The Promise and Limits of an Olfactory Anthropology

Moving through the congested downtown market, I catch a whiff of clashing aromas that compete for the attention of passersby, potential customers to the dozens of vendors hawking their wares within the confined space of a city block. The kabobs of savory meat sizzling over portable grills mingle with the sweet tang of fresh produce available at every other informal stall. Even the pungent notes of industrial cleaner and small vials of car deodorants are sensible under the bustle of foodstuffs moving back and forth. To the uninitiated, the scene is chaotic, but after a pass or two through the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, the order of everyday commerce emerges, and the concoction of smells becomes a tapestry of economic staples exchanging hands.

A sensory snapshot like that given here reads like a travelogue: an immediate plunging into an apparently exotic world that the traveler then makes sense of for the curious reader. It can serve as a way to place an audience in an unfamiliar locale, at the heart of an environment imagined in its radical difference, the odors of which contribute to its alien quality. Nevertheless, under a critical gaze, what can such sensationalist accounts—in both senses of the phrase—provide for anthropology?

Admittedly, the human sense of smell, with the potential to lift our spirits or send waves of disgust to our core, carries powerful sway over emotion, a pop science truism with no dearth of anecdotal support. Moreover, examples in American popular culture abound of smell’s ability to supersede “higher” capacities for rationality to push our actions toward sensory pleasures—overcome by pheromones (or a well-concocted love potion) to fall for an unlikely mate or drawn into a café against dietary will by the sumptuous flavors of fresh pastries—in each case relinquishing careful, calculating mental authority to a more base level of bodily, even animalistic drive. These impulses are contrasted with the measured, logical pursuit of truth and prudent action that constitute the academic thinking that rests on visual and auditory perception. However, it could be questioned whether this division (and, arguably, hierarchy) of sensory ways of knowing is justified. While those cultural practices associated with intellectualism and supposedly enlightened thought are, in most cases, mediated through the senses of sight or hearing (especially reading and hearing the words put together by others), what could be gained with an increased attention to scent within ethnographic description?

Ethnographers, who specialize in immersive cross-cultural experiences that plunge us not only into the literal texts and discourses of the people we work alongside but holistic sensory worlds, are well poised to broaden the epistemic obsession in Western science with the visual and aural to explore other ways of knowing. Although it might be challenging to record our impressions of “smell-scapes” in conventional field notes, we must attend to the sensory worlds around us as a matter of methodological necessity: It is impossible to avoid the continuous scents of our environment from wafting over us and striking an impression, often one that “colors,” to use an inappropriate metaphor, other aspects of our observations.

I first began reflecting on the power of smell this year when I walked off an airplane into Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. I was attending the biennial meetings of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, and what struck me more than the much-remarked Louisiana humidity or heat was a peculiar smell of fruitiness. Thinking it was just an artifact of the airport itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find it follow me throughout my stay in the city. So noticeable was it that I couldn’t help but turn to Google to search for “New Orleans smell” to see if it was a figment of my imagination or a shared phenomenon. Sure enough, several authors have commented on the unique smells of the Big Easy, dependent mostly on the time of year and the bloom of its flora. But it was then that I started to consider the possible implications of an entire city having an identifiable smell. I again thought of this notion as I spent a few hours passing through London en route to Johannesburg. In my first time through Piccadilly Circus and at the Thames waterfront I noticed a thick smell that reminded me of the pungency of car exhaust. These pervasive aromas, at least as I perceived them as an outsider, became part of my memory of each of these cities, arguably data as important as any photograph could offer.

At the same time, though, the kind of impression created is not necessarily given as a universal or unmediated truth. Even if there are some elements to smell that are shared as part of our physiological inheritance, the structural, historical, and cultural meanings behind these phenomena are less directly accessible without proper context. Take a contrastive example to that of the eclectic market opening this post. Another smell I took notice of soon after my arrival in South Africa was the occasional rot of household refuse, especially near waterways and in marginal plots of land in Soweto. The unsettling aroma of burning garbage may be repulsive to people across cultural boundaries (even if varying in degree according to how taken-for-granted it has become in daily life), but what more is there to make of this sensation? One option would be to use the presentation of smell to evoke a landscape of social and moral decay in which Sowetans are unwilling to dispose of their garbage through proper mechanisms. The odor, in this case, becomes a sign vehicle to reinforce a view of particular kinds of people (viz., impoverished black populations in townships) as characteristically liable to laziness and therefore deserving of their own poverty.

Of course, such a narrative ignores the socio-historical context that led to the townships’ construction in the first place. As one of the most salient lasting residues of apartheid, these segregated communities continue to show the inequalities inscribed over decades into the country’s physical landscape. Not only does the literal “apartness” of races persist decades after the fall of de jure residency laws, but the very skeleton of these areas belies the gulf between the assets and privileges whites have been able to accrue in the neighborhoods where they have settled and the marginal land serviced by inferior municipal services allotted to blacks year after year. With this foreknowledge, a stench could instead be interpreted as a sign of the unsuitability of government waste services for a community that struggles to overcome the subtle but powerful advantages other places—with their access to historically well-established and highly controlled refuse services—have enjoyed.

The point I want to make here is simple but often overlooked. That is, despite the temptation to think of smell as a sense of place shared by all, it is a sensory modality just as susceptible to the “tinted lenses” of culture (to use another inappropriate but tellingly occulocentric metaphor) as sight or sound. Aromas are not the culturally transparent doors into other worlds they are sometimes made out to be but can be co-opted into narratives that accord with pre-existing narratives about what certain places—and therefore what certain people—are like.

So where does that leave the prospects for an olfactory anthropology? Perhaps not much different than it leaves an anthropology resting on any other form of observation. Ethnographers should be open to alternative ways of approaching the world that challenge our own biases, whether through the eyes or the nose, but with special attention toward historical and cultural contingencies that implicitly shape social life. A final caveat: I don’t mean to say there cannot be any universal sensory experiences, merely that even if some dimensions of scent are accessible to all people, the claim to universality itself threatens to occlude real divisions in how smell can participate in the construction of complex worlds. If anthropologists aspire to expand their work beyond the conventional reliance on sight and sound, in addition to the problem of elaborating a precise vocabulary of scent, they face the challenge of not reproducing their own culturally mediated “gut” impressions, a struggle not unfamiliar to a discipline devoted to interrogating human difference.