Anthropology of the Senses

The Reorganization of the Sensory World
Thomas Porcello,Louise Meintjes,Ana Maria Ochoa,and David W. Samuels
From: The Annual Review of Anthropology Vol. 39: 51-66 (Volume publication date October 2010)

Summary

The article deals with the importance and significance of the senses and the sensory experience in aiding anthropologists in understanding more about a particular society and how the people in it interact with one another and their environment.
The emergence of the anthropology of the senses is a critique to the rigid and word-based approach in analyzing cultural experience, as well as to Western ocularcentrism, where sight is held in the highest esteem among all the senses as it is viewed as the best-developed. Thus, anthropologists of the senses call for an all-encompassing approach of the senses and also did research focused on the 4 other senses.

Senses, to anthropologists (of the senses), have a cultural aspect on top of their biological basis. Senses are “not merely a biological ground on which cultural meanings are constructed”. Instead, there is a cultural basis to senses all along and sensory perceptions are thus, both cultural and biological. Also, they view that the concept of five specific and distinct senses have no biological basis but is ascertained, culturally and historically.

The concept of the “sensorium” (the sensory apparatus of the body (Dictionary.com)), as opposed to the “senses” is thus introduced, which refers to “the most fundamental domain of cultural expression, the medium through which all values and practices of society are enacted.” Cultural productions are hence composed of social interactions through the sensory experience. This sensory experience is also vital in bridging the worlds of the material, social and spiritual. It can also evoke memories, and thus uncover forgotten or erased experiences, leading to a fuller comprehension of one’s cultural experience in a society.

Anthropologists believe that there is a strict distinction between the interpretation of meaning and truth through the sensorium and that of language and discourse. Truth is gained through the sensory experience involuntarily, through “performance, material culture and conditions of embodiment”. However, the article states that it is important not to separate and isolate the bodily sensorial knowledge and linguistic expression so as to get a more complete and true understanding of one’s cultural experience, as language and discourse are also essential elements in our everyday life experiences.

Commmentary

I feel that this is an interesting article and an interesting branch of anthropology that offers a different perspective in looking at the different societies and their cultural experience, and this might lead to a more in-depth understanding of a particular culture. For example, when conducting research fieldwork through participant-observation, many will just concentrate on recording down what they observe through their eyes – relying only on sight. However, when we shift some of our focus away from sight and start to engage in our other senses – smell, hearing, taste and touch -, we may be able to gain a new point of view.

This is especially so with regard to the performative aspect of a particular culture, such as in their rituals, and traditional dances. Instead of simply looking and analyzing the ritual and its dance steps and movements, one should listen to the music (or lack of) as well. After all, music is an important element in and accompaniment to dance. Also, the smell and taste of food in a particular culture can give us insights into a particular culture and its history by answering questions such as: How did traditional food come about? How food is able to constitute a part of a nation’s identity? And so on. Smell, taste and touch can also evoke certain memories and emotions in people. Observing the ways people behave and interact with each other through the sense of touch may show us a particular aspect of culture not accessible through the sight alone.

We have to be careful to engage in the multisensory approach to observing and researching on human experience, and not fall into ocularcentrism, as mentioned in the article. We should not place more importance on a particular sense over another; all of them are equally important and essential to understanding a culture. However, there are some instances where certain senses are employed more than the others. Thus, we must tread the balance between an over-reliance on a particular sense and recognizing that only certain senses are useful to and feasible to the analysis of a particular culture.
Yet, the article does not state how we should translate our findings using the multi-sensorial approach to practising anthropology into writing. Certain meanings and emotions are inevitably lost through the interpretation of the sensorial experience to words. How we can try to minimize this as much as possible is not stated.

Overall, I feel that this article serves as a reminder to us that as anthropologists, we should try to gain as true and comprehensive an understanding, regarding a particular culture, as possible. This includes engaging all our senses, as well as, the use of speech, communication and language especially in conducting research fieldwork and we have to remember that the human [cultural] experience consists of all these aspects.

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