Sensory studies arises at the conjuncture (and within) the fields of anthropology • sociology • history • archeology • geography • communications • religion • philosophy • literature • art history • museology • film • mixed media • performance • phenomenology • disability • aesthetics • architecture • urbanism • design

Sensory Studies can also be divided along sensory lines into, for example, visual culture, auditory culture (or sound studies), smell culture, taste culture and the culture of touch, not to mention the sixth sense (however it might be defined)

Somatic Work: Toward A Sociology of the Senses

Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, and Simon Gottschalk
Introduction: The Senses as Social Construction

It would appear that “the five senses” are a matter of common sense, and yet few experiences are more socially constructed. The fact that we may see, hear, smell, taste, and feel through touch makes it, perhaps, all too difficult to recognize that we experience these sensations in ways that are much more contaminated than they appear to be. For example, every morning I enjoy a cup or two of strong coffee—and not only for a caffeinated jolt to my groggy mind. I genuinely enjoy the total sensual experience of fresh-brewed morning coffee. The taste of coffee incorporates its smell, but the smell of the coffee I drink is quite different from the tantalizing aroma of brewing coffee, a scent that, in fact, seems to awaken my senses. Even though the two aromas are different, I know that the smell of brewing coffee both anticipates and lubricates how I both taste and smell coffee when I drink it. When I am traveling, a morning cup of coffee is not nearly so satisfying and partly because, at a restaurant or gas station, I am usually not seduced by the aroma of the brewing process. The flavor of coffee also includes the feel of hot liquid. In the morning, it has to be hot. I occasionally enjoy iced-coffee, but iced-coffee would never satisfy me in the morning, regardless of environmental temperature. Even the weight and feel of the mug is significant. I find it hard to get a satisfying swig from those dainty, undersized, bourgeois, espresso cups. Conversely, if the mug is too large the coffee is cold before I’m finished. Glass mugs are cute, but they hopelessly fail to insulate and quickly become scolding hot to grasp with my hands. I prefer a mid-size thick ceramic mug. The taste, the smell, the tactile feel of coffee in the morning—no one sensation is distinct from the others—blend into a total sensual experience in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As we will see in chapter three, the same can be said of wine connoisseurs, but upon reflection we can all recognize these same kinds of total sensual experiences in our life, these moments of multisensuality where the experience of one sense cannot be separated from others. Moreover, these experiences are not exactly synesthesia-like either; we merely experience “the five senses” in ways that are not as discrete as “common sense” seems to imply. In fact, in most circumstances, when I seek to specify a sensual experience, I am rarely able to entirely pin it on one mode of sensing. Can you? Can anyone? Indeed if it was possible to precisely characterize sensations and feelings, could poetry continue to exist? Would language not work more like math? Would all of the arts not feel like positive sciences?

To suggest that the senses are socially constructed is not an excuse for invoking yet again an old metaphor. After all, most social scientists agree that, regardless of what it may be, their subject matter is the subject of social construction, negotiation, regulation, and control. Rather, the claim that the senses are constructions suggests that they are not passive receptors, and that sensations are not the passive objects of those receptors. By claiming that they are constructions, we highlight their quality as products and practice, as action and interaction, as work and performance. Whether the senses are constructed by sensory orders that stipulate which sensory domain is more “important” (e.g. Classen 1993, 1998), whether sensations are actively sought after by hedonistic wine drinkers in search of the perfect taste (e.g. Hennion 2007), or whether sensual cultures are built through rituals that stipulate somatic rules and sensuous performances (Stoller 1989), the human senses and sensations are certainly the subject matter of cultural and social scientists, and not the sole domain of physiology and cognition. 

Furthermore, the very notion that there are five senses is purely arbitrary (see Classen 1993; Geurts 2003). Why only five? If we wished to, it seems we could at least identify eight, and perhaps divide them into two categories. The taken-for-granted five senses belong to those sensory modes that provide information about the world external to the individual. Those are our exteroceptive senses: sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. It is easy enough to identify at least three more senses that provide information about the internal world of the human body, our interoceptive senses: the sense of pain (nociception), thirst, and hunger. Yet, eight is not nearly enough. What about our sense of our own internal body’s muscles and organs (proprioception)? What about the sensations that mediate between conditions in the external world and internal body, such as our sense of balance (equilibrioception), movement (kinesthesia), temperature (thermoception), or even our sense of time (at least in terms of polychronicity and monochronicity, if not more)? Now our list has grown from five senses to thirteen, and still I experience senses that are not clearly accounted for in these categories. After all, which category accounts for the sensual experience of orgasm? Assuming I can come up with an answer, which is doubtful, it is unlikely that we would agree—especially considering that even within the experiences of one individual, not all orgasms are the same. Or perhaps we could even suggest that to divide the senses into categories is itself an arbitrary act that reproduces our cultural codes. In fact, why divide at all “external” from “internal” senses? Is that not, after all, an exercise in atomism and individualism so typical of Western culture? And because most of our sensations, and thus our senses, depend so heavily on the language that we use to make sense of their operation (Geurts 2003), should we then not treat the senses in their own cultural contexts and within “their own foundational schemas through which the world is… sensed as a continuous whole” (Edwards, Gosden, and Phillips 2006:6)? And finally, are we even so sure that sensations can be so clearly separated from emotions, or even from the material things that are the object of sensations (see Geurts 2003)? What we do know for sure is that to think of the senses as only confined to five exteroceptive sensory modes is to grossly oversimplify human sensual experience, both within anyone culture and across cultures. Maybe that is the key point: modes of sensing inevitably blend and blur into one another, thus making their alleged boundaries fuzzy and indistinct in experience. It is this ecology of sensual relations that should be the focus of our attention (see Howes 2003; Ingold 2000).

