“You Stink!” Smell and Moralisation of the Other

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Although scholarship on the senses and sensory history has been fast expanding over the last decades, the importance of smell tends to be somewhat overlooked in favour of the other senses, in particular vision, already regarded by the likes of Plato as a superior sense. The ephemeral nature of smell, and the inherent difficulties in interpreting its sensory information, help explain this lack of attention. Smell is, however, one of the most intriguing senses, pivotal in the perception of ourselves and others, and deeply connected to our emotions and moral decisions. Medical and cultural historians, as well as anthropologists and psychologists, have emphasised the key role olfaction plays across time and place, not only through rituals, or as a means of diagnosing disease, but also as a warning mechanism regarding threats and dangerous environments, and ultimately, dangerous, stinky people (Classen C., Howes D., Synnott A. 1994; Reinarz, J. 2014; Jenner, M. 2011).

In Hamlet, Marcellus alludes to the state of political and moral corruption at Elsinore using an olfactory reference—“something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. Indeed, shared, familiar smells create a sense of identity and security, at both individual and group level, whereas the opposite leads to smelly feelings of distrust, avoidance and fear. In an increasing globalised world, smell is intimately connected to the politics of power, status and identity. Recent studies have shown that body odour disgust sensitivity (BODS) is commonly linked with authoritarianism and avoidance of “individuals and groups that are perceived as foreign, strange, morally deviant or norm violating” (Liuzza et al., Royal Society Open Science 5: 171091, 2018: 2). In this chapter, I revive Alain Corbin’s masterful distinction between “the foul and the fragrant”, and use smell and emotional olfactory experiences to explore negative attitudes towards certain societal outgroups, in particular migrants and refugees.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Politics of Emotional Shockwaves
EditorsAna Falcato, Sara Graça da Silva
Place of PublicationCham
PublisherPalgrave Macmillan
Number of pages17
ISBN (Electronic)978-3-030-56021-8
ISBN (Print)978-3-030-56020-1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


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