In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Anthropology of the Senses

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Sensory Histories
  • Readers
  • Sensory Ethnographies
  • Food and Foodways
  • Linguistic Issues
  • Sensory Methodologies
  • Religion
  • Material Culture
  • Space and Place—City Life

Anthropology Anthropology of the Senses
Kelvin E.Y. Low
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 April 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 August 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0192


Established over the past several decades, scholarship on anthropology of the senses has built upon cognate and extant domains of anthropological inquiry including phenomenology, the body and embodiment, emotions and affect, religion, migration, transnationalism, food and foodways, visual anthropology, and linguistic anthropology, as well as broader theoretical and methodological developments situated in ethnographic endeavors. A common point of departure in sensory writings deals with the imperialism of sight and/or the Western pentad sensory model that is critiqued as both Eurocentric and limiting in exploring various other sensory orders across different societies and sensory hierarchies. In addition to anthropological research and critique, sensory studies in the discipline have also enacted interdisciplinary dialogues and engaged with theoretical and conceptual interfaces with such other disciplines as sociology, history, geography, philosophy, and art history, among others, known as the “sensory turn” across the spectrum of humanities and social science disciplines. While most anthropological scholarship on the senses has typically focused on Western societies or non-industrial societies, more recent works have begun to draw attention to societies in the non-West, including industrialized contexts in both historical and contemporary milieu. Broader themes found in anthropological sensory works have addressed modernity, globalization, aesthetics, heritage, and cosmology. Apart from primary data that is the product and mainstay of writing and analysis in ethnography, sensory scholars have harnessed a variety of secondary data across a whole range of social “texts” including archival documents, media reports, online platforms, songs, poetry, film, diaries, travel writing, and many others as varied genres of sensory practices in everyday life. Sensory data analysis may be approached through discussions focusing on singular senses, sensory pairings, or intersensorial relations and cross-cultural comparisons, as well as deliberations on synesthesia.

General Overviews

Broad overviews of the anthropology of the senses and social life are found in Classen 1997, Goody 2002, and Howes 2008. A detailed debate on what sensory anthropology/anthropology of the senses entails is provided in Ingold 2011 and Pink and Howes 2010, in which the authors deliberate on issues to do with perception, phenomenology, and interdisciplinarity. Low 2012 and Porcello, et al. 2010 shed light on theoretical issues as well as linguistic expressions of the senses. Fahmy 2013 draws attention to investigations on sound over time and before the rise of sonic technologies.

  • Classen, Constance. 1997. Foundations for an anthropology of the senses. International Social Science 49.153: 401–412.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-2451.1997.tb00032.x

    One of the earlier writings to conceptualize an anthropology of the senses.

  • Fahmy, Ziad. 2013. Coming to our senses: Historicising sound and noise in the Middle East. History Compass 11.4: 305–315.

    DOI: 10.1111/hic3.12048

    Initiates a conversation to deliberate upon the importance of studying sound in history before the advent of recording technologies.

  • Goody, Jack. 2002. The anthropology of the senses and sensations. La Ricerca Folklorica 45:17–28.

    DOI: 10.2307/1480153

    Unpacks the meanings of the senses through physiology and the social sciences, and across different cultures.

  • Howes, David. 2008. Can these dry bones live? An anthropological approach to the history of the senses. The Journal of American History 95.2: 442–451.

    DOI: 10.2307/25095629

    Illustrates the social life of the senses in America and elsewhere.

  • Ingold, Tim. 2011. Worlds of sense and sensing the world: A response to Sarah Pink and David Howes. Social Anthropology 19.3: 313–317.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8676.2011.00163.x

    The author responds to David Howes’ critique of his work on the senses.

  • Low, Kelvin E. Y. 2012. The social life of the senses: Charting directions. Sociology Compass 6.3: 271–282.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9020.2011.00451.x

    An overview in terms of sensory hierarchy, theoretical and methodological directions, and institutional efforts to develop sensory scholarship.

  • Pink, Sarah, and David Howes. 2010. The future of sensory anthropology/the anthropology of the senses. Social Anthropology 18.3: 331–340.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-8676.2010.00119_1.x

    Where Sarah Pink outlines the future of sensory anthropology by considering interdisciplinary approaches and by critiquing an anthropology of the senses, David Howes responds by challenging this distinction.

  • Porcello, Thomas, Louise Meintjes, Ana Maria Ochoa, and David W. Samuels. 2010. The reorganisation of the sensory world. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:51–66.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105042

    The authors delineate three genealogies—communication, phenomenology, and materiality—in engaging with an anthropology of the senses which also integrates discourse and language with sensory scholarship.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.