SUBDISCIPLINES: Anthropology of the Senses

Anthropology of the Senses

written by Audrey Ricke 

“…sensory perception is a cultural as well as physical act” -Constance Classen (1997:401), “Foundations for the Anthropology of the Senses”


Research Methodology


Main Contributors/Organizations/Conferences (Selective sample)





The anthropology of the senses is a particular epistemological approach which advocates the importance of the senses for understanding the way people interact with others and their surroundings (Howe 2003:54). According to Constance Classen (1997:405),

the objective of the anthropology of the senses…is neither to assume that… [certain senses] will be dominant in a particular culture nor to assume that they they will be marginal, but to investigate the ways in which meanings are, in fact, invested in and conveyed through each of the senses.


Cross-culturally, the senses are not limited to the Aristotelian categories of sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing, but also include such categories as balance and sentiment. In addition, sensory perception is dynamic and variable both within and across cultural groups, and long-term ethnographic fieldwork has much to offer to the analysis of such cultural variation. Thus, while historians, psychologists, and literary scholars also investigate the senses, the study of the senses is not only justifiable within anthropology, but also necessary. 

Research Methodology:


According to Paul Stoller, there are two main approaches to research within the anthropology of the senses. In one approach, emphasis is placed on interspersing analysis among richly depicted sensory ethnographic information. Researchers who follow this approach include Stoller, Michael Taussig, Michael Jackson, Robert Desjarlais, Ruth Behar, and Catherine Allen (Stoller, personal communication March 7, 2007). For the second approach, an emphasis is placed on cross-cultural comparison of sensory ethnographic information and the development of theory through case studies (Stoller 2004). This latter, cross-cultural approach is more common among anthropologists of the senses and includes such researchers as David Howes, Katheryn Geurts, and Constance Classen. In general, anthropological research on the senses extends beyond the preliminary sensations and into the meaning conveyed and formed by such experiences (Howes 1991 as cited in Howes 2003:49). Ultimately, the theories guiding the researcher in the formation of what Classen (1997:402) calls “sensory models,” or the “…sensory meanings and values…espoused by a society, according to which the members of that society ‘make sense’ of the world…”, will stem from the study of the respective culture rather than from Western ideology (Howes 2003:54). Furthermore, David Howes (2003:47) stresses that the senses are best understood in combination instead of singularly.

Anthropologists of the senses have wrestled with the same methodological issues that the discipline as a whole has confronted. These include questioning the anthropologist’s position in representing “the other,” the selection of research methods, issues of inter-group variation, and the medium through which the data should be published. In terms of positioning, while Stoller (2004) and others assert that it is possible for an anthropologist to do both analysis and sensory description, Katheryn Geurts (2002) and others believe that anthropologists should concentrate on analysis and leave sensory description for the native members of the culture since these individuals are in a better position to depict their sensory experience.

Another issue that pertains to sensory research is methodology. In The Taste of Ethnographic Things and Sensuous Ethnography, Stoller’s suggestions for sensory research draw from the foundations of anthropology, cultural relativism and long-term ethnographic fieldwork, and incorporate more recent approaches, such as self-reflection. For Stoller (1997: 26,137; 1989:10), humbleness, extended apprenticeships, language fluency, and annual trips to the field foster relationships essential to uncovering the ways in which other cultural groups perceive the world around them. Stoller also points out that “critical reflection” can help anthropologists check the influences that their own sensory perceptions have on the research (1989:9).

The third issue of relevance for sensory anthropologists is variation. Inter-group variations in sensory perception do not invalidate the objective of outlining another culture’s sensory model because the primary sensory model of a group still has an affect on its members (Howes 2003:55). Howes indicates that such diversity may result from variation in individuals’ pasts or it can follow culturally-rooted distinctions, such as those based on gender (2003:54-55).

The fourth issue relates to whether film or text serves as the best medium through which to publish data. While film can capture the visual and the auditory, it has the disadvantage of privileging these senses. Howes points out that the inability of textual representation to straightforwardly convey any of the sensory perceptions can actually be an advantage because it does not privilege any of the senses and more clearly delineates the information being perceived as filtered (2003:57). Stoller also finds that textual representations, specifically narrative ethnography, have advantages over film for reasons similar to Howes’ (1989:154). In addition, Stoller points out that a film’s narration, rather than its images and sounds, is the cornerstone for successfully conveying sensory data to the audience (1989:153). He cites Jean Rouch, a French anthropologist, as a leader in such filmmaking.