Conversely, the codes we rely on to classify sensory experience are mutable into seemingly infinite ways that we socially and culturally carve out what Eviatar Zerubavel (1991) called “islands of meaning.” It is, in fact, those islands of meaning that largely (but not entirely) make sensory experience perceptible, namely by transforming them into arbitrary yet significant symbols (Mead 1934). As Zerubavel (1996) argued, the worlds in which we live are essentially continuous, and yet we experience them in discrete chunks. This is especially true of the ever-discerning sensual body and the ever-selective nature of sensual experience. We understand and, indeed, make sense out of sensory experience by creating distinct mental clusters through processes that Zerubavel (1996) called “lumping” and “splitting.” Lumping “entails grouping ‘similar’ things together in a single mental cluster” and splitting “involves perceiving ‘different’ clusters as separate from one another” (Zerubavel 1996:421). While the processes of lumping and splitting may seem “natural,” they actively construct significant distinctions that, once acquired (most often through linguistic constructs) we treat “as if they were part of nature” because “we have been socialized to ‘see’ them” (Zerubavel 1996:426-427). For example, as Zerubavel points out, it is by sheer convention that we perceive grape juice as similar to orange juice, and dissimilar from wine. This distinction has little to do with the taste of either wine or grape juice but, instead, has everything to do with a cultural process of lumping that is made possible by the splitting construct of “alcohol.” The concept of alcohol, not the sensory experience of the drink, leads us to perceive wine as more similar to whisky than to grape juice. Yet, without the ability to lump and split, it is impossible to envision any mental cluster at all (Zerubavel 1996). While the mind organizes reality into separate chunks, we do not do it as individuals, but as members of social and cultural “thought communities” (Fleck 1979[1935]; Zerubavel 1996), and extrapolating from Zerubavel, as members of social and cultural sensory communities: groups of people who share common ways of using their senses and making sense of sensations.

There are countless ways in which the human senses are subject to the reach of sensory communities across cultures and societies. For example, our individual and collective memories include what we eat and drink, how food and beverages feel to the taste, and how those people dear and close to us are involved in tasting with us and establishing a sense of community around the foods we choose (Serematakis 1996). The taste of prepared food—whether a recipe is well or poorly prepared, lavishly or modestly made—is also the subject of social norms, roles, and scripts that are passed down from generation to generation and observed in specific circumstances of commensality (Choo 2004; Stoller 1989; Sutton 2008). Sensory communities’ aesthetic preferences with regard to specific sensations also inform the norms that regulate self-presentation, such as those that stipulate how one’s body should smell (Classen 1992; Largey and Watson 1973; Waskul and Vannini 2008) and how bodies of people of different ethnicities are expected to smell or not to smell (Low 2005). Sensory communities are also involved in constructing “sensory rituals” (Howes 1987), ranging from meals at the family table (Ochs et al. 1996) to the soundscapes that make places meaningful (Feld 1982; Feld and Basso 1997; Jackson 1968; Panopoulos 2003), and from the mundane experience of commuting (Edensor 2003) to the experience of illness (Chuengsatiansup 1999), healing (Desjarlais 2003), and healthy bodily movement (Sparkes 2009). The list could go on endlessly, but the point is that the senses are the “most fundamental domain of cultural expression, the medium through which all of the values and practices are enacted” (Howes 2003: xi), “part of the set of physiologically grounded human skills which render a world intelligible and workable” (Edwards, Gosden, and Phillips 2006:5), and thus the very basis of human experience and interaction (Dewey 1934; Merleau-Ponty 1968; Serres 2008).

The Purpose of this Book

In our everyday life most of us pay little conscious attention to how we sense. To be sure, as the opening paragraphs of this introduction have shown, we do pay a great deal of attention to what we sense, but the ways in which we sense most often recede into the background of our awareness. As Leder (1990) has observed, most of our daily experience of our body is marked by lack of reflection, and it is only when routines and habits are interrupted—for example when we suddenly feel sick, or when a sensation overwhelms us—that our own body “awakens” our consciousness of it. In light of this lack of attention, most of us have become accustomed to think of our senses as neutral media that, when they work properly, perform like conduits of external stimuli. Take this book, for example. The texture, color, shape, and size of the pages that you are holding seem to be nothing but rather elementary stimuli that your senses of sight and touch “transmit”—much like information bits—to your brain for processing. There seems to be very little social significance whatsoever in this process, doesn’t it? Perhaps this is why, after all, most people view perception as a rather cognitive affair and sensation as a purely physiological one.

The purpose of this book is to transcend models of human sensation and perception—such as the one based on transmission and processing summarily sketched out above—that are based on dualist ontology. Grounded in binary oppositions, dualist ontology often separates mind from body (Williams and Bendelow 1998). In this perspective, the mind is a tool that processes raw information furnished by the body’s physiological organs into complex cognitive matter. As one can glean from this model, not only are the body and the mind separate and distinct from one another, but so are (raw) sensations and (cognitive) perceptions, and so are the individuals and the objective worlds in which stimuli occur. Dualisms of this kind—and many others could be identified—are gross simplifications of a complex and emergent ecological system that is, fortunately, much more interesting than such predictability-based dualist models propose. By refusing to separate sensation from perception, the body from the mind, and the individual from “external stimuli,” our approach to senses and sensations advances a post-dualist and post representational ontology (e.g. Thrift 2008) that, since Dewey’s classic work on experience (1934), has progressively swept across the social sciences. In doing so we posit an approach to senses and sensations that is thoroughly social.

