Sensory Studies in STS and Their Methods
Location 129
Date and Start Time 01 September, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 3


  • Morana Alac (University of California, San Diego) email

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Discussant Christy Spackman (Harvey Mudd College)

Short Abstract

This track brings together and exhibits current studies in STS on smell, touch, taste, and those focused on multisensory aspects of science and technology broadly conceived. Each presenter will dedicate a portion of their intervention to addressing the method adopted or experimented with.

Long Abstract

With its commitment to topics such as embodiment, environment, food, materiality, digital technologies, disability, and nonhumans, STS is ripe for an account of its approaches to the senses. Certainly, visual studies have always been at the forefront of its interest (if not even foundational for the field), and there is a fair amount of important work on the auditory sense. Yet, olfaction, touch and taste— stereotypically described as the non-dominant senses in humans— have received less attention. One reason for this may concern the peculiarity of the approaches that studies of touch, taste and smell call for.

The goal for this track is to bring together and showcase current studies in STS on the senses. In particular, we want to exhibit the studies on smell, touch, taste, and those focused on multisensory aspects of science and technology broadly conceived. Each presenter in this track is asked to dedicate a portion of her/his intervention to explicitly addressing the approach adopted and/or experimented with in the showcased study. We expect these to range from traditional methods from social science and the humanities, to a tweaking of those methods, to more experimental approaches. We also invite reflection on and investigative performances of modes of presenting sensory studies.


This track is closed to new paper proposals.


Settling the senses: the how and why of taste-sensory evaluation in food

Author: Jacob Lahne (Drexel University)  email

Short Abstract

STS has largely ignored taste sensations: meanwhile, food scientists have developed methodologies to quantify taste. I discuss these methods and their implications. With some case studies of opposing usage, I claim STS should explore these intersubjective methods to study smell, taste, and touch.

Long Abstract

For too long, STS has ignored taste sensation as irretrievably subjective: while we are happy to embrace analyses a la Bourdieu of its social uses and consequences, the experience of tastes themselves, and the affective consequences, are considered to be beyond the purview of social theory.

Taste, however, has too many material consequences to remain unexamined; food scientists have developed industrial methodologies to quantify taste. There now exist methods for fixing taste as a matter of objective - or at least intersubjective - truth. Since these methods are employed daily by industry to shape consumers' lived-in environment, they deserve greater scrutiny; in fact, as I argue here, these methodologies may themselves be useful for STS work in the areas of taste, aroma, and touch.

Here I add to the growing body of scholarship on sensory-science methods for accessing and understanding the senses of taste - gustatory, food-flavor, and preference. I briefly describe the methods of "sensory evaluation of food" and frame them within STS scholarship, drawing heavily on Shapin, Hennion, and Latour. From my own and others' work, I describe how sensory evaluation, although developed directly from industrial practice, can be successfully employed for differing epistemological purposes. I contrast, on the one hand, industry-led sensory consulting to delimit and delegitimize non-industrial modes of food production with, on the other, the employment of sensory evaluation as "proof of value" by artisan-food producers. I conclude with some new ideas for how the intersubjectivity-generating functions of sensory evaluation can be used to by STS scholars.

How to expand method by and for sensory: trials along and beside fieldwork.

Author: Thomas Vangeebergen (Fonds de la Recherche Scientifique - FNRS)  email

Short Abstract

In a research with sensory analysts and flavourists, I tried other ways of interview (e.g. people auto-confrontations to their own registered activity) and other mediums to relate the ethnographical work, as graphic novel.

Long Abstract

Sensory research could have (at least) two acceptations. The first one concerns the senses as a thematic field of research, or as a major element of the research issue. The second one is more related to using other sensory means to collect and share experiences and thoughts than usual visual observations and textual transcripts of inquiries. Both of these signification of 'sensory research' turn around the difficulties to go beyond classical approaches. Research activities on senses have a quite long history in anthropology, and have been developed in STS for some years now, even if the first option has been more run through than the second one. I claim here for sensory research by other means, that is to say exploiting creatively all the array of opportunities we have to think the senses and their sociability. Method is understood here not just as a toolbox or recipe application, but as a tailored research process to fit to specific issue.

The talk is about the methodological options used during a research on sensory analysis in food industry. I worked on the skills and abilities of accustomed tasters to work in a professional community and to share efficiently personal sensory experiences. Confronted to sensory analysts and flavourists, I tried other ways of interview (e.g. people auto-confrontations to their own registered activity) and other devices to tell the ethnographical work, as graphic novel.

