Holistic Ethnography: Embodiment, Emotion, Contemplation, and Dialogue in Ethnographic Fieldwork


  • Christine Salkin Davis University of North Carolina at Charlotte
  • Deborah C. Breede Coastal Carolina University


Ethnography, Contemplation, Embodiment, Research Methods, Sensemaking, Data Analysis


This paper theorizes holistic ethnography—an ethnographic method of inquiry that is similar to an embodied meditation practice—a conscious awareness of experience in which the researcher intentionally and variously focuses her attention on physical sensations, emotions, contemplation, and dialogue to contribute to deep sensemaking and critical examination. We illustrate this using an historical ethnographic field project as example. Only when we have immersed ourselves into our research within and beyond can we work toward a more dialogic understanding of the experience we are studying. We discuss how entering the experience through narrative requires us to focus on the embodiment of smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight of the phenomena we are studying; moving the story into our heart bids us to feel it deeply and unite with it at a place that transcends words and pulls us into the experiences; contemplating with our minds frees us to reflect on the experience and find meaning in it; and engaging dialogically invites us to discuss, connect, and voice each other and the experience into being. This approach to interpretation is messy yet thorough and provides a deep level of introspection and understanding. We end with a discussion of how this process can be used in the higher education classroom. By adding embodiment, emotion, contemplation, and dialogue to fieldwork and coursework, we suggest we are better able to critically examine cultural and social phenomena.

Author Biographies

Christine Salkin Davis, University of North Carolina at Charlotte

CHRISTINE S. DAVIS, Ph.D., is Professor in the Communication Studies Department at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Her research interests are in the intersection of family, culture, and health communication. Dr. Davis publishes regularly on topics such as children’s health, end-of-life communication, disability, and qualitative research methods. She has published over 50 academic books, journal articles, book chapters, and other publications and has received numerous research awards. She is author of Death:  The Beginning of a Relationship (2010); Conversations about Qualitative Communication Research: Behind the Scenes with Leading Scholars (2013); and Communicating Hope:  An Ethnography of a Children’s Mental Health Care Team (2013); and with Lachlan and Powell is lead author of Straight Talk about Communication Research Methods (2010/2012). She may be reached at UNC-Charlotte, Department of Communication Studies, Charlotte, North Carolina, 28223, (704) 687-0760, and at csdavis2@uncc.edu.

Deborah C. Breede, Coastal Carolina University

DEBORAH CUNNINGHAM BREEDE, an Associate Professor of Communication, teaches communication and women’s and gender studies courses at Coastal Carolina University (CCU) in Conway, South Carolina. A founding member of the Women’s Resource Center and a member of Coastal’s Women and Gender Studies Advisory Board, Dr. Breede is a four time recipient of the Edwards College of Humanities and Fine Arts’ Outstanding Teaching Award, which is given to faculty who receive outstanding teaching evaluations from their students. Her primary research, teaching, and service interests focus on the formation, development, maintenance, and challenges of community within a variety of contexts.  She may be reached at Coastal Carolina University’s Department of Communication, Languages, and Cultures, Conway, South Carolina, 29526, (843) 349-6481, and at dbreede@coastal.edu.


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