Sitting in downtown Pretoria, my first time visiting the city, I listen to a man, whom I’ve just met, narrate the history of an adjacent colonial-style building. How close does his telling, which is at turns quite dramatic, strike to the truth? In the moment, I have no way to tell for sure, so I nod my head in eager interest. For his part, there is more motivating his story than a simple sharing of Tshwane lore; he’s likely trying to capture my attention long enough to ask for money, or maybe something else. Regardless, the encounter raises a broader question of how much a researcher in my position can, or should, take at face value.
If the smooth operation of social dynamics require that we all, at least in some capacity and some of the time, trust in what one another is saying, a veritable genus of anxiety has emerged over the fear that those around us are untrustworthy. Such worry may be widespread, and perhaps even a product of our particular socio-economic conditions, but it does not rise to the same level of salience or become operationalized the same way in every society. As anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff describe in their recently published work, contemporary South Africa has become peculiarly dominated by a perceived inability to read the proper intentions of fellow members of society: an inability to tell friend from foe and, by extension, an obsession over detecting the proper signs of crime. As a result, suspicion of the criminal amongst ordinary people abounds, along with the corresponding explosion in private security (itself a complex phenomenon involving challenges to the legitimacy of state authority). While South Africans are trained from a young age to be relatively skeptical toward requests from outsiders, social scientists, by the very nature of the information on which their studies are based, cannot afford to close off possible avenues of knowledge, even those that may carry the risk of misdirection. Anthropologists, especially those studying religion, find themselves in the dual bind of remaining open to what people tell them while not falling into gullibility, a tendency to which I am unfortunately prone, as anyone who knows me well would attest.
Indeed, there is an immediate danger to excessive credulity, both in the general sense and for fieldworkers in particular. For anyone, taking what others say at face value can lead to all kinds of victimization, from wire fraud to the dashed hopes of promised job opportunities. Large-scale “impersonal” societies are filled with those seeking to take advantage of our reliance on mutual trust in order to bilk unsuspecting “marks” out of money or property. For ethnographers, though, the risk is compounded by our methodological need to engage with strangers, even when they may pursue their own interests at our expense. As we enter a new environment, we cannot know a priori whence a new lead or contact might come. It is often through the most serendipitous or unexpected encounters that we discover the most fascinating things about the people we’re living with, things that get beyond the “official narratives” promoted publically in order to get a sense of how life works in all its complex facets. This insistence on following the story wherever it may lead puts us in what can be vulnerable situations, especially when we are cultural novices in the communities where we live.
At the same time, as a counterbalance to this vulnerability, recent generations of anthropologists have begun to shine more light on issues of safety in the field. Although the risks of travelling in remote and at times volatile regions have been long recognized by practitioners and the public alike (e.g., the image of the adventurous anthropologist braving exotic locales and hostile tribes), the smaller, everyday potentials for violence have not historically been afforded as much attention, certainly not in the limited preparation students have received before being sent to begin their projects. Even excusing the base romantic stereotypes of the Indiana-Jones-style explorer, the pragmatic how-tos of maintaining personal safety—or most of the mundane tasks that make up fieldwork, for that matter—were things presumably learned on the fly, struggles we would be expected to tough out on our own. Parallel with a rise in consciousness of workplace harassment, especially gender-based violence, has been a new unwillingness to tolerate (or at least silence within professional circles) the everyday threats on the safety of young anthropologists-in-training, often living alone in a setting far from home. While our institutional ethics boards, recognizing the power held by scientific institutions, have directed the majority of their attention toward the protection of our research participants, in some cases, mostly with field-based studies, it is the researchers who are just as, if not more so, vulnerable than the people they recruit.
