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Introduction: Ear to Ear, Nose to Nose, Skin to Skin

The Senses in Comparative Ethnographic Perspective
Regina Bendix

Interest in understanding the cultural dimensions of sensory perception has been rising since the 1980s. As in early explorations of the senses, combinations of scholarly and poetic approaches appear to resonate most strongly. The challenge for anthropologists is twofold: 1) Attention to the senses should not develop into a new subdiscipline but rather become a focus integrated into the overall ethnographic project. 2) Ethnographic sensibility for sensory dimensions within cultural practices still require further development.(back)


Sensing Nature

Encountering the World in Hunting
Garry Marvin

In this article I explore issues of the embodiment and being in the world of human hunters in pursuit of animal prey in the context of hunting as sport. The focus is on the immediacy and the experience of hunting rather than an exploration of its social and cultural meaning. This is an attempt to evoke how it is to hunt rather than what it means to hunt. I argue that hunting is a fully embodied, multi-sensory and multi-sensual practice that depends on an immersion into a multi-sensory and multi-sensual world. At the heart of such hunting is a contest between humans and animals based on two sets of senses and senses. My attempt here is explore how the human sensing is experienced and the difficulties of capturing and evoking that experience in an anthropological text. (back)

Seeing in Motion and the Touching Eye
Walking over Scotland's Mountains
Katrin Lund

In this paper I examine the senses of vision and touch in mountaineering. My aim is to demonstrate how approaches to vision in the Western context have been limited to the observing eye. During fieldwork with mountaineers in Scotland I learnt that how one senses the environment has to be considered in relation to the actual movement of the body and, thus, needs to be examined in relation to how the body measures itself to the ground. The body meets the ground and the touch affects the view because the walker’s attention shifts between focusing on the ground and looking into the distance. As a result the gaze into the distance cannot be taken out of the context of how the body treads the ground, which concludes that when approaching vision one needs to examine the eye, that not only sees, but also touches. (back)

Race, Place and Taste
Making Identities through sensory Experience
Emily Walmsley

Sensory experience is cultural, social and material and it therefore acts as a powerful means of binding people together, or of highlighting their differences. Taste, in particular, is an emotionally charged marker of either familiarity and belonging, or strangeness and alienation. This article uses taste and its interrelated senses as a focus for exploring the construction of subjectivities in a context where racial differences are reproduced through everyday cultural practices such as cooking and eating. In Ecuador, where this ethnography is located, race is understood in terms of place and thus regional cuisines and their associated tastes and smells often become representative of a localised black, indigenous or mestizo culture. Drawing on Howes’ (2005) idea of ‘emplacement,’ this study uses sensory experience to highlight the way in which identities are both discursively and materially constructed, and become embodied without becoming fixed. (back)

The Smell of Green-ness

Cultural Synaesthesia in the Western Desert (Australia)
Dianne Young

This paper explores the correspondence between colour and odour made by Pitjantjatjara people in the Western Desert of Australia. Although anthropologists have construed sound as the most important sense in structuring social events in Indigenous Australia, Aboriginal people also consider odour to be crucial. When the first rain drops hit the ground after a long dry spell, the smell of land is a smell of the new green growth to come. This odour is manufactured using odiferous plants and animal fats and applied to resurface human bodies, providing a conduit of communication with the Ancestral realm. Through this case study the paper will also address the differences between ‘cultural’ and ‘clinical’ synaesthesia’. (back)

Acute Pain Infliction as Therapy
Elisabeth Hsu

This essay begins with the observation that acute pain infliction is central to the therapeutic process in Chinese acupuncture. The common biomedical explanation for this is ‘counter-irritation’, yet this essay suggests that an acute pain event can cause a bodily felt, immediate social connectedness between patient and healer, which might be therapeutic. Since acute pain can effectively be communicated to others by non-verbal means, it has the capacity to break down habitual boundaries between persons, decentre both the person in pain and those in his or her close vicinity and enable instantaneous trans-individual communication. The collective presence of communally felt pain makes possible an embodied experience of sociality. Based on an anthropological definition of acute versus chronic pain, the essay suggests that life cycle events typically structure intrinsically (or potentially) painful situations into acute pain events. Concluding, this essay suggests that in medicalised societies the decline of acute pain events in life cycle rituals has led to the silent rise of chronic pain syndromes. (back)

Japanese Fragrance Descriptives and Gender Constructions
Preliminary Steps towards an Anthropology of Olfaction
Brian Moeran

We start with a paradox. On the one hand, academic literature asserts that the sense of smell varies in different social and cultural contexts, and that every social group has its own distinct olfactory culture. On the other hand, global advertising campaigns for perfumes suggest that fragrance is a universal form of semiotic communication. Are there, or are there not, specific olfactory cultures? This paper examines some of the evidence from Japan. Many languages have virtually no vocabulary to describe odours, except in terms of other senses of sight, sound, touch and taste, so that fragrance is communicated primarily through similes and metaphors. The paper describes how fragrance descriptives are used in Japanese journalism, marketing and related literature, before examining ways in which they help create and maintain gender constructions of various kinds. It then outlines specific aspects of Japanese olfactory culture, and suggests a methodology for the study of the anthropology of olfaction. (back)

Signs and Sight in Southern Uganda
Representing Perception in Ordinary Conversation
Ben Orlove & Merit Kabugo

Conversations in Luganda, a widely-spoken language in the East African nation of Uganda, frequently include discussions and evaluations of signs — readily observable phenomena that are understood to predict events that will soon take place. A corpus of material on this topic is examined, consisting of twenty signs and of four conversations in which these signs are discussed. Certain links are noted between specific sensory modes and these signs. The cultural significance of these sensory modes supports the cultural understanding that these signs are publicly available, rather than being restricted to certain individuals or conditions. It also supports the active discussion, rather than passive acceptance, of claims that individuals make to observing and interpreting signs. In this way, the cultural dimensions of sensory modes influence human perception and experience, and also support the public sphere of debates about the significance of events and about courses of action. (back)