Within anthropology, the anthropology of the senses is like a stream, meandering in and out of the discipline’s history. According to Constance Classen (1997:406), Roy Porter was the first to use the phrase “anthropology of the senses” which appeared in the forward to Alan Corbin’s book, The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Soon thereafter in 1989 Paul Stoller called for a more sense-sensitive approach within anthropology in his book The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Thus, the anthropology of the senses burst onto the anthropological landscape in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Timeline-Based on David Howes 2003 Sensual Relations unless otherwise noted

Era Events & Senses Place Within Academia
  • Enlightenment and emphasis on the mind gave rise to the primacy of sight (Classen and Howes in Edwards 2006).


early 1900s

  • The misguided interpretation of non-Europeans as primarily sensory beings is portrayed in the European explorers’ practice of measuring the features of newly discovered people and noting their sensory responses.
  • Senses used to erroneously distinguish among races, i.e. sight became associated with Europeans.
  • The senses as a focus of study is disfavored because of its previous use in racial classification.
  • 1922 Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Westerner Pacific emphasized “experience” and descriptive ethnography (Howes 1990)
  • Small minority of anthropologists recognized the importance of the senses.
  • 1935 Margaret Mead’s Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies postulated a cultural explanation for the emphasis of touch in Arapesh society.
  • Visual and auditory senses perceived to be more objective and were concentrated on at the expense of the other senses.
  • Ethnographers incorporated cameras and phonographs into their fieldwork.
  • Studies in Linguistics, Anthropology of Art, & Anthropology of Music increased.
  • 1953 Margaret Mead and Rhoda Métraux’s The Study of Culture at a Distance proposed that anthropologists should employ a holistic sensory approach to research. 
  • Groundwork laid for the anthropology of the senses.
  • Culture and Personality school investigated sensory variation.
  • 1962 Marshall McLuhan’s The Gutenberg Galaxy and his student Walter Ong pointed out media’s influence on the senses.
  • 1967 Victor Turner’s Forest of Symbols introduced the concept of symbols possessing multiple meanings which prepared the way for “the multisensorality of symbols.”
  • 1969 Claude Lévi-Strauss’ The Raw and the Cooked incorporated the senses in the analysis of myth.
  • The development of the anthropology of the senses was waylaid by the advent of a text-based approach to studying cultures.
  • 1973 Edward Carpenter’s (student of McLuhan) Eskimo Realities examined McLuhan’s and Ong’s theories through a case study of the Airilk.
  • 1975 Anthony Seeger’s Nature and Society in Central Brazil showed that Suya classification is sensory-based (Classen 1997).
  • Pierre Bourdieu’s 1977 Outline of a Theory of Practice inspired anthropologists to re-interrupt the body.  
  • Anthropology of the senses developed into a sub-discipline.
  • 1982 Steven Feld’s Sound and Sentiment focused on the importance of sound in Kaluli life.
  • 1983 Michael Jackson’s “Knowledge of the Body” sought to give the body a more active role and proposed the ‘unity of body-mind-habitus
  • 1986 Alan Corbin’s The Foul and the Fragrant employed the phrase “the anthropology of the senses” for the first time.
  • 1988 Concordia Sensoria Research Team is formed.
  • 1989 Paul Stoller’s The Taste of Ethnographic Things called for a more sense-sensitive approach within anthropology.
  • 1991 David Howes’ The Varieties for Sensory Experience adopted a cross-cultural analysis of sensory perception.
  • 1992 Robert Desjarlais’ Body and Emotion incorporated sensory experiences into his study of Tibetan Yolmo Sherpa illness and healing (Classen 1997).
  • 1993 Michael Taussig’s Mimesis and Alterity investigated the role that emulating self and other plays in anthropological understanding (Classen 1997).
  • 1994 C. Seremetakis’ The Senses Still employed a material, memory-oriented approach to the study of the senses.
  • 1997 Constance Classen’s “Foundation for an Anthropology of the Senses” illustrated the historical basis of the sub-discipline.
  • 2001 Michael Herzfeld’s Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society devoted a chapter to the senses.
  • 2002 Kathryn Geurts’ Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community examined the sensory model of the Anlo-Ewe.
  • 2003 Robert Desjarlais’ Sensory Biographies: Lives and Deaths among Nepal’s Yolmo Buddhists investigated individual interpretations/experiences of sensory models and its impact on the formation of self.
  • 2003 David Howes’ Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory presented a comprehensive review of the development of the anthropology of the senses and discussed sensoriums in specific regions of Papua New Guinea.
  • 2003 Berg Sensory Formation Series is launched which published books dedicated to smell, taste, touch, hearing and sensory scholarship in general
  • 2006 The Senses and Society journal is first published.

The anthropology of the senses’ distinctive approach differentiates it from other sub-disciplines within anthropology that use similar data. For instance, the anthropology of the senses’ emphasis on emic sensory categories is akin to ethnoscience’s focus on indigenous classification. Nevertheless, the ethnoscientific approach is concerned with the lexicon’s impact on classification while a sensory approach focuses on the social significance of differences in perception. Furthermore, the anthropology of the senses shares a similar subject matter with the anthropology of food. While political, economic, and symbolic aspects of food items are investigated within the anthropology of food, the anthropology of the senses concentrates more on the sensory qualities of food, such as taste and touch, and how this relates to their meaning within society (Howe 2003).