Deliciousness Added: Umami, Monosodium Glutamate & the Gut-Brain Axis

Author: Sarah Tracy (University of Toronto)  email

Short Abstract

Among foodies, participation in umami as a hedonic and technical metric of food quality (like texture, lubricity, mouthfeel), has occluded critical discussion of glutamate’s central role in governing more complex processes like mood, satiety, and energy homeostasis.

Long Abstract

The early years of the twenty-first century have witnessed a softening of attitudes in the United States toward the long-vilified flavour enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG). Contemporaneous with the popularization of avant garde cuisine and the infusion of molecular technique into food technology and taste psychophysics, the English-language scientific community has embraced the taste sensation umami (translated as "deliciousness") that Japanese scientists have long argued is conferred by MSG (Ikeda, 1909; Chaudhari, et al., 2000). I trace how, for a growing foodie set, participation in umami as experience, and as a technical metric of food quality (like texture, lubricity, mouthfeel), has occluded critical discussion of ongoing research into glutamate's central role in governing, for example, mood, satiety, and energy homeostasis (Ka He, 2011; Mouritsen, 2012).

Umami has given MSG producers, such as world leader Ajinomoto Co., Inc., a scientific rationale for equating MSG and other umami-conferring additives with foods otherwise high in umami-tasting glutamate (e.g. tomatoes, mushrooms, aged cheeses, cured meats, fermented condiments). I argue that MSG is not natural, but is a technology and a kind of biocapital (Rajan 2006). This project has demanded that I historicise the shifting scientific consensus on how flavour operates in the human body. For example, I trace how MSG and umami have for their entire history been bound up in the international branding of Japanese cuisine, and have sustained the myths of Japanese culinary exceptionalism and racially-specific taste acuity (Sand 2005; Petrick 2015).

Tasting 'Off Flavors': Sensory Knowledge in Food Science and Anthropology

Author: Ella Butler (University of Chicago)  email

Short Abstract

This paper is a reflexive account of learning to taste ‘off flavors,’ a form of sensory learning that utilizes the scientist’s own body as an instrument. Methodologically, the paper explores taste as a mode of knowing both for scientists and for the anthropologist studying scientific practice.

Long Abstract

Although there is a broad literature within the anthropology of food, many studies fall into a category that Holtzman describes as 'the ethnography of tasty things' (2006: 364). That is, much ethnographic research into food is devoted to gustatory pleasure, and food products that might appeal to the anthropologist's own taste and palate. One explanation for the predominance of 'tasty things' within anthropology might be that, in the mode of participant observation, anthropologists of food are frequently enjoined to eat the foods that they study. What is less well studied then are bad tastes, awful flavors and unpleasant foods. However, in the domains of food science and technology that this paper describes, understanding 'off flavors' has a significance with both technical and commercial implications. In the processed food industry in the United States, it is a widely held truism that consumers won't buy a product if they don't like the way it tastes or if it contains unpleasant flavors. But how can science determine when food is off putting, and how do scientists learn to address bad tastes in their experimental and technical practice? Based on an ethnography of flavor chemistry and sensory science labs in the United States, this paper is a reflexive account of learning to taste 'off flavors,' a form of sensory learning that utilizes the scientist's own body as a kind of instrument. Methodologically, the paper explores taste as a mode of knowing both for scientists and for the anthropologist studying scientific practice.

Between Friction and Attunement: How Dogs Become Sensory Machines

Author: Hélène Mialet (UC - Davis)  email

Short Abstract

Patients with diabetes type 1 manage their disease through humans and non-humans that have to attune constantly to the fluctuation of their blood sugar. I will focus on how dogs are transformed into instruments that become trustful and lovable sensory machines capable of detecting hypoglycemia.

Long Abstract

Patients with diabetes type 1 have to manage their disease through humans and non-humans that have to attune constantly to the fluctuation of their blood sugar to avoid hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia. The disease is totally unpredictable (the blood sugar can change from one minute to the next). It is individualized (what works for one body doesn't work for another one), it is invisible (no physical or intellectual stigmas are attached to it), and paradoxically it is omnipresent (the person who has the disease has to calculate, adjust, and think about it constantly to survive). In my presentation, I will reflect on the delicate balance that plays between attunement and friction between patients and their surroundings. I will especially focus on how dogs are transformed into instruments that become trustful and lovable sensory machines capable of detecting hypoglycemia.

"Go to the Bat," Thou Scientist: An Animal History of Ultrasound

Author: Kathryn Wataha (University of Michigan)  email

Short Abstract

Exploring early 20th-century designs of ultrasonic machines, such as the ‘Ultra-Audible Microphone,’ this project focuses on the history of (ultra)sonic detection and (in)audibility in laboratories and uses bats and insects as organic windows into a sonic space that extends beyond the human world.