We are not the first to suggest that the human senses and sensations are a social matter. As we will detail in the following section of this introduction, many anthropologists have been aware of the deeply significant cultural dimensions of the senses for at least two decades, and so have some philosophers (e.g. Lingis 1996; Merleau-Ponty 1968; Serres 2008) historians (e.g. Harvey 2006; Hoffer 2003; Smith 2007), business managers and designers (Lindstrom 2005; Malnar and Vodvarka 2004), geographers (e.g. Adams and Guy 2007; Cowan and Steward 2007; Rodaway 1994), psychologists (Gibson 1983), communication scholars (Banes and Lepecki 2007; Bull and Back 2003; Finnegan 2002; Ong 1967; Wilson 2008), and sociologists (Fine 1995; Low 2006). Yet, the existing scholarship of the senses seems to lack a comprehensive bridge between narrow research interests and analytical reflection. Thus, for example, while students and scholars interested in research on smell (see Drobnick 2006), sight (see Edwards and Bhaumik 2008), hearing (see Bull and Back 2004), touch (see Classen 2005), taste (see Korsmeyer 2005), or even the “sixth sense” (see Howes 2009) are now able to access the scholarship on the particular sense that interests them, anyone interested in a more global, comprehensive, and foundational book on the social aspects of the human senses and sensations writ large would have a difficult time locating helpful resources. Since this growing interdisciplinary field of study has now more or less come of age, we believe that now is the time to write a book that in one sweep captures both empirical and theoretical literature, and original research. Thus, the purpose of this book is to produce the ultimate reference for anyone who is already immersed in the study of the social and cultural dimensions of the human senses, as well as for anyone who is new to this field and who is interested in exploring intersections between key sociological and anthropological topics and the senses.

While claims to academic trans-disciplinarity abound, few of these are actually realized in practice. Therefore, our very own claim of crossing disciplinary boundaries must be first qualified and then exercised with caution. The three of us are trained in sociology; two (Dennis, Simon) of us make their living in sociology departments, and the third (Phillip) works in a school of communication and culture. While our published research has spanned across media studies, cultural studies, communication studies, human geography, and social anthropology, most of our publications are of a sociological nature. To boot, the three of us have strong affiliations with symbolic interactionism: a classical sociological perspective—albeit a rather interdisciplinary one. In sum, while it would be tempting to claim to offer a foundational book in the transdisciplinary field of “sense studies”—an original, though somewhat pretentious moniker. It is much more prudent and realistic to focus our efforts on a “sociology and anthropology of the senses.”

We feel that the blurring of the boundaries between sociology and anthropology is natural enough to cause little anxiety amongst our most theoretically conservative readers, and adventurous enough to motivate our more progressive audiences to join us along on a post-disciplinary ride that liberally hops between and across communication studies, human geography, and cultural studies, as well as, of course, sociology and anthropology. Indeed, as we detail in later chapters, the key conceptual purpose of our book is to lay out the analytical foundations for a study of the senses as interaction. In positing the senses as interaction we open up the field to anyone—regardless of disciplinary affiliation—keen on understanding sensuality as sociality, and human experiences as sensuousness. In light of the above, we believe that both a subject matter and a particular approach are the object of our attention, rather than the state of art of a particular sub-discipline.

We hope that besides crossing disciplinary affiliations, our writing will also bridge the gap between scholars and students who are interested in this field. Thus we have opted to write this book in a very accessible manner, albeit without shying away from consequential reflections and critical interventions. Indeed we believe that to separate audiences into initiate and non-initiate is itself a form of noxious dualism, and by writing an accessible book we intend to erase that caste-like division. As a matter of fact, as seasoned ethnographers the three of us sincerely believe that the most engaging form of learning is one that is driven by ethnographic writing, by the willingness and ability to relate to “real life” phenomena, by attention to detail, and by experiencing the embodied, dialogic, performative, and narrative dimensions of the interaction between the learners and the teachers—or in our case the writers. It is therefore no accident that our book contains reflections on theoretical and empirical material, and sensuous fragments from both our own fieldwork and others’.

Besides utilizing our own ethnographic material for the sake of its rhetorical appeal and pedagogical convenience, we intend to advance with this book a thoroughly sensual agenda. Unfortunately, much too often the social study of the senses tends to perpetuate the same limitations that vitiate much sociological and anthropological research by offering a kind of writing that is dry, detached, overly theoretical, flat, un-evocative, un-reflexive, and un-narrative and overly cognitive? Like quantitative research generally, this kind of writing is much too divorced from what it seeks to represent: everyday sensed experiences. In contrast, we believe that a socio-anthropological understanding of the senses requires a different kind of knowing and hence, a different kind of writing. In offering the reader an ample smorgasbord of sensuous writing of our own, interspersed with numerous example of other scholars’ own aesthetically sensitive writing, we intend to embrace Paul Stoller’s (1997) call for a sensuous scholarship. Thus, rather than just a sociology and anthropology of embodiment and the senses, the purpose of our book is to advance a carnal and sensual sociology and anthropology.

The Historical Evolution of the Sociological and Anthropological Study of the Senses

Attempts to outline the scope and history of the anthropology of the senses may be very recent, but certainly no longer new. Starting with David Howes’s edited volume The Varieties of Sensory Experience (1991) anthropologists have periodically reflected on the development of this growing field within their discipline through anthologies of previously collected materials (e.g. see Howes 2005 and the “Sensory Formations” series published by Berg), methodological reflections (e.g. Stoller 1997; Pink 2006), theoretical interventions (e.g. Howes 2003) and special issues of various journals [e.g. Ethnos 2008(4), Etnofoor 2007(1); and outside of anthropology see Culture and Organization 2006(3), 2007(summer)]. The same cannot be said of sociologists of the senses, and it is with them that we intend to start this brief overview of the field.

Like other academics, sociologists tend to feel that a new subdiscipline has taken a firm hold when a new study group or section is established within one of their major professional associations. Since neither the American Sociological Association, nor the British Sociological Association, nor the International Sociological Association, nor the European Sociological Association have yet seen the birth of a group dedicated to the study of the senses, one has to wonder whether sociology as a whole is less prepared to address the theoretical and methodological questions raised by anthropologists of the senses. If the existence of a section within a major professional organization is believed to be too stringent a criterion, however, perhaps other criteria ought to be considered. Coalitions based on subdisciplinary interest may form, for example, around university departments with a particular research and teaching emphasis, small research networks either standing on their own feet or built around minor professional organizations, or around periodic thematic conferences. But on the basis of these criteria as well, one would be hard pressed to say that a sociology of the senses is clearly recognizable as a full-standing substantive sub-field like, for example, the sociology of the body is today. At this point our readers might wonder whether we, as the authors of this book, should even claim to be dedicating our attention to a field that is so new that it barely even exists. In spite of its appearance, however, the sociology of the senses is not too far behind its cousin, the anthropology of the senses. Furthermore, we believe that combining sociology and the anthropology of the senses will foster the progress of both. 

