Crossing Boundaries: Making Sense with the Sense-able

A black plastic garbage bag, held in place by masking tape, covered the drinking fountain jutting out from the brick wall. It was an incongruous sight in the otherwise clean, carpeted church hallway on the outskirts of Charleston, West Virginia. The thick covering separated observer from object, simultaneously hiding and calling attention to what it ostensibly sought to obfuscate. “[Facilities and Maintenance] still haven’t replaced the filters,” I was told, as I sopped up the syrup under my pancake and drank bottled water with the congregation members. “The bag is to keep anyone from accidentally drinking contaminated water.”

Five months earlier (on January 9th, 2014), the county’s municipal water supply was abruptly declared off limits for all use due to contamination with crude MCHM (4-methylchycloheanemethanol), a chemical used in the cleaning of coal. No brushing teeth with the water. No showers. No clothes washing. One could still flush the toilet, but even then it was advised to avoid standing over the toilet. Underlying these restrictions was an uncomfortable reality: no one knew whether the chemical threatened human health, and if so, at what levels.

Remembering to follow the blanket restriction on use did not come easily. “I would forget and brush my teeth with it,” one coal-worker who lived at the end of the water distribution line told me, noting that he’d gotten the chemical all over himself at work before. A retired nurse living at the top of a hill reported that her neighbors had complained of the smell, but she never noticed it. Yet for many, the smell helped them remember. In fact, the chemical leak that caused the contamination was first identified due to crude MCHM’s intense, sharp, sweet, licorice-like smell. The odor permeated downtown Charleston, lingering for days as the chemical plume passed. “I could smell it,” a local baker told me. “Outside. All the time. I joked after everything had happened about having to go home to Sissenville (a suburb of Charleston) to get water, ‘home sweet smell.’” A middle school teacher noted that she could still smell the MCHM in bathrooms and her classroom despite the coverings.

In the days and weeks that followed, citizens faced a paradox: although experts quickly declared the water free of crude MCHM, and thus safe to use, the bodies of many throughout the Charleston area said otherwise. The authorities and scientists tasked with monitoring the presence of crude MCHM based their safety determination on levels of the chemical dropping below methodological and instrumental detection limits. As the concentration dropped, crude MCHM proved ghostlike: detected by many human bodies, but invisible to the officially recognized scientific, instrumental methods of detection. The water is safe, official discourse said. Yet bodies throughout Kanawha County disagreed, appearing in the emergency rooms with rashes and headaches in the early days of flushing. Noses continued to identify the “licorice” smell for weeks after the crisis was declared over. “It was maybe two months before [we] stopped detecting it coming out of the spigot,” one interlocutor told me.

Before January 9th, the exact smell of crude MCHM did not matter. However, as the odor continued to persist despite its apparent absence as measured by instrumentation, it became apparent that the methodologies put in place for detecting and responding to sense-able chemical contamination were inadequate. Instrumental insensibility undermined and negated experiences of bodily sensibility, and in the process pitted individuals against the authoritative agencies ostensibly there to protect them.

These moments where instrumental insensibility collide with bodily sensing call for methodological approaches that can capture the rich detail of individual experiences, while also acknowledging the unevenness of the sensory world. Although the sciences dedicated to mapping the sensory world seek subjects that fit within a sensory norm by screening for ability to taste or smell, by its very nature sensing is difficult to quantify: even the ideal sensing body changes, gets sick, is injured, or carries genes that make cilantro taste like soap or inhibit the detection of bitterness. As such, the uneven nature of sensing complicates large-scale efforts to make sensory knowledge universally available, even as sensory scientists and researchers attempt to quantify and standardize sensory knowledge. Translation devices for bridging between individual and group sensory experience abound—from printed tasting guides to professional tasting classes—all united by the goal of allowing the specifics of an individual’s sensory experience to be broadened through creation of a shared sensory vocabulary. Authorities in West Virginia turned to sensory science to try to grasp the exact sensory nature of crude MCHM and determine whether continuing reports of licorice-like odors had merit.

