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Culture and the Senses

Culture and the Senses: Bodily Ways of Knowing in an African Community

Kathryn Linn Geurts
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: 1
Pages: 330
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  • Book Info
    Culture and the Senses
    Book Description:

    Adding her stimulating and finely framed ethnography to recent work in the anthropology of the senses, Kathryn Geurts investigates the cultural meaning system and resulting sensorium of Anlo-Ewe-speaking people in southeastern Ghana. Geurts discovered that the five-senses model has little relevance in Anlo culture, where balance is a sense, and balancing (in a physical and psychological sense as well as in literal and metaphorical ways) is an essential component of what it means to be human. Much of perception falls into an Anlo category ofseselelame(literally feel-feel-at-flesh-inside), in which what might be considered sensory input, including the Western sixth-sense notion of "intuition," comes from bodily feeling and the interior milieu. The kind of mind-body dichotomy that pervades Western European-Anglo American cultural traditions and philosophical thought is absent. Geurts relates how Anlo society privileges and elaborates what we would call kinesthesia, which most Americans would not even identify as a sense. After this nuanced exploration of an Anlo-Ewe theory of inner states and their way of delineating external experience, readers will never again take for granted the "naturalness" of sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93654-6
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Note on Transliteration and Orthography
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. Map of Southeastern Ghana
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. INTRODUCTION: Cultural Construction of Sensoriums and Sensibilities

    • CHAPTER 1 Is There a Sixth Sense?
      (pp. 3-20)

      In the West, we often treat the domain of sensation and perception as definitively precultural and eminently natural, one of the most basic of the human psychobiological systems. That is the approach in fields of neurology, biology, physiology, psychology, and even philosophy. Research in these disciplines usually compares human sensory perception to the sensory systems of other mammals or to the perceptory abilities of reptiles and birds (e.g., Schone 1984; Baker 1981; Lowenstein 1966).¹ Such research assumes that all humans possess identical sensory capabilities and that any cultural differences we might find would be inconsequential.² Perhaps, as a result, we...

    • CHAPTER 2 Anlo-Land and Anlo-Ewe People
      (pp. 21-34)

      The termAnlois essential to this study of sensoriums and experience, and yet it is not an easy word to translate or define. It identifies a dialect of Ewe, which is a West African language spoken by many of the people who live in southern Togo and the southeastern corner of Ghana. But for many Ewe speakers in Ghana, Anlo denotes a specific group of Ewe people who inhabit the coastal area of the Volta Region, around the Keta Lagoon, and whose traditions and dialect have unfairly been taken (by scholars, missionaries, and other representatives of colonial regimes) to...

  7. PART ONE Conceptualizing Sensory Orientations in Anlo-Land

    • CHAPTER 3 Language and Sensory Orientations
      (pp. 37-70)

      Among the manymɔfialawowith whom I worked, there seemed to be little consensus about a precise cultural category that we could map into our domain of the five senses. In fact, at one point in the middle of my research, I seemed to have nearly as many configurations of sense-data as the number of people I had interviewed. I was fearful that I would never be able to make sense of the lexical chaos I seemed to have gathered or generated, so I made an appointment to meet with Mr. Adzomada.¹

      Most Anlo people considered Mr. Adzomada to be...

  8. PART TWO Moral Embodiment and Sensory Socialization

    • CHAPTER 4 Kinesthesia and the Development of Moral Sensibilities
      (pp. 73-84)

      In his work on embodiment, Csordas (1990:40) draws a distinction between his own argument about the body as the existential ground of culture and self and the point of view taken by Johnson (1987), who treats the body as the cognitive ground of culture. While my own use ofembodimentfollows Csordas to a great extent, I am also interested in Johnson’s cognitive approach. For Johnson, “the term ‘body’ is used as a generic term for the embodied origins of imaginative structures of understanding” and “our embodiment is essential to who we are, to what meaning is, and to our...