So, is there a sociology of the senses at all, then, given what we said above? Our answer is yes. The sociology of the senses is rooted in the classical social theory of Georg Simmel, George Herbert Mead, William James, and especially John Dewey. As we will discuss in greater depth in chapter nine Simmel’s essays on sociological aesthetics (1968), the sociology of the meal (1997), and the senses themselves (Simmel, Frisby and Featherstone 1997) showed how sociologists can gain a better understanding of social relations by extending aesthetic categories to forms of society (see De la Fuente 2007). On the other hand, American Pragmatist philosophers such as Mead, Dewey, and James showed throughout their scholarship how sensing is an active and interpretive process rather than a passive reaction to external stimuli endowed with pre-formed meaning. It is in Mead’s philosophy of the act (1938), Dewey’s (1934) anti-dualist understanding of experience as a form of aesthetic transaction between the individual and its world, and James’s (1890) psychology of emotions that one can find the genesis of a sociological theory of the senses. In addition to these often-quoted founders of symbolic interaction theory, a sociology of the senses is also rooted in the phenomenological writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on the embodiment of perception and social existence (1968). 

This very early period of interest in what today can be defined as a crypto-sociology of the senses was later developed by interactionists such as Becker and Goffman. While neither can be pegged as a sociologist of the senses, both these founding fathers of modern sociology inspired the contemporary interest in a sociology of the senses. Becker’s essays on jazz (1951) and marijuana-smoking (1963), for example, show that hearing and taste are subject to processes of socialization, cultivation, and interpersonal regulation, and therefore that sensations function much like skills and techniques. Goffman’s attention to the visual aspects of interaction, notable throughout his entire oeuvre, culminated in his book Gender Ads (1979): a visual examination of how gender scripts and related visual props enable the performance of gendered bodies. This period of uneven attention to the sensory components of interaction in Western society was also marked by the publication of thought-provoking but sporadic studies such as Largey and Watson’s (1973) piece on the sociology of smell.

It was not until the 1990s that sociologists on both sides of the Atlantic became more comfortable with novel topics, such as the sociology of the body, and later the sociology of the senses. Ushered in by postmodern theory, post-structuralism, and cultural studies, the cultural turn of the 1990s further solidified, if not legitimized, various forms of non-positivist sociology. The emergence of new discourses prompted the rapid growth of fields like the sociology of culture, of gender, of the emotions, of food, of music, of the arts, of popular culture and the media, and the rapid institutionalization of qualitative research traditions like interpretive ethnography and visual methodology. At the same time, this turn also allowed for the renewal of interest in qualitative social psychological perspectives, such as those represented by various strands of symbolic interactionism. As sociology became less uneasy about its macro vs. micro, quantitative vs. qualitative, and structure vs. agency divisions, qualitative sociologists like Fine quickly gained prominence with sense-related ethnographic studies of mushroom pickers (2003), and kitchen chefs (1996). At the same time Howard Becker’s call to embrace a visual sociology (1998) and Norman Denzin’s manifestos (e.g. 1998) for a reflexive, narrative, and post-realist epistemology worked to further blur the boundaries between traditional scientific writing and a more sensuous, or at least sensitive and embodied, sociological enterprise.

As the sociology of the body continued to grow throughout the 1990s and the early years of the new millennium, however, more and more of the early “embodied turn” dissolved into a sociology that treated the body as a sign divorced from its lived experience. While phenomenological investigations of lived bodies now exist in the literature, they are vastly outnumbered by other approaches that ignore the carnal sensations of actual human beings and their embodied relations with others. Most of these are deconstructions of the codes that regulate the body’s semiotic meanings, critical macro examinations of the “body social,” and by philosophical speculations on “the” body—understood in abstraction from its experience and environment. A sociology of the senses must thus be understood as a reaction to the theoretical excesses of a sociology of the body in which the body has morphed from an absent presence (cf. Shilling 1993) to a presence silenced by theoretical noise. A sociology of the senses attempts therefore, in large part, to rediscover humans’ sensuous, erotic, and aesthetic transactions with one another and their environments.

While the last few years have certainly seen the emergence of a coherent sociological approach to the senses, the terrain is far from smooth. For instance, the sociology of the senses is a field that has grown more rapidly in the United Kingdom, where the boundaries between social anthropology and cultural sociology have for a long time been very loose, than in North America, where cultural anthropology and qualitative sociology have long shared a methodology—ethnography—but blissfully ignored one another. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the absence of a founding text capable of bridging disciplinary divisions has stood in the way of the building of a unified front.

Writing from North America puts us in an interesting position from which to advocate for a sociological approach to the senses. While we are somewhat removed from the few loose and informal groups that have coalesced around this topic in the UK, it is in North America that recent advances in both ethnographic methodology and interpretive social psychological and socio-cultural perspectives such as symbolic interactionism and performance theory have a deeper hold. This remark of course is not intended to generate barbaric continental divisions. Rather, in agreement with the editors of the field’s own journal—The Senses and Society, first published in 2006—we believe that by that journal’s editors’ own (ad)mission, sociology has a key role in further blurring continental and disciplinary boundaries. And the key step in doing so is by building upon the contributions of the anthropology of the senses, while striving to fill its gaps.