Long Abstract

This paper historically situates experiments on - and speculations about - insect and bat ultrasonic communications in early 20th-century America laboratories. Following Jussi Parikka's call to "think media through its nonhuman forces," (Parikka, xxx) my analysis will explore two iconic moments in which scientific communities crystallized the animal forces of ultrasonic media: (1) the development of the ultra-audible microphone in 1923 by Westinghouse research engineer Phillips Thomas (2) the experiments at the Harvard Cruft Physics Laboratory in 1938, which 'proved' that bats flew by echolocation. Machines, bats, insects, and built environments - such as soundproof rooms - will center this analysis on nonhuman agencies. Using bats and insects as organic windows into a sonic space that extends beyond the human world, I will begin to explore how ultrasonic technologies have interfaced with both material animal bodies and imagined representations of those bodies. I will demonstrate that the bodies of insects and bats, often treated by scientists, engineers, and inventors as vehicles for perception and embodied forms of communication, can inform a history of ultrasonic media in important ways. A focus on (in)audibility, (ultra)sonic detection, and (un)sound requires situating this animal history at the intersection of science studies, media theory, and sound studies, ultimately contributing to a growing body of scholarship that sits uncomfortably on the edges of human perception. Equally worthy of STS attention, privileging the nonhuman sensorium not only reveals inhuman dimensions of media and technology but also brings into focus regimes of human imperceptibility.

Walk, Sit, Breathe: Doing Fieldwork on Balance, Body, and Smell in East Timor

Author: Prash Naidu (University of Michigan)  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses three ethnographic field methods to investigate sensory perception among the Mambai of East Timor: (1) smell diaries and olfactory pollution mapping, (2) sensory stimulus-based elicitation, and (3) habitat walks. Preliminary data, reflections, and tweaks shall be presented.

Long Abstract

How might researchers study sensory perception among indigenous communities undergoing conditions of environmental degradation from hydrocarbon extraction?

Long-term ethnographic fieldwork has revealed some of the cultural, linguistic, and bodily resources through which coastal Mambai communities of East Timor pay considerable attention to sensory perception including olfaction, touch, and balance (in a physical, psychological, and metaphorical sense) in their everyday life experiences. To investigate these perceptive resources three ethnographic field methods were developed and implemented through feedback from the community and engagement with the theoretical insights and empirical methodologies of sensory studies (Stoller 1997; Geurts 2003; Howes 2006), phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty 1945; Jackson 1995), psycholinguistics (Enfield 2013; Majid and Burenhult 2014; Wnuk and Majid 2014), habitus and body techniques (Mauss 1935; Bourdieu 1977; Wacquant 2004). These field methods are (1) smell diaries and participatory mapping of olfactory pollution, (2) sensory stimulus-based elicitation, and (3) habitat walks with community members. This paper discusses these methods and shares preliminary data, field reflections, and tweaks for future research.

In conclusion this paper highlights the impact of hydrocarbon extraction on Mambai sensorium, and invites discussion on how field methods can be developed to address the multisensory aspects of science and technology studies on human and non-human dimensions of resource extraction.

Talking about smell, …

Author: Morana Alac (University of California, San Diego)  email

Short Abstract

This talk engages ethnomethodology and semiotics of text to explore practical methods of non-professionals employed to articulate their experiences through olfactory talk.

Long Abstract

Throughout the history of western thought, scents and the sense of smell have been marked as particularly difficult—if not impossible—to discursively capture. Olfaction is often characterized as a "mute" sense as it is pointed out that western languages lack specialized vocabulary to express odor qualities. This take on olfactory communication parallels a set of ideas on the inferiority, dispensability, and superseded nature of the human sense of smell. While it is widely accepted that it structures our memory, eating habits, awareness of air pollution, and has a potential prognostic value in neurodegenerative conditions, human olfaction is commonly judged as less essential than vision, audition, and the somatic senses. This "primal" sense—a sense that connects us to other animals—is also associated with seduction and sexuality while frequently regarded as non-serious and feminine. Since language tends to be conceived as a trait that defines what is, by and large, unique to humans, it is not surprising that this incarnated sense is understood as not particularly apt to be "expressed" through language. Notwithstanding all of this, people manage to talk about smell. How do they do it? And what, in turn, does this tell us about language and communication? To deal with these questions while reaching beyond professional domains (such as perfumery, olfactory science, etc.), this talk will align with STS sensibilities and engage ethnomethodology and semiotics of text. It will discuss how such an approach can function as a mode of accessing and exploring practical methods of laypeople employed to articulate their experiences through olfactory talk.

