David Howes and Anthony Synnott
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
Concordia University, Montreal, Canada
Center for the Study of World Religions
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Cultures differ in the meaning and importance they attach
to the different senses. This fact is especially apparent in the case
of smell. In The Hidden Dimension, anthropologist E.T. Hall states with
respect to our own culture that: In the use of the olfactory apparatus
Americans are culturally underdeveloped. The extensive use of deodorants
and the suppression of odor in public places results in a land of olfactory
blandness and sameness that would be difficult to duplicate anywhere else
in the world. This blandness makes for undifferentiated spaces and deprives
us of richness and variety in our life. It also obscures memories, because
smell evokes much deeper memories than either vision or sound.
Are there cultures which have a more developed sense of smell and in which
life is therefore olfactorily richer? What are the cultural uses of smell?
These questions inspired us to examine the ethnographic record on the
cultures of Africa, Oceania and South America "to smell what we could
smell," as it were. We discovered that the power of smell has indeed
been put to many different and creative uses in the cultures of those
In the first and second parts of this report, we survey what those uses
are, though only in a summary fashion due to limitations of space. (For
the full flavour and aroma of these uses, the reader is referred to "SMELL
AND CULTURE: An Annotated Bibliography of Sources on the Indigenous Cultures
of Africa, Oceania, and Latin America". This bibiography, like the
present summary, was submitted to the Olfactory Research Fund as part
of our Final Report on the "Anthropology of Odor" Research Project.
The discussion of the uses of smell is carried further in our book, Aroma:
The Culture History of Smell, by Constance Classen, David Howes and Anthony
Synnott, published by Routledge in 1994. This book takes in the history
and sociology as well as anthropology of odor.) In the third part of this
paper, we draw out some of the implications of our findings for the fragrance
industry. That industry, we believe, has a fundamental role to play in
reawakening Americans to the wisdom, power and pleasures of the senses
- above all, smell. Odor, as a medium of communication and channel of
personal expression, has unlimited potential for growth.
It is useful, for purposes of analysis, to distinguish between three kinds
of odor. An odor can be either natural (for example, body odor), manufactured
(for example, perfume), or symbolic (for example, the belief that each
race has a distinct odour - a scientifically untenable proposition). It
is also useful to distinguish between the classificatory and dynamic uses
of odor. The term "classificatory" refers to the use of smell
as a basis for ordering the world - that is, for distinguishing between
different classes of people, animals and things. The term "dynamic"
refers to the use of odor in ritual and everyday contexts, often with
a view to changing the world, or restoring it to its proper state.
I. Olfactory Classification
The six most basic uses of odor for classificatory purposes
may be summarized as follows:
1) Classifying people, animals and plants by their natural
2) Classifying people, animals and plants by the symbolic odors attributed
to them. For example, it is commonly supposed that different races each
have a different smell, and even that "the `other' race stinks"
- but there is no empirical evidence to support this belief.
3) Classifying groups within a society; for example, men and women, children
and adults, by natural and symbolic odors.
4) Classifying space by reference to the environmental odor of different
5) Classifying the cosmos through odor. For example, assigning contrasting
symbolic odors to sun and moon (as among the Batek Negrito of Malaysia),
or odorizing fundamental cosmic and social principles such as "structure"
and "change" (as among the Bororo of Brazil).
6) Establishing a value system based on olfactory symbolism. For example,
characterizing certain odors as good or bad and assigning them to different
beings or states in order to signify the latter's moral goodness or badness.
As an example of a typical non-Western olfactory classification system,
consider the system employed by the Suya of Brazil. The Suya classify
the animals animals by odor, rather than, say, morphology or habitat.
The same terms that are used to classify animals are used to classify
people, and to a lesser degree, plants. While animals are permanently
classified in a given category, human beings have different odors according
to sex, stage in the life-cycle, and transition through certain ambiguous
states, such as initiation or illness.
As Anthony Seeger states in Nature and Society in Central Brazil: "The
categorization of the [natural and social] world in terms of odor provides
an important system for the interpretation of Suya actions and attitudes."
The most powerful and important animals in the Suya cosmology are all
strong smelling, while the less important ones are pungent or bland. Human
beings are not all equally social. Men are socialized through initiation
and lose their strong-smelling odor. Women, on the other hand, by their
very sexuality are strong smelling. Old people are neither as fully social
as adult men nor as sexually marked as young women, and old males and
females are both pungent.