The Anthropology of the Senses

Whereas a sociology of the senses is at best in its infancy, an anthropology of the senses has almost reached maturity. Since David Howes (2003) has carefully outlined the intellectual development of the anthropology of the senses, it is best to avoid repetitions of that work and only briefly summarize it here. According to Howes anthropologists have always had a latent interest in the senses. At first this interest manifested itself in classification hierarchies, such as those between the visual cultures of the West—believed to be superior, as sight was taken to be a more objective mode of perception of the world—and the more “animal-like” sensory cultures of the rest of the world. An examination of early anthropological texts shows that the sensory acuity of non white ethnic groups’ experiences of touch, taste, and smell were particularly denigrated for their properties of overwhelming emotionality, “brute” corporeality, and the need for copresence, in contrast to the cognitive and abstract power afforded by the “distant” senses of sight and hearing (see Synnott 1993).

As early, often deeply racist, anthropological interest classification and ranking subsided, anthropologists’ concern with the senses shifted to an interest in sensations as texts. This movement was of course attributable to the tremendous influence of Clifford Geertz’s (1973) fieldwork in Bali. Geertz’s hermeneutic and semiotic approach to culture treated experience as a text to be read in accordance to rules and codes operating with a particular situation and context. Geertz’s symbolic anthropology was distinct from the other highly popular theoretical perspective of the time—Levi-Straussian structuralism—but to some degree it replicated structuralism’s excessive concern with deciphering the systems of symbols on which cultures are believed to be based. As Csordas (1993) would later insightfully observe, much of both structuralism and symbolic anthropology tend to overemphasize cognitive and abstract meaning at the expense of the carnality and the practical value of bodily experience. However, the influence of Csordas’s powerful critique was not to be felt until the beginning of the new millennium, since, as Howes (2003) observed, so much of anthropology in the 1990s was concerned with struggles over the politics of ethnographic representation, the authority of texts, and reflexivity.

Howes’s treatment of the postmodern turn in ethnographic writing is a skeptical and even critical one. For him the quest for reflexivity that marked ethnographic writing after the publication of Clifford and Marcus’s (1986) influential edited volume constituted more of a distraction than anything else. As he saw it, the seemingly endless and vexing existential crisis of 1990s anthropology was most clearly visible in Stephen Tyler’s (1986:137) claim that “perception has nothing to do” with ethnographic writing. But whereas Howes views Tyler’s claim as a sign of the decadence of ethnography into empty aestheticism, other anthropologists such as Stoller (see 1997) view the reflexive turn in ethnography as an opportunity to establish a sensuous scholarship that depends on the researcher’s embodied presence in the field, and thus his/her ability to experiment with modes of representation that evoke sensuality, rather than just treat the senses as objects of analytical scrutiny. To assert that perception has nothing to do with ethnographic writing is undoubtedly a mistake; taken with a grain of salt this assertion opens the door for an epistemology that is no longer framed by the principle of one “true” objective perception, but which is informed instead by a post-realist mode where a multitude of perceptions have everything to do with diverse forms, objects, and genres of ethnographic knowledge.  

Of course, at the end of the first decade of the millennium, the question is where the anthropology of the senses is headed. Two directions can be identified: the first is a dangerous course of action, and the second is an infinitely more promising one. The first direction is disciplinary insularity. While human geographers, cultural studies, and communication studies scholars have fully embraced a post-disciplinary and post-realist orientation, too many anthropologists see the study of senses as existing in isolation from developments “outside” of their discipline. As a result this body of research risks to grow stagnant and risks hypostasizing “the senses” (or worse yet, one sense at a time) much like what has happened to the study of “the body.” The second trend is a rosier one. A growing amount of anthropological research has begun to experiment with new theoretical, conceptual, substantive, methodological, and disciplinary fusions, and thus pushed for new epistemologies and ontologies that are less based on linguistic cognition and more on embodied, multi-sensual, multimodal, pre-objective, and carnal ways of knowing.

Since we feel that neither sociology alone nor anthropology alone—nor for that matter any of the other disciplines, whether traditional or not—can fruitfully undertake the study of the senses and of sensations in all its complexity, we wish to offer in this book a perspective that is truly ecumenical, rather than reproducing tired orthodoxies. Whether one studies the senses and sensation from the viewpoint of geographical space, historical time, technological medium, culture, social structure, or the individual, we understand the senses and sensations as the lifeblood of embodied sociality and materiality, as the very tools and techniques allowing for the transaction between human and non-human agents, and the very condition for the carnal experience of selfhood, society, and culture. We are of course not under the illusion that any perspective can be broad enough to accommodate everyone, regardless of interest or philosophical orientation. However, in beginning our conceptual exercise by positing the senses and sensations as the key form of humans’ active construction of the world, we hope to appeal to as broad a spectrum as possible. We find the metaphor of work especially useful to understand the senses, and it is thus to the treatment of somatic work that we now briefly turn.  

Our Theoretical Approach: Somatic Work

…sensory experiences are produced, enacted and perceived in combination
with each other, intertwined with emotion, meaning and memory.
Elisabeth Hsu (2008:440).

The basic premise of this book can be stated as follows: humans sense as well as make sense. This process of sense-making entails minded and embodied social and cultural practices that cannot be explained or reduced to physiological processes alone. The senses “are fundamental to personhood” and they concern “bodily engagement with the world,” thus creating a structure “both offering and constraining possibilities for the human subject” (Edwards, Gosden, and Phillips 2006:23). They mediate between meaning and materiality; “sensory experience is socially made and mediated” (Hsu 2008:433) and they “mediate the relationship between self and society, mind and body, idea and object” (Bull 2006:5). The senses are skills (cf. Ingold 2000) we actively employ in interpreting and evaluating the world. To see, for example, entails more than opening our eyes to passively allow light to bounce off our retina. We must actively perceive that which is seen and thus make sense of somatic experience (see Howes 2003; Rodaway 1994). In this way, sensing and sense-making are necessarily conjoined, codetermined, and mutually emergent in active and reflexive practices in which we are both the subject and object of the sensations we perceive or, for that matter, fail to recognize. Take, for example, the image below.