    • Illustrations
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 5 Sensory Symbolism in Birth and Infant Care Practices
      (pp. 85-108)

      In many human societies, ideas about health, personhood, and social relations extend into the period before a child is even born, and in this arena Anlo-land was no exception. Conception, pregnancy, birth, and the first weeks and months of a baby’s life were surrounded by ideas about sensory symbolism and meanings ascribed to various interactions and practices that involved different sensory modes. Human beings are ushered into (Bourdieu’s phrase is “durably installed” with) their culture’s sensorium, which, as I have suggested, reflects some of the most fundamental values. The ushering in begins symbolically in the (ritually packed) birth event itself...

  9. PART THREE Person and Identity

    • CHAPTER 6 Toward an Understanding of Anlo Forms of Being-in-the-World
      (pp. 111-143)

      In this chapter I concentrate even more intensely on aspects of the world that are thematized in Anlo contexts, beginning with perceptions of their homeland, their migration story, and theηlɔof their appellation but then turning to issues of morality and personhood.¹ I explore the themes and motifs consistently presented to me as dimensions of Anlo core culture (categorized in anthropological terms asemic) in terms of theeticissue of the dovetailing of the senses, culture, and identity. Thematized aspects of Anlo personhood are probed for what they reveal about sensory, emotional, somatic modes of attention and processes...

    • CHAPTER 7 Personhood and Ritual Reinforcement of Balance
      (pp. 144-166)

      To understand Anlo notions of personhood, I find it useful to meditate on water and salt. Water surrounds their homeland. And as the twentieth century came to a close, the Atlantic ocean was engulfing Anlo-land. If the ground itself disappears, what becomes of Anlo-land? Or if a person does not actually reside on Anlo soil, what is Anlo-land to him or her? Is it a place or a state of mind? Is it a psychological orientation or a state of being? Pace Bourdieu, is Anlo-land so much a part of being, so “durably installed,” that it actuallyhas body?


  10. PART FOUR Health, Strength, and Sensory Dimensions of Well-Being

    • CHAPTER 8 Anlo Cosmology, the Senses, and Practices of Protection
      (pp. 169-200)

      Here I argue that the local sensorium affects the experience of health and illness and that when we approach their traditional religion as a system of the body, as a set of techniques for sensory manipulation, we better understand the ways in which theyknowthingsinandaboutthe cosmos. I hope to demonstrate that definitions of personhood and engagement with other intentional persons are central to health and well-being and so directly tied to or based in a cultural group’s sensorium. In addition, certain illness states may involve grounding in a sensory order that is different than the...

    • CHAPTER 9 Well-Being, Strength, and Health in Anlo Worlds
      (pp. 201-224)

      I suggested in chapter 7 that well-being in many Anlo-speaking contexts is dependent on something that Thompson (1966) refers to as “an aesthetic of the cool.” He argues that this principle of a cool, even-tempered stance is not only an important facet of Yoruba art, music, and dance, but it is “comparable to Cartesian philosophy in point of influence and importance” throughout West Africa (Thompson 1966:86). In the last chapter I took this focus on the “mediating principle in cool water” further with a reinterpretation of the local meaning ofvodu.I showed how an ancient philosophy ofvoduemphasizes...

  11. CONCLUSION: Ethnography and the Study of Cultural Difference

    • CHAPTER 10 Sensory Experience and Cultural Identity
      (pp. 227-250)

      I have used four broad claims concerning sensory orders, embodiment, identity, and well-being to structure ethnographic descriptions of Anlo-Ewe sensory experiences and philosophical thought. I have argued that

      1. physiological evidence suggests human bodies gain sensory information in a variety of ways;

      2. a Western model of five senses is a folk model;

      3. an Anlo-Ewe model is different, and it privileges balance, kinesthesia, and sound;

      4. the impact of this model (or approach) can be seen in four areas, each of which affect the others:

      a. the use of language to describe the sensorium;

      b. moral values embedded in...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 251-280)
  13. Glossary
    (pp. 281-284)
  14. Bibliography
    (pp. 285-308)
  15. Index
    (pp. 309-315)