This pushback against blind trust from a safety perspective could be coupled with pushback from an intellectual perspective. In other words, is it necessarily the case that the best fieldwork data comes from being a compliant and agreeing listener? During a session of this year’s Society for the Anthropology of Religion meetings in New Orleans, veteran ethnographer Charles Hirschkind stepped into this debate on the right way to deal with genuine differences in belief—at times amounting to fundamentally incompatible claims about physical reality—between anthropologists and the people they work with. He questioned the kind of polite, nodding acceptance that some researchers, not wanting to offend or disrupt their interlocutors, might adopt. As he reminded fellow audience members, E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s famed description of the internal logic of Zande witchcraft as an explanatory system for unfortunate events was elicited only through an extended engagement between the ethnographer and an informant in which the researcher actively challenged the latter’s explanations in order to see how he would respond. In the study of religion in contemporary times, why should we be afraid of putting a kind of dialectical pressure on what people are telling us rather than accept what they tell us carte blanche? Moreover, I might add that to assume the cultural systems we investigate are not robust enough to withstand an inquisitive gaze belies a lack of faith in their rationality that borders on the patronizing.
So how ought researchers respond to ideas or requests that contradict their own instincts? If imagined on a spectrum, the responses laid out here might extend from a complete acceptance (or at least uncritical assent) on one end to hostile rejection and aggressive challenging on the other. Of course, the obvious solution would be to take a track somewhere in the middle, depending on context and what is at stake in the encounter. After all, challenging a theologian in a friendly office setting is quite different from challenging an intoxicated man threatening violence against you.
As for practical advice in an ethnographic capacity, though, one way forward came up in one of the interviews I conducted this past month. As a church elder and I were speaking about studying alternative interpretations of scripture, he raised the importance of playing the role of devil’s advocate. That is, he insisted, understanding the logical understructure of your opponent’s argument will offer a stronger ability to counter those claims one point at a time and ultimately end up being more convincing. (Of course, it might just happen to cause you to change your mind, he acknowledged!) Beyond just the level of theological debate, I can see a real applied potential for the devil’s advocate approach: We can entertain the logical and conclusions of those we work alongside, if only in some cases as an intellectual exercise; at the same time, encouraging respondents to consider alternative perspectives allows them to reflect on the very same critical qualities of thought we are interested in capturing in the first place. As long as the approach is tactful, this type of back-and-forth dialogue could produce the reflective, critical data on which anthropology places such a premium.
Moving through the congested downtown market, I catch a whiff of clashing aromas that compete for the attention of passersby, potential customers to the dozens of vendors hawking their wares within the confined space of a city block. The kabobs of savory meat sizzling over portable grills mingle with the sweet tang of fresh produce available at every other informal stall. Even the pungent notes of industrial cleaner and small vials of car deodorants are sensible under the bustle of foodstuffs moving back and forth. To the uninitiated, the scene is chaotic, but after a pass or two through the heart of Johannesburg’s central business district, the order of everyday commerce emerges, and the concoction of smells becomes a tapestry of economic staples exchanging hands.
A sensory snapshot like that given here reads like a travelogue: an immediate plunging into an apparently exotic world that the traveler then makes sense of for the curious reader. It can serve as a way to place an audience in an unfamiliar locale, at the heart of an environment imagined in its radical difference, the odors of which contribute to its alien quality. Nevertheless, under a critical gaze, what can such sensationalist accounts—in both senses of the phrase—provide for anthropology?
Admittedly, the human sense of smell, with the potential to lift our spirits or send waves of disgust to our core, carries powerful sway over emotion, a pop science truism with no dearth of anecdotal support. Moreover, examples in American popular culture abound of smell’s ability to supersede “higher” capacities for rationality to push our actions toward sensory pleasures—overcome by pheromones (or a well-concocted love potion) to fall for an unlikely mate or drawn into a café against dietary will by the sumptuous flavors of fresh pastries—in each case relinquishing careful, calculating mental authority to a more base level of bodily, even animalistic drive. These impulses are contrasted with the measured, logical pursuit of truth and prudent action that constitute the academic thinking that rests on visual and auditory perception. However, it could be questioned whether this division (and, arguably, hierarchy) of sensory ways of knowing is justified. While those cultural practices associated with intellectualism and supposedly enlightened thought are, in most cases, mediated through the senses of sight or hearing (especially reading and hearing the words put together by others), what could be gained with an increased attention to scent within ethnographic description?
Ethnographers, who specialize in immersive cross-cultural experiences that plunge us not only into the literal texts and discourses of the people we work alongside but holistic sensory worlds, are well poised to broaden the epistemic obsession in Western science with the visual and aural to explore other ways of knowing. Although it might be challenging to record our impressions of “smell-scapes” in conventional field notes, we must attend to the sensory worlds around us as a matter of methodological necessity: It is impossible to avoid the continuous scents of our environment from wafting over us and striking an impression, often one that “colors,” to use an inappropriate metaphor, other aspects of our observations.