Facial difference, the senses and passing

Author: Gili Yaron (Maastricht University)  email

Short Abstract

People with facial limb absence do not only look different, but often also contend with various sensory impairments. This paper explores the face as a sensorial bodily structure as well as a visible, social one, and discusses various interplays and conflicts between these two bodily perspectives.

Long Abstract

People with facial limb absence do not only look different, but often also contend with various sensory impairments. Thus, they must cope with issues such as loss of visual depth, skin insensitivity, or a lacking sense of smell. As a result, these people experience problems when approaching everyday activities such as descending the stairs, eating or interacting with others. In dealing with these problems, people with facial limb absence develop new ways to 'do' their bodies - new bodily habits that enable them to handle routine tasks without being hampered by their impairments. In this paper, I explore how their various sensory impairments affect the way these people inhabit their world by discussing the stories of people with facial limb absence. These stories were obtained in the course of my qualitative study into facial difference. But the face is not only a perceiving bodily structure: it is also a visible, social one. Compensating for their sensorial impairments through new bodily habits may thus interfere with these people's ability to 'pass as normal'. This may elicit staring behavior or other unwanted responses from others. Moreover: the fact people with facial limb absence use various medical aides to cover the lost facial area (e.g. a gauze dressing or a facial prosthetic device) may impact their sense of touch. In approaching how facial difference involves the senses, my paper considers both the first-person's (body subject) and third-person's (body object) perspective on the face, as well as interplays and conflicts between the two.

Sensors, senses, and sensory ethnography: developing robotic tools for cochlea implant surgery as sensed practice

Author: Neil Stephens (Brunel University London)  email

Short Abstract

Reporting on laboratory ethnography of a team building robotic surgical tools for cochlea implants, this paper explores how multisensory material is rendered sensible - as in both perceptible and understandable - through the socio-material accomplishment of scientific practice.

Long Abstract

Cochlea implants are medical devices used to aid the hearing of profoundly deaf people by electrically stimulating the inner ear. The implants are surgically inserted in an operation that can, and often does, further damage the ear. This paper reports ethnographic work conducted with a laboratory focused on developing sensory and robotic tools to improve cochlea implant insertion. It details the laboratory as a multisensory space, and articulates how sensory material is rendered sensible - as in both perceptible and understandable - through the socio-material accomplishment of scientific practice. The paper is attentive to the enactment of a sensory realm achieved through the prioritising and boundary work within that realm. In this understanding, the sensory realm includes sensory forms of diverse types (experiential, symbolic, non-human) that are co-produced with the broader sensory imaginaries that are used to interpret and shape them. Importantly this focus on imaginaries allows for the inclusion of sensory and interpretative input that extends physically and temporally beyond the laboratory buildings. A key theme is the role of technologies as sensitising devices that, as part of broader socio-material constellations, enact specific sensory realms. Extending this, the paper explores the multiple ways in which the rendering of the imperceptible as perceived, and the perceived as imperceptible, is accomplished. The paper also articulates my methodological approach to collecting and analysing ethnographic data on the enactment of a sensory realm.

Movement as sensory-technical assemblage: on the makings of prosthetic athletes in competitive sports

Author: Hanna Göbel (University of Hamburg)  email

Short Abstract

In this methodological paper “movement” is used as an object of making an inquiry on the practical use of the senses (and especially of touch) by studying them as sociomaterial interactions between bodily and technological components in disabled sport athletes' practices.

Long Abstract

Over the last years, in competitive athletic sports the classificatory registers of the "human athlete" and the common measurements of his/her performance have become a controversy of its own kind. Also so-called "superhumans" join the competitions, who had only been allowed to participate in the stigmatised sports for the disabled a couple of years ago. In athletic sports, first and foremost these are the medal champions with high-technology leg prostheses undermining the standards of "human movement". While international committees try to prohibit these interferences through laws and regulations, legitimations of these athletes have already brought forward a public of its own kind.

In this methodological paper "movement" is used as an object of making an inquiry on the practical use of the senses (and especially of touch) in order to study them as interactions between bodily and technological components in the athletes' practical accomplishment of movement. The data is generated through ethnographic research in the training routines of German athletes preparing for the Paralympics 2016 in Rio. The idea of assemblage is used to unfold "movement" as an object of distributed components in the hands of a lot of actors, such as the sensory knowledge of the athletes, leg prosthetic technology, sensory expertise of engineers from the manufacturer, trainers, orthopaedists, and the affective forces generated through these entanglements. The paper concludes by discussing how this "movement" stands the registers of competitive sports and beckon the human body and its sensory capacities while at the same time having already entered a posthuman sphere of entanglement.