However, the boundaries between sub-disciplines are more fluid than rigid, and the anthropology of the senses approach is being applied within other anthropological sub-disciplines. In fact, Constance Classen (1997), Paul Stoller (1989), and Michael Herzfeld (2001) call for the sensory approach to be incorporated into the analysis of any aspect of culture. Herzfeld (2001:240) specifically notes that sensory analysis should not be relegated to the sidelines as a “specialist concern.” Studies of gender, identity, art, religion, memory, and material culture are just a few of the areas which can and have benefited from such a reorientation toward the senses within socio-cultural anthropology.

Main Contributors/Organizations/Conferences (Selective sample)


There are many anthropologists who have made contributions to the anthropology of the senses. This synopsis has focused primarily on those in the United States and Canada. Two of the main contributors to the anthropology of the senses in Canada are David Howes and Constance Classen and in the United States, Paul Stoller and C. Nadia Seremetakis (Classen 1997:407). Prior to 2006, the anthropology of the senses did not have a journal devoted specifically to its sensory approach. Sensory researchers with a cultural focus published in such journals as American Ethnologist, Anthropology Quarterly, Anthropologie et Sociétés, Cross-Cultural Consumption, Culture, Cultural Anthropology, Ethos, International Social Science Journal, and Visual Anthropology. In 2006, the journal The Senses and Society was published.

As of 2007, the main organization devoted to sensory research was the Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT) at Concordia University, Montreal, Canada. CONSERT was founded in 1988, and information about its membership and on-going projects can be found at their website. The Society of Visual Anthropology also works with the senses, but a society specifically devoted to the anthropology of the senses has not been formed within the American Anthropology Association.

Publications and conferences largely serve as unifying factors for the anthropology of the senses. For instance, Jim Drobnick’s 2006 edited book, The Smell Culture Reader, includes chapters by Paul Stoller and Cheryl Olkes, Constance Classen, and David Howes. The American Anthropology Association Conference, Wenner-Gren Symposium, CONSERT conferences, and Synaesthetic and Sensory Practices in Anthropology Conference at the University of Manchester are a sampling of the conferences where sensory scholarship was represented. Courses in the anthropology of the senses are offered at such institutions as John Hopkins University and San Francisco State University.



Bourdieu, Pierre

1977   Outline of a Theory of Practice. Richard Nice, trans. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press. Bull, Michael and Les Back, eds.

2003   The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.


Carpenter, Edward

1973   Eskimo Realities. New York: Holt, Rinehalt, and Winston.


Classen, Constance, ed.

1993   Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across Cultures. London: Routledge.

1997   Foundations for an Anthropology of the Senses. International Social Science Journal 153: 401-412.

2005   The Book of Touch. Oxford: Berg.


Corbin, Alain

1986   The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination. Miriam Kochan, Roy Porter, and Christopher Prendergast, trans. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


Desarlais, Robert

1992   Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Drobnick, Jim, ed.

2006   The Smell Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.


Edwards, Elizabeth, Chris Gosden, and Ruth Phillips, eds.

2006   Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums, and Material Culture. Wenner-Gren International Symposium Series. Oxford: Berg. 

Feld, Steven

1982   Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli Expression. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


Geurts, Kathryn

2002   Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Herzfeld, Michael

2001   Anthropology: Theoretical Practice in Culture and Society. Malden: Blackwell Publishers, Inc. 


Howes, David

2004   Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader. Oxford: Berg.

2003   Sensual Relations: Engaging the Senses in Culture and Social Theory. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

1991   The Varieties of Sensory Experience: A Sourcebook in the Anthropology of the Senses.

Jackson, Michael

1983   Knowledge of the Body. Man 18:327-45.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn, ed.

2005   The Taste Culture Reader: the Experience of Food and Drink. Oxford: Berg.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude

1969   The Raw and the Cooked: Introduction to a Science of Mythology, vol 1. John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, trans. New York: Harper and Row.

M cLuhan, Marshall

1962   The Gutenberg Galaxy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

1964   Understanding Media. New York: New American Library.

Ong, Walter

1969   World as Review and World as Event. American Anthropologist 71: 634-647.

1982   Orality and Literacy. New York: Methuen.


Seeger, Anthrony

1981   Nature and Society in Central Brazil: The Suyà Indians of Mato Grosso. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Seremetakis, C. Nadia

1994   The Senses Still: Memory and Perception as Material Culture in Modernity. Boulder: Westview.

Stoller, Paul

1997   Sensuous Scholarship. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

1989   The Taste of Ethnographic Things: The Senses in Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

2004   Review of Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community. American Ethnologist 31(1). Electronic document,

Taussig, Micheal

Mimesis and Alterity: A Particualr History of the Senses. Longdon: Routledge.



The Concordia Sensoria Research Team (CONSERT)


The Senses and Society Journal, Berg


Visual Anthropology


Society for Visual Anthropology


David Howes

Richard Wilk's Home Page | Theory Main Webpage




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