Article Review: “Scents and Sensibility” reviewed by Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Fall 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 2.

Karen A. Cerulo
Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-Making, and Meaning Attribution
(American Sociological Review, 2018)

Review by

Reviewed by Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley
Northwestern University

Editor’s Note:
Karen A. Cerulo’s article “Scents and Sensibility” won the 2019 Clifford Geertz (Best Article) award for the ASA section on Culture

At the heart of much of today’s social inquiry is a fundamental curiosity about how people make sense of their social worlds. Karen Cerulo’s recent and award-winning publication, “Scents and Sensibility,” offers new directions addressing this curiosity and considers how individuals form meaning from their cultural realities. The article presents a timely contribution to cognitive studies of the interaction between the body, mind, and environment and to the sensorial turn in the social sciences—a turn that anthropologists and psychologists have long heeded but one that sociologists are only recently starting to pay attention to. 

Considering the perfume industry as a case study, Cerulo begins to unpack just how olfactory cognition is shaped by culture. The market for fragrance provides a fascinating area of study considering how companies attempt to relay “messages” to consumers by codifying particular scents. Cerulo notes, “Perfumes are part of the cultural landscape. We encounter, attend to, experience, and assess these scents on a daily basis, and they are part of most interactions and experiences” (p. 370). Smell is, thus, imbued with meaning and is a form of communication that is shaped by racial, gendered, and class-based histories of the producer and consumer. 

How, then, do smells shape social interactions and relationships? To answer this question, Cerulo draws on data from focus group meetings with 73 individuals. Participants were asked to smell three different perfumes, to fill out a reaction form based on their olfactory perceptions, and to discuss their reactions with Cerulo and other focus group members. Based on the participants’ responses and Cerulo’s observations during the meeting, the article makes three contentions: First, the majority of participants were mostly correct in their ability to discern the codes of the perfumes while also being able to “classify” the intended messages of the manufacturers. Second, participants’ “social locations—especially their race and class” greatly influence the ways they interpret and discuss the perfume’s intended market (p. 363). Third, embodied simulation and iterative processing—two cognitive mechanisms—shape the meaning-making process when it comes to smell. Cerulo incorporates these cognitive mechanisms and takes the interactions between public culture, declarative culture, and nondeclarative culture seriously, while simultaneously moving beyond the cultural triangle initially proposed by Omar Lizardo (2017). The general argument is elucidated with several examples including one where a focus group participant smelled a particular perfume and then pulled away noting that the perfume reminded her of a former coworker she disliked. The participant’s memories interacted with her olfactory experiences during the focus group to attribute a sense of anger or displeasure to the scent.

The act of smelling, Cerulo contends, can only be understood by collectively examining the full experience of sensation through the body, the mind, and the sociocultural world. And, when we do incorporate this multifaceted analysis, the senses are incredibly informative. Cerulo writes, “Smells carry and convey meaning. As powerfully as a word or an image, smells tell us something about ourselves and the world around us” (p. 382). Considering how the “socialized body” encounters the senses, and the interactions between them, therefore contributes to ongoing discussions in the study of cultural analysis (p. 384). Additionally, Cerulo’s analysis offers a way forward for the study of the senses by suggesting a model that can easily be applied to other embodied experiences that have often been marginalized in sociological analysis (such as smell, taste, or touch). 

In thinking through Cerulo’s contributions and the next steps for studies of the sensorial, this study raises some questions about whether people can experience the senses in isolation from each other. In other words, can the act of smelling perfume happen without the influence of other senses? The feel of the perfume bottle, the sound of perfume spraying, or the sight of its color and consistency, for instance, might also be part of the experience of smelling the perfume. Additionally, as Philip Vannini (2013) notes, we must account for senses beyond the basic five. Temperature, color, the sixth sense, pain, pleasure, love, and hate, for instance, are also senses, and they are felt concurrently with smell, taste, touch, sound, and sight. Perhaps, incorporating multiple senses into the model proposed by Cerulo or theorizing on what a transsensory experience would look like could shed light on the concurrent nature of sensory perception. Undeniably though, Cerulo’s study provides a pathway for further study of the senses and key insights into the embodied nature of social interaction.

Nicholas Bascuñan-Wiley is a PhD student in Sociology and a Mellon Cluster Fellow in Middle East and North African studies at Northwestern University. His ethnographic research explores Palestinian diasporic culture and translocal connections within Latin America. His most recent project focuses on the culture of food and eating as it is shaped by the long-term and long-distance connections between communities in Chile and Palestine.