There's something convenient about social sciences: you don't need a master's degree in anthropology or sociology to understand the literature involved. I've decided to make good use of this fact, and shine some light on a product of genuine academic labor. Aroma is not a book about perfume, but if you have even the faintest interest in the culture of smell, this is an absolute must-have. Written by a trio of Canadian anthropologists in 1994, it was the first proper attempt to explore the social role of smell through history and across cultures. While it's no longer the only good book on the subject, it certainly hasn't lost its refreshing, original appeal yet.
Think of how often we use visual metaphors in our daily conversations. Think of all the symbols and icons that surround us, and how we use pictograms and illustrations and other imagery to get our messages across. Now more than ever, Western culture is embedded in a visual paradigm: our social life is so strongly connected to vision, that we're barely conscious of its impact on our language, our science, our technology, even our thoughts. It's hard for us to imagine how, in different times and cultures, other sensorial experiences played equally important roles to people in everyday life.
Which is why Aroma starts with a reconstruction of the olfactory world of premodern Western societies. This first section, entitled 'In Search of Lost Scents', is a historical overview of the practical, metaphorical, and literary use of odors, starting in the Classical world, taking us through the Middle Ages, and ending up in the nineteenth century, with thinkers like Darwin and Freud. Several pages are dedicated to the Age of Enlightenment, which represents a turning point in Western olfactory culture: it caused a general discreditation of the sense of smell, which has more or less persisted until this day.
The next section, 'Explorations in Olfactory Difference', is a cross-cultural comparison on the role of smell in non-Western cultures; this is the anthropological part of the book. We learn how the aboriginal inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, the Bororo of Brazil, the Dassanetch of Ethiopia, and the Umeda of New Guinea live with their own, very distinct 'osmologies' (olfactory classification systems) and how they attribute very specific cultural values to them. The Serer Ndut of Senegal, for instance, associate Urinous odors with Europeans, monkeys, horses, dogs, and cats; while in the Fragrant category they list flowers, limes, peanuts, raw onions, and, why not, the Serer Ndut (p. 103). From funeral odors to the role of smell in dreams and visions, the olfactory contrasts with 'deodorized' Western societies couldn't be greater.
The third and final section, 'Odour, Power and Society', covers two topics. First is an analysis of the 'politics of smell' in modern cultures: olfactory preferences and aversions are examined in relation to distinctions in race, gender, and social class. If this sounds a little far-fetched, I promise it will make more sense when you've read the previous sections. Next is an exploration of the 'commercialization of smell', in which body odor, the use of perfume, 'olfactory management', and problems related to trademarking scents are discussed. Don't expect to find any novelties in this last chapter; if you're a frequent visitor of NowSmellThis, most of what is said here will sound like old news to you.
Twelve years have passed since Aroma was first published, and more and more reasearchers are now taking up the challenge to understand the social implications of smell. This book definitely qualifies as a seminal work in its field, and will serve as a first-class, yet surprisingly accessible introduction to anyone who's interested in the bigger picture of smell. I hope you'll excuse the metaphor.
At the time of Aroma's publication, the authors, Constance Classen, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott, were part of the The Concordia Sensoria Research Team at Concordia University in Montreal.
Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell
Constance Classen, David Howes, Anthony Synnott
London/New York: Routledge (1997)
First published in 1994
Paperback, 248 pages
Further readings by these authors:
Worlds of Sense: Exploring the Senses in History and Across CulturesLondon: Routledge (1993)
Constance Classen, David Howes
Aromatherapy in the Andes
London: Routledge (1993)
Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader
Oxford/New York: Berg Publishers (2004)