The level of olfactory consciousness among the Suya is, evidently, much
higher than among ourselves. The principal reason for this is that for
the Suya smells have meaning; they do not simply provoke reactions of
pleasure or disgust, the way they do for us. To put this another way,
the Suya think in smell, whereas we only react to smells, because our
culture does not provide us with a framework in terms of which to think
of odors as symbolic vehicvles. Colors can symbolize concepts for us,
as in the case of the traffic light system, where red means "stop,"
green means "go," and so on. Sounds also have meaning for us,
for example, the soundtrack of a movie tells us what emotions we should
be feeling as the action unfolds. But odors are not coded by our culture
(or more likely, the code has been forgotten), which deprives us of any
model in terms of which to organize our olfactory experience. Hence, our
response to smells can only be measured in terms of relative pleasure.
Of course there is nothing stopping our society from re-developing an
olfactory code, but this would require a more integrated and totalizing
production and marketing strategy on the part of the fragrance industry
than exists at present. This matter will be taken up again after the next
II. Dynamics of Smell
The twelve most salient uses of odor for dynamic purposes
may be summarized as follows:
1) Establishing group identity through some odor, whether
natural, manufactured, symbolic, or some combination of these. For example,
East African pastoralists, such as the Dassanetch, smear themselves with
cattle products to give themselves a bovine scent. This odour of cattle
differentiates them as a group from neighbouring fishermen.
2) Communicating messages through odors. For example the use of different
sorts of incense to establish channels of communication with different
spirits, each spirit being associated with a different scent.
3) Employing odors as a means of attraction, whether of members of the
opposite sex, game animals, or spirits.
4) Employing odors as a means of repulsion, whether of enemies, animals
or evil spirits.
5) Employing odors to enhance one's chances for success at a particular
endeavour, such as in playing games of chance.
6) Employing odors in order to cleanse and purify, both in ritual and
practical contexts, either as an alternative to or in conjunction with
the use of water.
7) Employing odors to heal, both directly through the administration of
curative smells, and indirectly by creating a pleasant olfactory environment
for the patient.
8) Employing odors in rituals of transition, such as weddings and funerals.
9) Employing odors as a means of establishing exchange relations with
other persons and groups. For example, giving and receiving products with
different odors in rituals of exchange, best exemplified in the Desana
practice of exchanging ants of different odors.
10) Employing odor to direct experience. For example, using odoriferous
substances to inspire particular kinds of dreams, to guide a person through
a hallucinogenic trance, or to suppress memories of the deceased at a
11) Attributing the power of olfaction to plants (as among the Wamira
of New Guinea) and inanimate objects (as among the Kwoma, also of New
Guinea), or attributing an extremely discerning nose to the gods (as among
the Batek Negrito of Malaysia), and explaining misfortune in terms of
said plants, objects or gods taking offence at the mixing of odors which
results from people engaging in forbidden activities.
12) Employing olfactory metaphors to express abstract concepts and values,
such as the idea of an "odor soul" among the Temiar.
III. Implications for the
The preceding discussion of the uses of odor in the indigenous
cultures of Africa, Oceania, and South America can be analyzed from various
angles with a view to extracting the marketing strategies that should
guide the fragrance industry into the 21st century.
Briefly, the four most salient strategies which the fragrance industry
could, with profit, dedicate itself to implementing are as follows:
A. Diversification of Perfume and Perfume Use;
B. Development of Aromatherapy as an Alternative Medicine;
C. Development of Olfactory Awareness and Symbolism;
D. Integration of Odors with Other Sensory Stimuli.
In what follows we shall elaborate on what each one of these strategies
or initiatives could involve.
A. Diversification of Perfume
and Perfume Use
As the ethnographic literature surveyed in SMELL AND
CULTURE and the book Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell suggests, many
niches are occupied by odors in the lives of the peoples of Africa, Oceania
and Latin America. Each of these niches could in theory be developed into
a new "market niche" in the context of North American society.
A list of such niches, some of which have already no doubt been tried,
i) The creation of a range of scents that suggest different natural environments,
such as the seashore, the rainforest, the smell of the earth after rain.
ii) The creation of more sophisticated scents for the home environment
(instead of simply pine, lilac, etc.)
iii) Different aromas for different rooms of the house, for the workplace,
school, stores, etc.
iv) Different aromas for different age and cultural groups.
v) Different aromas for different members of the family.
vi) Different aromas for different parts of the body.
vii) Different aromas for different moods, viz. pensive, joyful, sensuous.
viii) Different aromas for different seasons, times of day, kinds of weather,
viz. autumn, dawn, rainy.
ix) Different aromas for different endeavours, viz. job hunting, romance,
x) Different aromas for different events, viz. birthdays, weddings, funerals.
xi) The creation of mix-and-match fragrances - that is, aroma kits that
include guidelines for the combination of scents which the consumer may
use to create his or her own personal "atmosphere."
