“We-Feeling”: The sociality of scents!

What is social or even political about scent? This Scent Culture Comment & Review reveals some of the implications of a casual interview.

Yesterday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan ended his visit to Germany. The political controversies of this visit have been widely covered by the media. A German business magazine actually revealed a remarkable insight on the sociality of olfaction.

Demonstration as a social experience

The website Manager Magazine posted a short video featuring several groups of passionate supporters of the Turkish president. Some of them even struggled for a glimpse of their political hero. And a young woman openly shares her enthusiasm. She is even happy to breathe the same air as Mr Erdogan. The journalist actually used this quote for the title: “Die selbe Luft zu atmen wie er!”

“Die selbe Luft zu atmen wie er!”, so der Titel auch auf Spiegel Online.

At first sight, this saying might point at some esoteric beliefs as a google search reveals.  In fact, it is hardly more than an obvious  truism. Air is a public good. Economists describe it as non-excludable and non-rivalrous  We all breathe the same air – so what?

At second glance, however, this casual statement points at a deeper sociality of an olfactory experience: “Breathing the same air!”

Breathing & smelling

Every breath is saturated with an extraordinary amount of olfactory information. This is the reason why Patrick Süskind called scent the “brother of breath”. Smelling is an accompaniment of breathing. And the act of smelling suggests a more personal and intimate identification with the other as Georg Simmel noted in his sociology of the senses.

The air-condition is political!

Moreover, the demonstrator actually shows how inhaling becomes an act of communion and community. Air is the invisible medium that the crowd shares with their hero. Hence, the shared sensory experience also subliminally binds the demonstrators in a group.

In other words: The intimacy of the air-condition is political!

Actually, it is also this intimacy of the air-condition that drives the sales of celebrity scents. Thus, this post is definitely not a comment on migration or the situation of immigrants in Europe. Yet, the cultural background might have been a factor why the interviewed demonstrator is obviously aware of the hidden dimension of the air condition. With respect to the Arabic world a widely traveled cultural anthropologist once noticed: “To the Arab good smells are pleasing and a way of being involved with each other. To smell one’s friend is not only nice but desirable, for to deny him your breath (!) is to act ashamed” (Edward Hall). Even if this note refers to a different cultural context it highlights the social relevance an intimate air-condition which is at the core of this interview snippet.

Other examples

The underlying mechanism have been practiced since ancient times. In the Roman Colosseum odorants were extensively used during the gladiatorial games to create communal or we-group feelings (Largey & Watson 1972). More widely known is the burning of incense that also creates an intersubjective we-feeling among the participants during religious rituals. This is a common practice even in Western Christianity not to speak of many other religious practices. What do the examples from Roman times as well as religious practices and yesterday’s short video have in common? They bring to the fore the social relevance of olfaction!

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Hall, E. T. (1966). The hidden dimension. New York: Anchor Books.

Largey, G. P., & Watson, D. R. (1972). The Sociology of Odors. American Journal of Sociology, 77(6), 1021–1034.