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ISSN: 2333-9721
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-  2018 

Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense

DOI: 10.1177/0003122418759679

Keywords: smell,culture,cognition,embodiment,racialization,class attributions

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How are smells invested with meaning and how do those meanings structure interactions and group relations? I use cultural theories of meaning-making to explore these questions, situating my inquiry in the world of commercially marketed perfumes. Using blind smell tests in focus groups, I examine how individuals make sense of certain fragrances absent direction from manufacturers or marketing materials. I find that most participants can correctly decode perfume manufacturers’ intended message, target users, and usage sites. I unpack the role of culture in these initial classifications of smells, and later, in how participants apply those evaluations to reify social boundaries and reproduce social relations—especially with reference to race and class. I also identify two cognitive mechanisms—embodied simulation and iterative reprocessing—illustrating how these mechanisms facilitate a dynamic interaction between practical and discursive modes of consciousness in deciphering smells. Finally, I elaborate the role of sociocultural location in olfactory meaning-making. People in all locations may be familiar with public olfactory codes, but social position influences how participants think about, interpret, and apply those codes in meaning-making


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