There has been increasing awareness and interest in the role of the senses in qualitative research. We build on this work by focusing on the use of material objects in research. Using material objects in qualitative research, particularly those selected by research participants, offers a different kind of engagement that can add richness and complexity to the knowledge generated. Material objects can either be participant-selected or researcher-selected, each having its own benefits and challenges. Using examples, we explore how participants sensorially engage with these objects, using visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile means. This engagement with material objects, particularly those that are personally meaningful to participants, is useful when examining research topics that may be sensitive or abstract; it offers the potential for participants to identify salient associations and/or express what may be otherwise unsayable. We discuss practical strategies in using material objects as well as the ethical challenges and possible products of such research.


Sensory Engagement, Material Objects, Interview Methods, Innovative Research Methods, Ethics

Author Bio(s)

Susan Cox is Associate Professor in the W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics and the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. She is an interdisciplinary qualitative health researcher with interests in the relationship between the arts and health, especially the use of arts-based methods in health research and ethical challenges arising, and the experiences of human subjects participating in health research, including the implications for an evidence-based and participant-centred approach to ethical review. She is a member of the Research Ethics Board for Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver and is a member of the Advisory Board for the Arts Health Network Canada. Correspondence regarding this article can be addressed directly to: susan.cox@ubc.ca.

Marilys Guillemin is a Professor in the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health at the University of Melbourne. She is a health sociologist and has published widely in the areas of illness and technology, innovative research methodologies, narrative ethics, and ethical practice in research and in health care. She has completed key research projects that include: ethical issues in research practice; and the role of trust in research from the perspectives of researchers and research participants. Marilys has also published widely in the area of visual and sensory methodologies, particularly in the ethical and methodological challenges of visual research. Correspondence regarding this article can also be addressed directly to: m.guillemin@unimelb.edu.au.


We are grateful to our colleagues for their willingness to contribute to our experimental endeavours and thank them for their generosity.

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Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License.





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