I first began reflecting on the power of smell this year when I walked off an airplane into Louis Armstrong International Airport in New Orleans. I was attending the biennial meetings of the Society for the Anthropology of Religion, and what struck me more than the much-remarked Louisiana humidity or heat was a peculiar smell of fruitiness. Thinking it was just an artifact of the airport itself, I was pleasantly surprised to find it follow me throughout my stay in the city. So noticeable was it that I couldn’t help but turn to Google to search for “New Orleans smell” to see if it was a figment of my imagination or a shared phenomenon. Sure enough, several authors have commented on the unique smells of the Big Easy, dependent mostly on the time of year and the bloom of its flora. But it was then that I started to consider the possible implications of an entire city having an identifiable smell. I again thought of this notion as I spent a few hours passing through London en route to Johannesburg. In my first time through Piccadilly Circus and at the Thames waterfront I noticed a thick smell that reminded me of the pungency of car exhaust. These pervasive aromas, at least as I perceived them as an outsider, became part of my memory of each of these cities, arguably data as important as any photograph could offer.
At the same time, though, the kind of impression created is not necessarily given as a universal or unmediated truth. Even if there are some elements to smell that are shared as part of our physiological inheritance, the structural, historical, and cultural meanings behind these phenomena are less directly accessible without proper context. Take a contrastive example to that of the eclectic market opening this post. Another smell I took notice of soon after my arrival in South Africa was the occasional rot of household refuse, especially near waterways and in marginal plots of land in Soweto. The unsettling aroma of burning garbage may be repulsive to people across cultural boundaries (even if varying in degree according to how taken-for-granted it has become in daily life), but what more is there to make of this sensation? One option would be to use the presentation of smell to evoke a landscape of social and moral decay in which Sowetans are unwilling to dispose of their garbage through proper mechanisms. The odor, in this case, becomes a sign vehicle to reinforce a view of particular kinds of people (viz., impoverished black populations in townships) as characteristically liable to laziness and therefore deserving of their own poverty.
Of course, such a narrative ignores the socio-historical context that led to the townships’ construction in the first place. As one of the most salient lasting residues of apartheid, these segregated communities continue to show the inequalities inscribed over decades into the country’s physical landscape. Not only does the literal “apartness” of races persist decades after the fall of de jure residency laws, but the very skeleton of these areas belies the gulf between the assets and privileges whites have been able to accrue in the neighborhoods where they have settled and the marginal land serviced by inferior municipal services allotted to blacks year after year. With this foreknowledge, a stench could instead be interpreted as a sign of the unsuitability of government waste services for a community that struggles to overcome the subtle but powerful advantages other places—with their access to historically well-established and highly controlled refuse services—have enjoyed.
The point I want to make here is simple but often overlooked. That is, despite the temptation to think of smell as a sense of place shared by all, it is a sensory modality just as susceptible to the “tinted lenses” of culture (to use another inappropriate but tellingly occulocentric metaphor) as sight or sound. Aromas are not the culturally transparent doors into other worlds they are sometimes made out to be but can be co-opted into narratives that accord with pre-existing narratives about what certain places—and therefore what certain people—are like.
So where does that leave the prospects for an olfactory anthropology? Perhaps not much different than it leaves an anthropology resting on any other form of observation. Ethnographers should be open to alternative ways of approaching the world that challenge our own biases, whether through the eyes or the nose, but with special attention toward historical and cultural contingencies that implicitly shape social life. A final caveat: I don’t mean to say there cannot be any universal sensory experiences, merely that even if some dimensions of scent are accessible to all people, the claim to universality itself threatens to occlude real divisions in how smell can participate in the construction of complex worlds. If anthropologists aspire to expand their work beyond the conventional reliance on sight and sound, in addition to the problem of elaborating a precise vocabulary of scent, they face the challenge of not reproducing their own culturally mediated “gut” impressions, a struggle not unfamiliar to a discipline devoted to interrogating human difference.