Bodies and networks. Describing touch in relation to artefacts through ANT considered as a material semiotics.

Author: Alvise Mattozzi (Free University of Bozen-Bolzano)  email

Short Abstract

This paper intends to propose a descriptive methodology for touch and for the tactual relations between human bodies and artefacts bodies, by delving into the semiotics–Actor-Network Theory (ANT)’s dialogue.

Long Abstract

How much soft does a smooth thing need to be in order to be considered smooth? How much sliding? How can a razor affect such smoothness? How can craftsmen producing a design chair find a balance between "soft but supporting" or between "soft but tout"? And how do these different softnesses differ? How can we, as social scientists, describe all these relations?

Based on empirical cases - some already published (Parolin and Mattozzi 2013), some new - related to the domain of product design, this paper intends to propose descriptive categories for touch and for the tactual relations between human bodies and artefacts bodies, by delving into the semiotics-Actor-Network Theory (ANT)'s dialogue.

ANT is a material semiotics (Law 2007). The "actor-network approach is not a theory. […] is descriptive […] it tells stories about 'how' relations assemble or don't. As a form […] of material semiotics, it is better understood as a toolkit for telling interesting stories about, and interfering in, those relations.". In order to describe relations, ANT - especially Latour's version - did not just claim its affiliation to semiotics, but also borrowed and developed many semiotic descriptive categories - especially Greimasian ones. Lately, within the Greimasian tradition, a semiotics of the body has been developed (Fontanille 2004). Can the descriptive categories elaborated by the semiotics of the body be used to describe sensitive relation in a relevant and adequate way for STS, has it has been done before, in order to describe humans/non-humans inter-actions (Latour 1992; Akrich and Latour 1992)?

Crafting Knowledge by means of Touching Bodies during Archaeological Excavations

Author: Kevin Pijpers  email

Short Abstract

This paper discusses the significance of haptics for crafting archaeological-scientific knowledge. It

involves an empirical method of following encounters between various bodies around field sites,

establishing archaeological fieldwork as an experimental and material craft.

Long Abstract

Touching bodies are performed prominently in archaeological fieldwork as metonymical points of entry for knowledge creation. This paper proposes a philosophically informed methodology following touching encounters between bodies, soil, objects, tools, and others. Drawing on my empirical fieldwork at various excavations, I will discuss archaeologists as experimenters in "mid-embodiment" (Myers & Dumit, 2011). This 'mid' entails archaeologists' bodies colliding with sites in distinct ways, speculating and hypothesizing while they move about.

Not simply one of the phenomenological senses, touch features an animating function which enables

bodies to poetically craft knowledge (Manning, 2009; Vasseleu, 2009). Touch does not singularly commit to particular sense organs, but rather to what affects bodies and what is affected by them - partaking in the reversibility of touch (Puig de la Bellacasa, 2009, p. 309). Inter-esting trenches or finds are crafted in a haptic dance with field sites, predisposed to particular material rhythms and discontinuities of work. Contemplating and reflecting body poses alternate with hands-on manual labor in a logic of archaeological artisanal craftsmanship.

I furthermore propose an intimate relation between archaeological craftsmanship and dwelling (Latimer & Munro, 2009), in which archaeologists animate partial, ambitious, and ambivalent pasts as well as futures, thereby adding to what it might mean to do field science beyond a logic of expertise.

Education architecture: (Learning) bodies of the posthuman material-semiotic-affective sensorium

Author: Malou Juelskjaer (University of Aarhus)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores data-production methods (such as psychogeography and the ipad app ‘explain everything’) as multisensorial data-technologies that evoke insights on life with/in education architecture as a posthuman material-semiotic-affective sensorium.

Long Abstract

Life with/in/of contemporary education architecture (and the interior decoration, furnishing etc. of education architecture) may theoretically be viewed as a posthuman material-semiotic-affective sensorium: As you cannot 'make people learn' you can motivate their will to learn. Contemporary education architecture (and interior decoration) work beyond cognition while 'hitting' the senses: The (posthuman) sensorium is to enhance the capacity for learning, the 'desire' for learning. Yet, bodies, senses may also be disturbed, exhausted, stressed - and they may as well be energized for other activites than 'learning' as effects of the sensorium. They may become unwanted bodies. Multisensorial data-technologies (such as psychogeography and the ipad app 'explain everything') (re)evoke and explore living effects of the sensorium. The paper will explore the apparatuses of sense production - both that of the sensorium and that of the data-technologies. Furthermore ethico-onto-epistemological (Barad 2007) questions of this posthuman material-semiotic-affective sensorium will be investigated.

This track is closed to new paper proposals.