Yet contemporary practices of sensory analysis remove individuals from the very environments that stimulate the senses in the first place (c.f. Howes 2015; Lahne Forthcoming). Sensory science seeks test subjects who fit an objective, laboratory-based model of ideal tasters. Participants are screened for ability to smell or taste, and those who cannot are excluded. It is notable that the standardized sensory science approach eventually justified citizen claims that crude MCHM was still present despite instrumental measurements that said otherwise (McGuire, Suffet and Rosen 2014). In accordance with the scientific demands of contemporary sensory science, the consumers selected to characterize the sensory experience of smelling crude MCHM diluted in water had no knowledge of the contexts in which sensing crude MCHM had—or might—occur. While these practices are useful for the deconstruction and reconstruction of flavors at the heart of industrial taste-making, and also provide critical information about how the human body can or cannot detect odors or tastes, they fail to account for the ways that sensory information is embedded in lived context. In the case of the West Virginia crisis, inhabitants did not encounter the smell of crude MCHM in the anonymous confines of a lab. They encountered it in their homes, churches, and workplaces, and they further developed and solidified how they sensorially understood the chemical through conversations with each other and media attention.

To restate this in more familiar terms, if we were together in the same room instead of separated by time and distance, I could hand you my favorite black licorice or hold out a sample of Viktor & Rolfe’s Flowerbomb perfume[1] for you to sniff. We could taste and smell these things and imagine ourselves in the valley surrounding Charleston on a cold, early January day waiting in line to receive water from the National Guard. We could even suspend our smelly substitutes for crude MCHM into hot water and spray the mixture into the air in the bathroom, envisioning ourselves sensing an unwanted chemical intruder in our home as we follow the steps for flushing provided by the water supplier. Despite these efforts, neither of us could comprehend the experience of those in Charleston during the days and weeks and even months following the spill. Our outsider bodies do not carry the greenhouse manager’s memory of watching massive fish die-offs in the Elk River as a child, or of the woman learning to watch the flames at the chemical plants to determine whether one should feel safe or worried. Our bodies do not know the fear or discomfort of a mother smelling crude MCHM in the water as she weighs the government’s claims to safety against her nose’s warning of danger as she debates giving the water to her daughter. Our bodies have not become attuned to the chemical’s presence. As West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Scott Finn noted in late February 2014, “After state officials finally stopped the MCHM from entering the water supply, after they told us to flush our pipes, you could still smell it in the water for weeks. I would engage in a nervous ritual: run the tap, lean in a little and sniff three times—and there it would be.” As such, the resulting knowledge of crude MCHM’s sensory characteristics generated by the scientific studies failed to capture the cultural or environmental aspects so critical to the experience of West Virginians.

Sensory science’s inability to capture the cultural and environmental aspects of sensing also threatens the ethnographer of sensory experience. As Nicholas Shapiro recently noted of his own sensorial experience interviewing people exposed to formaldehyde in their homes, the ethnographer’s sensory exposure may “intimate the costs of apprehending chemical others” while nonetheless remaining ephemeral due to the researcher’s ability to enter and exit the field (2015, 371). Examining the sensory offers a continual conundrum: how can the ethnographer effectively participate, observe, and make meaning of their interlocutors’ sensory experiences given the limits imposed by each individual’s accumulated sensory knowledge and the ethnographers own sensory naiveté?

It is precisely thinking in cases that opens a path through the thick forest of accumulated sensory knowledge. Thinking in cases prioritizes the unevenness of sensory experience, allowing the voices of those who sense and those who do not the possibility of participation. Thinking in cases resists the flattening of sensory knowledge for commercial purposes by bringing excluded voices back into the conversation. And perhaps most importantly, thinking in cases pushes the ethnographer to acknowledge the limits of participation and observation when it comes to embodied experience, opening the doors for new types and forms of interlocution.


[1] One of the crude MCHM-naïve panelists recruited to participate in the consumer panel assembled to estimate the odor threshold of the chemical described the odor as that of her favorite perfume, Flowerbomb.

Howes, David. 2015. The science of sensory evaluation: An ethnographic critique. In Social Life of Materials: Studies in Materials and Society, edited by Adam Drazin and Susanne Küchler. London, GBR: Bloomsbury.

Lahne, Jacob. Forthcoming. Sensory Science, the Food Industry and the Objectification of Taste. Anthropology of Food.

McGuire, Michael, I.H. Suffet, Jeffrey Rosen. 2014. Consumer panel estimates of odor threshold for crude 4-methylcyclohexanemethanol. Journal AWWA October 106, 10: E445-E458.

Shapiro, Nicholas. 2015. Attuning to the Chemosphere: Domestic Formaldehyde, Bodily Reasoning, and the Chemical Sublime. Cultural Anthropology 30, 3: 368-393.

Christy Spackman is the Hixon-Riggs Early Career Fellow in Science and Technology Studies at Harvey Mudd College, and a graduate of New York University’s Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health. Her research examines how the sensory experiences of making, consuming, and disposing of food influence and are influenced by “technologies of taste,” her term for the oft-overlooked technologies and practices used to manage the sensory aspects of foods during production.