B. Development of Aromatherapy
as an Alternative Medicine
In increasing numbers, North Americans are turning to
other medical systems, besides Western biomedicine, in search of well-being.
The rejection of biomedicine and embrace of East Asian medicine (acupuncture,
acupressure, moxibustion), homeopathy, and, above all, aromatherapy, arises
out of a growing concern over the many side-effects of surgical and chemical
interventions, as well as a growing "cult of the natural."
Many aromatherapy clinics have sprung up across the face of North America,
but North American practitioners of aromatherapy tend to be grossly ignorant
of the olfactory traditions of those societies, such as the Warao of Venezuela,
where aromatherapy is really a science. Among the Warao, the inside of
the body is conceived of as a kind of gas pressure chamber, where all
sorts of olfactory reactions take place. Diagnosis is by smell rather
than x-rays or the chemical analysis of blood samples, such as one finds
in biomedicine, and treatment is by the application of scents.
C. Development of Olfactory
Awareness and Symbolism
The challenge of seeking to right the "underdevelopment
of smell" in North America is a daunting one, but not impossible.
What would seem to be required is the following:
i) Encouraging olfactory education of children at the primary school level.
ii) Promoting interest in perfumery as an art form.
iii) Encouraging people to develop classificatory systems based on odor.
For example, coordinating fragrances with astrological signs.
Regarding the first suggestion - namely, making olfactory
education a part of the curriculum (in the same way that, say, physical
education is recognized as an essential component of every child's development),
a useful model is provided by the experience of the French. Since January
1991, primary school students throughout France have had their curriculum
enriched by a range of courses dedicated to educating their sense of taste.
While the principal aim of this educational program has been to inculcate
in the students a taste for French haute cuisine (as opposed to American
fast-food), the program has also had the effect of refining their sense
of smell. In other words, the students have developed into "aromands"
as well as "gourmands." The Fragrance Foundation has already
experimented with the design of an Aroma Kit. Designing an expanded version
of this kit for use in schools could have the highly desirable outcome
of training the next generation of noses to be more discriminating in
the attention they pay to the odors that surround them.
Regarding the third suggestion - namely, encouraging people to begin coordinating
fragrances with other phenomena, such as astrological signs, this is not
as far-fetched as it may sound. Many cultures have elaborated Tables of
Correspondences, the Chinese Table being perhaps the most famous. In the
Chinese system, each of the elements (wood, metal, earth, fire, water)
out of which the cosmos and the human body is composed has a corresponding
colour, flavour, musical note, and odour, as well as direction, season,
and so on. To try and construct such a system of correspondences can prove
both intellectually and sensually gratifying. There is much to commend
such schemes, from our perspective, for not only do they give smells meaning,
but they also integrate the sense of smell with all the other senses,
which brings us to the last marketing strategy that we wish to propose:
D. Integration of Odors
with Other Sensory Stimuli
North American society and culture has traditionally
been dominated by the visual faculty: "Oh say can you see ..."
the national anthem goes. Increasingly, however, there are signs of a
"rejection of visualism" taking shape. "Visualism"
is a frame of mind which, like racism and sexism, is gradually being eroded.
The overthrow of the hegemony of the visual will result in the liberation
of the other senses, and the emergence of new sorts of selves. What we
particularly look forward to are the following possible developments:
i) The creation of multisensory works of art and entertainment, viz. combining
music with fragrance.
ii) The creation of perfumes inspired by a specific work of art: a painting,
piece of music or poem.
iii) The inclusion of fragrance as an integral part of home decoration.
For example, employing a specific fragrance to match the decor of each
iv) The use of fragrance in previously non-odorized products, viz. jewellery,
These developments are possible because they have already
been tried out by diverse non-Western cultures, which proves that they
are latent in the human condition - just waiting to be expressed in late
twentieth century America.
This research was generously supported by a series of grants from the
Olfactory Research Fund, New York.
The results of this research are reported in the following
Constance Classen, David Howes & Anthony Synnott,
Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell,
London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
- Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar Editor, 1996 (translated into the Portuguese
by Alvaro Cabral)
- Tokyo: Chikuma-Shobo, 1997 (translated into the Japanese by Masahiro
- Seoul: Hyunsil Cultural Studies (Korean translation)
- Athens: Plethron (forthcoming)
Avery Gilbert (ed.), Explorations in Aroma-Chology, 1982-1994.
Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1995.