Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Crafting Sensory Anthropology In/Of Asia

Kelvin E. Y. Low

What does an anthropology of the senses entail? What part do the senses play in everyday life in Asia across a variety of historical and contemporary contexts – stretching from the pre- to post-colonial and including the transnational? How are the senses connected to a range of everyday life domains that comprise religion, morality, foodways, music, linguistic practices, local-foreign interactions, and the migratory and economic movements of social actors and commodities? How might one develop theoretical argumentation and delineate inter-disciplinary and comparative possibilities to analyse sensory cultures?

In my close engagement with these queries and more, Sensory Anthropology: Culture and Experience in Asia analyses how sensory cultures in Asia frame social order and disorder. As one of the pioneering interventions in sensory scholarship on the region, the book revolves around such anthropological themes as culture and language, food and foodways, morality, transnationalism, and violence, among others. From constructions of rasa (taste) in pre-colonial India and Indonesia, children and sensory discipline within the monastic orders of the Edo period of Japan, to sound expressives among the Semai in Peninsular Malaysia, the sensory soteriology of Tibetan Buddhism, and sensory warscapes of WWII, Sensory Anthropology offers rich ethnographic perspectives on inter- and intra-regional sense relations. The book discusses a variety of sensory models in moving beyond narrower sensory regimes bounded either by group, nation or temporality. It provides granular analyses on sensory relations, sensory pairings, and intersensoriality that would appeal to general and specialist readers with an interest in the anthropological and sociological aspects of cultures in Asia. I ask how sensory models are established and operate across different cultures, including their variant ethnographical nuances. This problematises the interplay of the senses whereby sensory conjunctions or amalgams form a part of everyday life and ritual practices in many societies, as opposed to the broader compartmentalisation of the senses in Western aesthetics. By focusing on cultural interpretations of sensory practices, pairings and intersections, such an approach sheds analytical attention upon everyday orderings of sensory categories and their cultural significance.

Overall, the senses provide an important every day and symbolic media through which social order is routinely worked at. Throughout these multifold processes and in relation to exchange and imitation, we are able to discern a number of important issues that arise in the agenda to compose a sensory anthropology of Asia. First, senses serve as vehicles of knowledge across the whole array of everyday social domains in terms of how they organise human-nonhuman experience. Second, comparative approaches initiated herein is not only a response to either Western- or Asian-centric sensory analysis. They further advance the scope of sensory scholarship by prompting inter- and intra-cultural dialogue on the subject. Third, sensory transnationalism illustrates how sensory orders and practices work, and where established sensory norms are responded to by social actors adhering to different sensory scripts in cross-cultural exchanges. The broader intention is to spotlight how sensory cultures, sentient practices and encounters transpire as a way of comprehending Asia through sense perception as a newer perspective in social and cultural anthropology. In doing so, I inquire further both into the breadth and depth of how to articulate the social lives and textures of the senses toward crafting the future of sensory anthropology.

Sensory Anthropology by Kelvin E. Y. Low

About The Author

Kelvin E. Y. Low

Kelvin E .Y. Low is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the National University of Singapore. His previous books include Scents and Scen...

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