Dec. 21, 2020

Research you can see, smell, hear, taste and touch

Kathleen Sitter becomes first Canada Research Chair in Faculty of Social Work
Kathy Sitter
Kathy Sitter is the Faculty of Social Work's first Canada Research Chair David Kotsibie - Persuasion photo

Touch. Taste. Sight. Hearing. Smell. Our senses inform our experiences. A smell can remind us of forgotten childhood memories. A meal can represent our history. The sound of a melody may lift our spirits or draw us deep in thought. Seeing a smile on someone’s face can warm our hearts and petting our animals may bring us comfort during times of distress.

Our senses pervade every waking moment of our lives, yet they remain relatively elusive in research interested in understanding first-person experiences and promoting inclusion. As Canadian Research Chair (CRC) in Multi-sensory Storytelling in Research and Knowledge Translation, Dr. Kathleen Sitter, PhD, hopes to change that.

“There is an opportunity to rethink customary research design so it examines personal experiences through multiple senses,” explains Sitter, the first CRC in the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary. 

Through multi-sensory storytelling, we can uncover life stories that we can look at, listen to, smell and taste, feel and experience more fully, well beyond the limitations of the written or spoken word. This approach not only has the potential to deepen and broaden data sets, but also to facilitate more collaborative engagement with research participants.  

All-in on multisensory

After five minutes chatting with Sitter, you come to understand that multi-sensory to her really does mean multi-sensory. Her goal is to bring the senses into her research and knowledge translation.

“Smellscapes and other olfactory methods can be used to associate smells with experiences and inspire reflection about community identities," says Sitter. "Multi-sensory integration with taste, smell and visual cues facilitates understanding of flavour perception. And auditory methods communicate sound in relation to environments and invite understanding of experiences through listening to the everyday sounds of others.”

Sitter’s work draws on her interdisciplinary training in social work, communications, and commerce.  Before her career as a social worker, she worked in the packaged-goods industry, where a multisensory approach is well accepted among the world’s largest retail companies. In her research, she has explored first-person accounts to understand the roles of touch, smell, texture, and taste, in relation to place.

In addition, her community-based research projects involving visual media, theatre performances, soundscapes, short documentary films, cartoons, and photography has, by its very nature, relied on multisensory approaches. And her methods have been well received, as she’s held more than 120 screenings, theatre productions, and art exhibitions, and secured more than $3.1 million in research funding.

A means of fostering inclusion

In her CRC role, Sitter’s multisensory work will integrate various elements of inclusive design, knowledge translation and audience engagement, to investigate opportunities to make research more accessible, participatory and collaborative. One of her first projects will be working collaboratively with youth with disabilities to identify their needs as they make the transition into adulthood. It's a difficult period for anyone, but one that has unique challenges for this population.

“One in five Canadians over the age of 15 has a disability,” explains Sitter. “There is a tremendous opportunity to leverage multisensory research to enhance access and understanding of life experiences. We’re hoping our work will educate, engage, and inform policies and programs that can make an imagined future more accessible for everyone.”

The Canada Research Chairs Program stands at the centre of a national strategy to make Canada one of the world's top countries for research and development. The program is committed to ensuring access and opportunities to all qualified candidates, while maintaining standards of excellence. The goals of equity and excellence are not mutually exclusive. Equity ensures that the largest pool of qualified candidates is accessed without affecting the integrity of the selection process.