Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Sociology of Smell

Figure 1: olfactory classifications in contemporary Western societies. This is taken from an essay written for Scented Pages, “the virtual library catalogue dedicated to the culture of smell.”

Cosmologies, Structuralism, and the Sociology of Smell
Marcello Aspria, November 7, 2008

Figure 1 is a hypothetical and exemplary sketch of olfactory classification in contemporary Western societies. It represents a (fictitious) cosmology based on smell and morality, in which the 'fragrant' category corresponds with 'virtue', and 'foul' is paired with 'vice'. The examples in each quadrant are arbitrary; they relate to (i) the public dimension of smell, (ii) the body, and (iii) definitions of femininity, respectively. This diagram implies an opposition between 'clean' (B, D) and 'dirty' (A, C), as well as between the 'natural' (A, B) and 'artificial' (C, D) realm. Both axes represent social contrasts: what is dirty or clean, foul or fragrant is as much a reflection of moral values as the opposition between virtue and vice. Hence the differentiation between 'deodorized' and 'sterile' around the center of the diagram, the latter being defined as the 'artificial' counter to the former.

Figure 1 may also serve as a comparative tool for collective representations and modes of cultural reproduction. Not to compare the positions of fragrant concepts in the diagram, but rather to analyze the way in which they are related to eachother, and how these positions are produced.

Section 3: Classifying smell: the problem of odor taxonomies 

A problem that affects laymen and fragrance professionals alike is the nondiscursiveness of smell. More than half a century ago, perfumer Edward Sagarin wrote about his profession as a "science in search of a language", pointing out that we fail to describe smell by means of exact terms (Sagarin, 1945: 137). Despite significant technological advance in the measurement of odors in recent decades, the creation of a common scientific nomenclature or universal classification remains problematic. Descriptions continue to be based on material analogies (fruity, floral, fatty, etc.) and on metaphors redolent of other senses ("green", "warm", "loud", etc.). In turn, these descriptors are intertwined with the specific cultural context in which they are produced. In a structuralist analysis of odors, one must therefore not overlook the contextual differences in which the nomenclature and classification were produced. Another problem of odor taxonomies, and one that complicates a comparative historical analysis, relates to continuing shifts in the role and meaning of smell through time.

Sagarin, Edward, The Science and Art of Perfumery. First edition. London, New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc. (1945)


The term 'osmology' means 'study of odors'. It is also used by Classen (1994) as a word play on 'cosmology'.

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