them. Photography also has a way of bringing experiences to life long after a moment has passed. Just as a familiar scent can transport us back to a specific time and space, a visual representation of a moment can trigger the senses and induce a state of familiarity. Early visual anthropologist and member of Cornell University’s multidisciplinary research team John Collier published Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method, a 1967 textbook that is widely in use today. Like Collier and all anthropologists who use visual methods in their work, I experienced the unique ability of photography not only to engage my senses, but also to capture and transport through time and space the sensations that make the unfamiliar familiar.[ii]

After a month of research and exploration, I sat reflecting under my favorite tree on the river. Suddenly, our generator shut off, and I became encapsulated by darkness. The absence of the generator’s hums left sound space for the flow of the river and the deep reverberation of the living forest around me. All I could see was the faint outline of the forest canopy against a sky full of diamond stars shining with a brilliance I had never before experienced. In that moment, my senses became so saturated that I lost myself. I became part of the Indonesian landscape, a place in this world I now consider home.


[i] David Howes, Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010).

[ii] John Collier Jr. and Malcolm Collier, Visual Anthropology: Photography as a Research Method (1967; repr. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.