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Figure 1: Visual Perception

As René Descartes (1641:12) famously wrote, “the senses deceive from time to time, and it is a mark of prudence never to place our complete trust in those who have deceived us even once.” Indeed, things are not always what they seem: in the image above the bold line on the left is the same length as the bold line on the right, yet the sense-making practices we use to interpret what we see makes the line on the right appear much longer—an illusion produced by how we interpret visual sensory data, not what that data are. As this example illustrates, there is a difference between sensory modes and sensory codes (Stroeken 2008). Sensory modes owe to bodily stimulation of sense organs, while sensory codes are situational and socially shaped. Sensory perception is emergent between modes and codes. In the example above, how we code the two bold lines makes us perceive something that is not what it appears to be—perhaps not unlike mistaking the aroma of latex for natural gas. Plainly stated, sense-making practices entail both creative and ritualized habits of the senses that draw from social, cultural, and semiotic resources by which we interpret and assign meaning to somatic awareness. As we explore in the pages that follow, these dynamics are complex, layered, and nuanced.

In his classic essay on the sociology of the senses Georg Simmel (1997[1907]:109) suggested that the social sciences—sociology in particular—are “situated in this stage of being able to consider only the very large and clearly visible social structures and of trying to be able to produce insight from these into social life in its totality.” Simmel does not necessarily question this macroscopic emphasis. He does, however, take issue with its rigidity. The central elements of social and cultural order are crystallized in “pulsating life which links human beings together” in embodied, sensual ways that connect individuals to social existence (Simmel 1997[1907]:109). So it is with the senses and sensory experience that “one’s sociality, if not acquired and maintained through bodily experiences, finds bodily expression” (Hsu 2008:438). Indeed, sensual life pulsates with our individual and collective socio-cultural being so as to body forth our embodied self in time, space, and the symbolic worlds we occupy. In attempting to flesh out these premises, this book seeks to explore how the senses are experiences that fit into a larger scheme. This larger cultural scheme is not necessarily “dependent on the unique characteristics of individual actors, but links the smallest social forces with the largest and the tiniest interaction arenas to the more expansive” (Fine and Hallett 2003:2).

Huxley’s Lesson

Sense-making practices are largely produced in what we call “somatic work.” Somatic work refers to mundane, ritualized, and largely taken-for-granted practices. We will detail what we mean by somatic work in a moment, but as a narrative preface let us first illustrate in the context of the lessons learned by Aldous Huxley. In The Art of Seeing Huxley (1942:vii) narrates how, at the age of sixteen, he “had a violent attack of keratitis punctata.” This, he writes, “left me (after eighteen months of near-blindness, during which I had to depend on Braille for my reading and a guide for my walking) with one eye just capable of light perception, and the other with enough vision to permit of my detecting the two-hundred foot letter on the Snellen chart at ten feet.” For the next few years, doctors advised Huxley to read with the aid of a powerful hand-held magnifying glass—and later promoted him to spectacles—which allowed Huxley “to read tolerably well—provided always that [he] kept [his] better pupil dilated with atropine, so that [he] might see round a particularly heavy patch of opacity at the center of the cornea” (Huxley 1942:vii). The task of reading caused Huxley considerable strain and fatigue, and when he finally acknowledged that his “capacity to see was steadily and quite rapidly failing,” Huxley (1942:viii) discovered a method of visual re-education. Within a few months, he was reading without spectacles—and without strain or fatigue. At last, the opacity in the cornea, “which had remained unchanged for upwards of twenty-five years, was beginning to clear up” (Huxley 1942:viii-ix). Although his vision was far from normal, Huxley had succeeded in teaching himself to see by re-educating his vision, and with a clarity of sight that was “about twice as good as it used to be when I wore spectacles” (Huxley 1942:ix).

Huxley’s ability to re-educate his failing vision caused him to question how and why previous ophthalmological treatments failed him so miserably. His conclusion was that ophthalmology has “been obsessively preoccupied with only one aspect of the total, complex process of seeing—the physiological. Ophthalmologists have paid attention exclusively to eyes, not at all to the mind which makes use of the eyes to see with” (Huxley 1942:x). For the balance of his book, Huxley offers scathing criticism of standard ophthalmology. He details techniques and practices for visual re-education by rejecting the facile assumption that vision is merely a passive product of properly functioning organs and by embracing the “art of seeing” as an active and minded process—something that we do in habitual yet creative ways (by which seeing is made to happen).

By “the art of seeing” Huxley (1942:35) means psycho-physical skills and habits that are typically “acquired in early infancy or childhood by a process of mainly unconscious self-instruction.” In the case of vision, these habits of the senses entail “three subsidiary processes—a process of sensing, a process of selecting, and a process of perceiving” (Huxley 1942:42). Emphasizing that the latter process is necessarily reflexive, he concludes that

sensing is not the same as perceiving. The eyes and nervous system do the sensing, the mind does the perceiving. The faculty of perceiving is related to the individual’s accumulated experiences, in other words, to memory. …Any improvement in the power of perceiving tends to be accompanied by an improvement in the power of sensing and of that product of sensing and perceiving which is seeing.

Even though Huxley’s language is clearly dualist, his “art of seeing” is one application of what we have more generally coined as “somatic work”—the often taken-for-granted, if not transparent, practices of sense-making. While Huxley would discover somatic work as a means for restoring his vision, we all—as individuals, as groups, as societies, and as cultures—routinely engage in forms of somatic work as part of the everyday life worlds we inhabit.

Somatic Work: Sensual Reflexivity, Transaction, and the Senses

sen-sa-tion: n. 1. A perception associated with stimulation of a sense organ
or with a specific body condition. 2. The faculty to feel or perceive.

