Sensory Relations in Everyday Life

A/P Kelvin Low

Sensory experiences provide ways of knowing about one's social reality through embodied knowledge, where sensory investigations shed light on the formation of identity, on connections with the macro-social and on inter-sensoriality.

Recent research on socio-cultural interpretations of the senses, both in the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, have drawn scholarly attention to the important role that the senses play in various aspects of social life. This is reflected in the range of empirical endeavours and conceptual deliberations including analyses on notions of the self and community, the relationship between senses and theoretical arguments on space and place, as well as the historicity of the senses in relation to religion, gender, and ethnic and migrant communities. The two projects featured here form part of extant works which deliberate upon how social actors employ and accord meanings to the senses which can be located in the fabric of everyday life experiences, spanning different social arrangements and social encounters.

These two book projects, framed within the sociology of everyday life and accompanied by interrogations of space and place, emphasise the ways through which senses are harnessed by social actors in their everyday lived experiences. These include issues of personhood and morality, social constructions of ethnicity, class, and gender, transnational encounters, religion and apprenticeship, memory-making, as well as consumption and modernity in globality.

In Scents and Scent-sibilities: Smell and Everyday Life Experiences (Cambridge Scholars Publishing 2009), Low explores the variegated meanings of smell vis-à-vis morality and social othering, presentation of self, non-olfactive worlds (anosmia), as well as social boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. The social salience of olfaction is additionally examined in relation to sanitary discipline and olfactive simulacra, thereby underscoring the control and manipulation of scents in both contexts of modernity and postmodernity. By focusing on the sense of smell and concurrently considering the simultaneous workings of the other senses, the boundaries of empirical concern are delimited in order to evaluate how research on smell has emerged and developed through the dimensions of, inter alia, history, science, sociology and anthropology. Essentially, the principal focus of the book lies in both odours themselves, and how people think about odours, i.e. the metaphorical and symbolic associations and meanings of scents. Smells therefore lend insights into the workings of social relations and power structures in different societies. Broadly, Scents and Scent-sibilities explicates the social character of scent and other sensory modalities through variegated historical and contemporary milieux.

While much sensory research has been conducted in 'Euro-American' contexts, among non-industrial societies, or through historical studies, sensorial investigations of non-Western communities have been empirically limited. Everyday Life in Asia: Social Perspectives on the Senses (Ashgate 2010) is an endeavour taken up in this direction to examine the manifold associations and uses of the senses in different Asian countries and through a variety of transnational settings where sensory paradigms interact. Through explorations of the senses in Thailand, Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, China, and Israel, Everyday Life in Asia offers a range of detailed case studies that demonstrate how sensory experiences of space and place provide a lens to flesh out different meanings embedded in everyday life. In general, the functions of sensory experiences are connected with processes of modernisation while analyses offer evidence of how sensescapes are expanding transnationally. Indeed, while modernisation may lead to the displacement of the senses, it may also have the effect of heightening their relevance to understanding everyday life. In this milieu of mass transnational movements of peoples, goods, resources, cultures, lifestyles, social actors are exposed to shifting contexts and fluid connotations of space and place communicated through sensory experiences of culture. These experiences are likely to undergo transformation and researchers must of course heed the variations of sensorial perceptions under such changing conditions. In this respect, how do the senses span borders and how are they being utilised by actors beyond the 'local' context?

The notion of transnational sensescapes is suggested here, where it is argued that the disassociation of identities from particular spaces and places does not necessarily diminish a sense of selfhood. Sensory memory, acquired and learnt within a specific socio-cultural context (viz. 'home'), may continue to guide one in assessing the larger environment even when one is not at 'home'. Such memories are resources which continue to support social actors' sense of self, despite shifts in location or positionality. The sensitivities to sensory experiences demonstrated by social actors therefore transcend the boundaries of space and place where they serve as conduits for perceptions of selfhood and the formation of revised biographical narratives. It is thus clear that in a globalising world, 'sensorial transnationalism' is probably inevitable. To realise this, a starting point might be to consider the notion of sensorial interface – the site of two or more dissimilar sociocultural contexts of sensory knowledge and use – that is linked to transnational sensescapes. This sensory meeting point not only serves as an interface of dissimilar corpora of sensory knowledge, but also provides a 'space' as it were in bringing about the accommodation, re-calibration and application of one's sensory knowledge in a cross-cultural context. Through analyses of transnational sensescapes, significant findings about the porosity or impermeability of the boundaries of nation-states as well as about the sensory politics that are at stake may be provided.


(2010) Co-edited with Devorah Kalekin-Fishman. Everyday Life in Asia: Social Perspectives on the Senses. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited.

(2010) 'Summoning the Senses in Heritage and Memory Making.' for Devorah Kalekin-Fishman and Kelvin E.Y. Low (eds) Everyday Life in Asia: Social Perspectives on the Senses. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 87-113.

(2010) With D. Kalekin-Fishman. 'Afterword: Towards Transnational Sensescapes.' for Devorah Kalekin-Fishman and Kelvin E.Y. Low (eds) Everyday Life in Asia: Social Perspectives on the Senses. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 195-203.

(2009) Scents and Scent-sibilities: Smell and Everyday Life Experiences. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.

(2007) 'Olfactive Frames of Remembering: Notes on the Smells of Memories.' National University of Singapore, Department of Sociology Working Paper Series, No. 179.

(2006) 'Presenting the Self, the Social Body and the Olfactory: Managing Smells in Everyday Life Experiences.' Sociological Perspectives 49(4): 607-631.

(2005) 'Ruminations on Smell as a Sociocultural Phenomenon.' Current Sociology 53(3): 397-417.


  1. Sensory history of Asia
  2. The Senses and Urban Landscapes


Senses and Society; Everyday Life; Sensescapes; Sensory experiences; Embodiment



Kelvin Low is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore. He received his Ph.D. from the Faculty of Sociology, University of Bielefeld, following the completion of an M.Soc.Sci. and B.Soc.Sci.(Hons) at NUS. Apart from researching on the senses, Kelvin also works on Gurkha migration and transnationalism, and migratory historiography and social memory of the samsui women in Singapore and China. At NUS, he has taught a variety of courses including Body and Society, Introductory Sociology, and issues in Singapore society.


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