A sociology of smell


  • *This article is part of a larger study on the body and the senses entitled The Body Social, to be published by Routledge. The research was made possible in part by a grant from Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, number 410-89-1302; also by a grant from the Fragrance Research Fund, and I would like to thank Annette Green for her support. I would also like to thank, very much, Sharon Byer, Constance Classen, David Howes, Kathleen Murphy, and Joseph Smucker. This manuscript was received in December 1990 and accepted in July 1991.


Rares sont les sociologues qui ont étudié les sens. Or, de tous les sens, c'est l'odorat qui a toujours été et demeure sans doute encore le moins valorisé. Dans cette communication, l'auteur examine quelques-uns des rôles de l'odorat dans les interactions sociales, notamment l'importance de l'odorat dans la construction morale du soi et de l'autre dans le cadre des relations entre personnes de classe différente, d'origine ethnique différente et de sexe différent. Les équations fondamentales, symboliques plutôt que chimiques, sont les suivantes: celui ou ce qui sent bon est bon et vice versa; et celui ou ce qui est mauvais sent mauvais et vice versa. Dans les relations entre groupes, ces équations servent, d'une part, à légitimer les différences de pouvoir et, d'autre part, à les contester d'une manière fort intime.

Sociologists have rarely researched the senses; and of all the senses, smell has been, and probably still is, the least valued. In this paper we consider some of the roles of smell in social interaction, particularly the significance of smell in the moral construction of the self and the other, in terms of class, ethnic and gender relations. The fundamental equations, symbolic rather than chemical, are that who or what smells good is good, and vice versa; and who or what is bad or evil smells bad, and vice versa. Such equations are utilized in intergroup relations to legitimate power differentials, and also to challenge them, in a most intimate way.