Living in Soweto for the past month, I have passed scarcely a day without being asked a friendly “how is it?” The question comes from both people I have gotten to know and strangers I pass on the street. On the face of it, the phrase makes sense, even if to my American ears it comes out phonetically resembling “howzit?” more than anything else. Within South African English it is a common greeting that inquires into the listener’s state of being, a cousin of the American “how are you?” Linguistic anthropologists would say it serves as more than a request for referential information—only in a select portion of cases does the speaker have an immediate need or desire to know how his or her interlocutor is doing at that particular point—but instead it fulfills a phatic function. Elaborated by linguist Roman Jakobson as one of the several key functions of speech acts, the word “phatic” refers to the medium of communication, which can be literal (e.g., starting an audio system with “testing, one, two, three”) or a more metaphorical social medium (as in this case: maintaining an open and reciprocal line of social contact based on the values of mutual communal care). In this sense, while the forms they take vary across languages and cultures from “how are you?” to “qué tal?” to “how is it?” they do a similar kind of work for the people who use them in ensuring a clear channel for social discourse.
However, such a universal description of function does not capture the whole story. Besides constructing an ongoing sociality, in this setting it also emerges as a response to the tangible differences between the people I’m living around and me. The most visible of these distinctions is racial. Nationally, South Africa has a sizable white minority compared with other parts of the continent, but it remains strikingly segregated, particularly in those areas outside major cities, like Soweto, that under apartheid were reserved for black workers excluded from residence in the city’s prime commercial districts. Many Sowetans have commented that white people don’t frequently come to this area outside a handful of historical attractions; even fewer live here. Thus, my very presence as a white man staying, even for a few months, in the township (as opposed to the more distant suburbs that have been destinations of white flight) is itself marked as unusual. Within the everyday greetings directed my way is a subtext of making sense of me as a person who, to adopt a phrase from Mary Douglas, is in some sense “out of place.” In longer conversations this subtle motive comes to the surface, and I’m asked outright why I chose to stay in Soweto. Even in the more ephemeral exchanges, though, I get the sense of passersby sizing me up; in issuing a friendly greeting, they are also trying to place me and to see if all is well, since I strike many as a bit unusual.
Beyond the visible differences that set me apart, another dimension—this one sonic—emerges as soon as I open my mouth to respond. My distinctly non-South African accent makes it impossible for me to pass even as a white local, and even if people have trouble identifying exactly where I’m from, I am always perceived as a foreigner. Since my outsider status is so noticeable to everyone I meet, I constantly have to explain why I have come here. For an anthropologist seeking to discuss my project with as many people as possible, these exchanges work in my favor, something I relish even after I’ve explained myself hundreds of times (that is the work of an anthropologist, right?). Nonetheless, it is another way in which a simple greeting constitutes a way to calculate my social coordinates.
In those conversations that extend beyond a simple back and forth, I hear quite standardized follow-up questions, which have evolved during my stay. The mandate of any scientist (social or otherwise) is to identify patterns in data, and even informal conversations have become part of the corpus that I am analyzing as part of my research. In the first few weeks I have been here, people almost always ask how South Africa and/or Soweto have been treating me. My knee-jerk response has been to explain that everyone, especially in Soweto, has been overwhelmingly kind and welcoming. The longer I’ve been here, though, the more I’ve noticed the questions changing. More recently a common response at this stage of the conversation is to ask me to compare the United States and what I have seen in South Africa. It’s hard to make such general comparisons, so I have struggled to come up with a good answer. More importantly, though, the question itself suggests a presumed fundamental difference between the two countries that, given my time in each, I might have the capacity to distill into an essential characteristic or two. I try to satisfy the unusual curiosity many have of the U.S. while emphasizing the diversity of each place. Still, the line of questioning suggests something of the place the U.S. occupies in the popular imagination.
These queries, both subtle and explicit, embedded within common greetings do not exhaust the complexity at play in such seemingly pedestrian encounters, and they may not be accurate assessments after all. Still, it illustrates that within a simple “how is it?” multiple layers of meaning comingle (like an onion, or a cake, depending on your preferred metaphor), not all of which are legible at once to all the actors involved. As I learn more about life in southern Africa, I hope to explore some more of these layers in all their richness.