By definition, sensation implies transaction: to sense is to perceive and the act of perception necessitates the faculty to feel or perceive. In other words, sensation (noun) is emergent in acts of sensing (verb). Senses and sensations are emergent in a relationship between specific modes of touch, smell, taste, sight, and hearing that are contextualized by active practices, as well as both symbolic and pre-linguistic means of sense-making. Sense and sense-making are

closely related and often implied by each other. The sense[s are] both a reaching out to the world as a source of information and an understanding of that world so gathered. This sensuous experience and understanding is grounded in previous experience and expectation, each dependent on sensual and sensory capacities and educational training and cultural conditioning (Rodaway 1994:5).

Senses are produced by a perceiver who takes her or his sensations as an object unto itself. In short, somatic experience is mediated by reflexivity—at both symbolic and alinguistic levels; carnal sensations “become objects to ourselves” (Mead 1938:429). Flesh and organs bestow the capacity to sense, but those are merely the raw materials by which we fashion somatic experience. As the Huxley example shows, the senses are subject to and constituents of a system of somatic interaction that are situated in both cultural worlds (structured by “somatic rules”) and existential worlds (comprised of sensorial transformation, multimodality, and emergence). Between the cultural and existential, human sensory experience is contingent on or mediated by somatic work.

Inspired by popular sociological concepts such as identity work (Snow and Anderson 1987) and emotional labor (Hochschild 1983), we offer the following definition: somatic work refers to the range of linguistic and alinguistic reflexive experiences and activities by which individuals create, extinguish, maintain, interrupt, and/or communicate somatic sensations that are congruent with personal, interpersonal, and/or cultural notions of moral, aesthetic, or and/or logical desirability.

We perform somatic work according to negotiated “somatic rules” that vary by personal, interpersonal, contextual, social, cultural, material, geographic, and historical circumstances. These circumstances are as symbolic as corporeal, as cultural as physical, as ritualized as creatively improvised.  In short, we manage carnal sensations by performing somatic work according to negotiated somatic rules.

Somatic work is a more or less original moniker. Its origin lies deep in the history of symbolic interactionist and classic pragmatist thought, and several scholars associated with these traditions have closely approximated what we imply with the concept of somatic-work. For example, in his study of marijuama users, Howard Becker (1963) suggests that the “taste” required for perceiving and interpreting the effects of marijuana is mediated by reflexive processes. Sensing is a social practice—rather than purely a chemical or physiological effect. Thus, marijuana users must perform reflexive work to cultivate a multiperspectival sense of appreciation for otherwise “vague impulses and desires” about the kind of sensory experience it affords, how that experience may be interpreted, and what it means (Becker 1963:42; Becker 1967). Just as the sensory experience of marijuana use “is a function of the individual’s conception of marijuana and of the uses to which it can be put” (Becker 1963:42), so too is any other sensory experience. Sensory experience hinges on somatic work that is reflexive, pragmatic, phenomenological, and emergent from dialectic body skills (Ingold 2000) where meanings emerge at the intersection of the perceiver’s sensory biography and existing social habits of uses of the senses (see Dewey 2002 [1922]; Simmel 1993).

In his book Outsiders (1963), Howard Becker illustrates the social processes by which one becomes a marijuana user.  Broadly speaking, Becker identifies processes of socialization by which one learns the technique, learns to perceive the effects and, ultimately, defines those effects as pleasurable. Becker convincingly argues that all three must occur for a marijuana smoker to become a recreational marijuana user.  However, as illustrated in the excerpt below, what is also explicitly implied in Becker’s data and analysis is that the sensual experience of a marijuana high is made to happen by much more than the passive effects of the drug itself—that is, a certain amount of somatic work is necessary for the active production of a marijuana high.

*     *     *

“Vague impulses and desires—in this case, probably most frequently a curiosity about the kind of experience the drug will produce—are transformed into definite patterns of action through the social interpretation of a physical experience which is in itself ambiguous.  Marihuana use is a function of the individual’s conception of marijuana and of the uses to which it can be put, and this conception develops as the individual’s experience with the drug increases …What we are trying to understand here is the sequence of changes in attitude and experience which lead to the use of marihuana for pleasure.

…The novice does not ordinarily get high the first time he smokes marihuana, and several attempts are usually necessary to induce this state. …Even after he learns the proper smoking technique, the new user may not get high and thus not form a conception of the drug as something which can be used for pleasure.  A remark made by a user suggested the reason for this difficulty in getting high and pointed to the next necessary step on the road to being a user:

As a matter of fact, I’ve seen a guy who was high out of his mind and didn’t know it.

[How can that be, man?]

Well, it’s pretty strange, I’ll grant you that, but I’ve seen it.  This guy got on with me, claiming that he’d never got high, one of those guys, and he got completely stoned.  And he kept insisting that he wasn’t high.  So I had to prove to him that he was.

What does this mean?  It suggests that being high consists of two elements: the presence of symptoms caused by marihuana use and the recognition of these symptoms and their connection by the user with his use of the drug.  It is not enough, that is, that the effects be present; alone, they do not automatically provide the experience of being high.  The user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them with having smoked marijuana before he can have this experience.  Otherwise, no matter what actual effects are produced, he considers that the drug has had no effect on him: ‘I figured it either had no effect on me or other people were exaggerating its effect on them, you know.  I thought it was probably psychological, see.’

…Typically, however, the novice has faith (developed from his observation of users who do get high) that the drug actually will produce some new experience and continues to experiment with it until it does.  His failure to get high worries him, and he is likely to ask more experienced users or provoke comments from them about it.  In such conversations he is made aware of specific details of his experience which he may not have noticed or may have noticed but failed to identify as symptoms of being high:

I didn’t get high the first time…I don’t think I help it in long enough.  I probably let it out, you know, you’re a little afraid.  The second time I wasn’t sure, and he [smoking companion] told me, like I asked him for some of the symptoms or something, how would I know, you know…So he told me to sit on a stool.  I sat on—I think I sat on a bar stool—and he said ‘Let your feet hang,’ and then when I got down my feet were real cold, you know.  And I started feeling it, you know.  That was the first time…

…The novice, then, eager to have this feeling, picks up from other users some concrete referents of the term ‘high’ and applies these notions to his own experience.  The new concepts make it possible for him to locate these symptoms among his own sensations and to point out to himself ‘something different’ in his experience that he connects with drug use.  It is only when he can do this that he is high” (Becker 1963:42-50).

