Cover image for Sensorial Investigations: A History of the Senses in Anthropology, Psychology, and Law By David Howes

Sensorial Investigations

A History of the Senses in Anthropology, Psychology, and Law

David Howes


$114.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09500-4

$29.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-09501-1

Available as an e-book

304 pages
5" × 8"
12 b&w illustrations

Perspectives on Sensory History

Sensorial Investigations

A History of the Senses in Anthropology, Psychology, and Law

David Howes

“When we play Howes’ sensory games, everyone wins. . . . We need [his] sensory studies if we are to have our willow bark and eat our aspirin too.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
David Howes’s sweeping history of the senses in the disciplines of anthropology and psychology and in the field of law lays the foundations for a sensational jurisprudence, or a way to do justice to and by the senses of other people.

In part 1, Howes demonstrates how sensory ethnography has yielded alternative insights into how the senses function and argues convincingly that each culture should be approached on its own sensory terms. Part 2 documents how the senses have been disciplined psychologically within the Western tradition, starting with Aristotle and moving through the rise of Lockean empiricism and cognitive neuroscience. Here, Howes presents an anthropologically informed critique of experimental and cognitive psychology, sensory science, and phenomenology. In part 3, he introduces the paradigm of the “historical anthropology of the senses and sensation” and applies it to the analysis of trade relations between Europe and China in the early modern period, to the treaty-making process in North America during the colonial period, and to all the unresolved disputes over land rights and Indigenous sovereignty that continue to this day, arguing that these differences are rooted in a cultural clash of sensoria.

Designed for the classroom, Sensorial Investigations displays an expansive critical engagement with generations of scholarship. It is essential reading for students and scholars of the history and anthropology of the senses, the psychology of sensation, and socio-legal studies.

“When we play Howes’ sensory games, everyone wins. . . . We need [his] sensory studies if we are to have our willow bark and eat our aspirin too.”
“David Howes is a leading figure in sensory studies. In this masterful work, he addresses an extraordinary array of topics and theories in uncovering the history of the legal, anthropological, and psychological dimensions of the senses. In showing how the senses are made, not given, Howes offers an expansive analysis that both links and extends each of these disciplines in unexpected ways.”
“This engaging and erudite book reminds us that the academy suffers, to a greater or lesser extent, from sensory deprivation. For David Howes, history and anthropology invite a crossing of cultures and disciplines through the senses. For the law, Howes advocates a ‘cross-cultural jurisprudence’ in which song, dance, and smell coexist with the written word. Sensorial Investigations celebrates ‘con-sensus’ rather than ways of knowing tied exclusively, and senselessly, to words on a page.”
“In Sensorial Investigations, David Howes shows how an anthropology of the senses deepens and expands our understanding of human history and potential. Meticulously exploring varieties of sensory experience, and challenging the universalizing reductions of social science, this book helps us learn more from difference. The investigations described and prescribed open an exciting vista for a sensorial mode of attention in the human sciences.”
Sensorial Investigations is a timely, exciting, and vitally important contribution to the interdisciplinary field of sensory studies, especially sensory anthropology and sensory history. Erudite and wide-ranging in scholarship, it is inventive in its argument and written in lively, engrossing prose by a leading light in the field.”
“‘Neuroscientists need to get out of their own heads,’ David Howes says in introducing his rich and thought-provoking exploration of the sensorium. His bold project of crossing disciplines, cultures, and historical periods delivers a vision of the senses that takes us far beyond the narrow explorations of philosophy and the sciences.”
“Sublime and magisterial, Sensorial Investigations is a critical assemblage and rereading of Wittgenstein, Arendt, Simmel, and many others.  At once provocative, accessible, and poignant, Howes deftly charts the intellectual trajectory of the senses anew and pronounces nuanced and interdisciplinary approaches that both make and unmake the senses. A must-read for researchers and students of sensory inquiry.”

David Howes is Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University and Adjunct Professor in the Faculty of Law at McGill University. His most recent publications include A Cultural History of the Senses in the Modern Age, 1920­–2000 and The Sensory Studies Manifesto.

List of Illustrations


Prologue: Uncommon Sense

Part 1: The Senses in Anthropology

1. The Measurement of the Senses

2. The Enculturation of the Senses

3. Breaking Research in Sensory Anthropology

Part 2: The Senses in Psychology

4. Unhinging the Senses: From Sensation to Calculation

5. Anthropology Contra Phenomenology, Ecological Psychology, and Sensory Science

Part 3: Between History and Anthropology

6. Sensory Exchange: Crossing Disciplines

7. Cross-Cultural Exhange as Sensory Exchange: The Encounter Between China and the West in the Early Modern Period

8. Smoke and Mirrors: A Sensory Analysis of Indigenous-Settler Commerce and Covenants in North America

Epilogue: The Senses of Justice




Download a PDF sample chapter here: Prologue