Becker was not the first to remark on the intentionality of sensory perception. Merleau-Ponty (1962) and Dewey (1929, 1958 [1934], 2002 [1922]) also highlighted the active meaning-making potential of human senses. For Dewey, in particular, “habit” constitutes the epitome of his general theory of organic interaction “between elements of human nature and the environment, natural and social” (Dewey 2002 [1922]:10). As he put it (2002 [1922]:14), “habits are acquired” functions which manifest skill of sensory and motor organs, cunning or craft, and objective materials. They assimilate objective energies, and eventuate in command of environment. They require order, discipline, and manifest technique. They have a beginning, middle, and end (Dewey 2002 [1922]:15). Habits are not synonymous with senses, yet for Dewey (2002 [1922]:32) it is “habitual attitudes which govern concrete sensory materials.” We suggest that somatic work is a processual by-product of the constitution of habit as a working mechanism that “filters all the material that reaches our perception and thought” and “which adds new qualities and rearranges what is received” (Dewey 2002 [1922]:32; also see O’Neill 1972).

   Somatic work is a useful concept for explaining how complex meaning can originate in the senses, even in the absence of abstract symbols. Meanings can be “had” and “known,” according to Dewey. As Rochberg-Halton (1982) has pointed out, meanings are experienced first in virtue of their qualitative immediacy. Certain objects are sensed for immediate qualities and carnal knowledge does not depend on abstract associations—such as the associations necessary to connect words with their referents. Humans can know, sense, and thus craft meaning carnally, without the necessary aid of abstract symbols. In other words, carnal experience is fashioned by a sense-making body (Vannini and Waskul 2006), and in a manner that is not necessarily dependent on sign-vehicles used to refer to it. These sensory qualities are then “filtered”—to borrow from Dewey—through the qualifying practices of somatic work.

Mead also contributes to our understanding of somatic work by suggesting that it is through senses such as “vision and touch [that] we build up a physical world” (McCarthy 1984:107). “Kinesthetic sensation” (Mead 1938:428,429)—touching, feeling, grasping, holding, and relinquishing objects of our environment—constitutes “physical things which are in a real sense the products of [our] own hands” (Mead 1934:249). As Mitchell (2002:83, 97) suggests, kinesthetic sensation (a specific form of somatic work) is a type of bricolage: “we touch and turn and weigh in hand, and from these textured resistances, derive senses of our own physical scope and attributes.” However, while Mitchell (2002:97) was interested in how “Bricolage, utilitarian eroticism, extends self-discovery into the material realm” we are interested in Mead’s original formulation: how somatic work, as a carnal form of bricolage, implicates self-discovery at the intersection of the corporeal and symbolic. The bricolage of somatic work “calls forth the whole of the corporeal self” (Mitchell 2002:83) and in a distinctively reflexive manner by which somatic experiences “become a physical object over and against the physical thing” (Mead 1938:428).

Thus we arrive at an interactionist “root image” (Blumer 1969) for a sociology of somatic experience. Vision is not necessarily sight; to listen is not necessarily to hear; to touch (or feel) implicates more than nerve endings. Somatic experience is fundamentally reflexive: carnal sensations “become objects to ourselves” (Mead 1938:429), in both linguistic and pre-linguistic forms of meaning-making, which we actively manage through forms of somatic work and in the context of negotiated somatic rules. In sum, somatic work serves as a unifying concept and as a subject matter—a concept and subject matter on which we will expand in the chapters to follow.

Given all that has been said so far, the organization of our book follows a simultaneously pedagogical and analytical plan. The book is comprised of eight chapters. Each chapter is structured around a broad field of sociological and anthropological concern. Chapter two is about the body, and therefore about embodied practices and processes like health, healing, and illness, movement, gender, habit, the emotions, and sexuality. Chapter three is about performance and ritual, and thus about performativity, ritualization, drama, play, ceremony, art, and spectacle. Chapter four is about self and identity, and about the ways in which the senses and sensations constitute uniquely somatic dimensions of subjectivity and personhood. Chapter five is about time and space, and therefore about the ways in which our sensing grounds our existence in biography, individual and collective memory, history, and place. Chapter six is about order, control, and deviance. Here, we examine somatic rules and alignment, power, and the sociality of sensing. Chapter seven is about communication, and in particular about the roles that the senses and sensations play in media and popular culture, as well as in consumer culture and material culture. Chapter eight is about sensuous methodologies. With a focus on ethnography and qualitative research that entails embodied interaction between people and researchers, we detail the ways in which research can be made sensuous, and provide a rationale as to why it should be so. Finally, chapter nine is about theory, and about the intersections between the work of Dewey, Merleau-Ponty, Lingis, Serres, Nancy, Mead, James, Jackson, Csordas, Ingold, Howes, Classen, McLuhan, Ong, Carpenter, Goffman, and Bourdieu. In that chapter we attempt to make a final call to awaken our “sensual imagination,” a term adapted from C. Wright Mills’s (1959) call for a sociological imagination.

By dividing our book’s chapters in this manner we hope to show both students and scholars with an interest in a field cognate to the social study of senses—say, for example, the sociology or anthropology of the body—that combining theoretical elements, empirical traditions, and concepts across fields enhances both the study of the senses, and whatever other field they may be interested in (e.g. the study of the body). Also, by including within each chapter both literature review elements and original research fragments, as well as both theory and empirical material, we hope to advance theory while shedding light on interesting human practices in both an analytical and narrative fashion.

NOTE: This is a draft of the Introduction to a book tentatively entitled “The Senses in Self, Society, and Culture: A Sociology of the Senses” by Phillip Vannini, Dennis Waskul, and Simon Gottschalk. The book is to be published by Routledge toward the end of 2010. Please see the published version for the references.