A Brief History

The nucleus of the Centre for Sensory Studies was formed in 1988. In that year, sociologist Anthony Synnott and anthropologist David Howes were awarded a grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) to pursue a research program centred on charting “The Varieties of Sensory Experience.” The “Varieties” project aimed to take the study of the senses and sensation out of the psychology laboratory and into everyday life, as well as back in history and across cultures. In addition to collaborating with faculty members from Religion and Psychology, Synnott and Howes were joined by Constance Classen, then a doctoral student at McGill University. In this way, CONSERT (for Concordia Sensoria Research Team) was formed. Classen has since acquired an international reputation for her pioneering work in the cultural history of the senses, while Howes and Synnott have played formative roles in the development of the anthropology and sociology of the senses respectively.

The trio of Classen, Howes and Synnott went on to secure funding from the fragrance industry for a project that would bring a cultural and social studies perspective to bear on the sense of smell and, based on this research, co-authored the award-winning book Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (1994). They then turned their attention to exploring the aesthetic and communicative potential of the so-called lower senses (smell and taste and touch) and the “second sense” (hearing) with the support of a grant from the Quebec social science research fund (FCAR/FQRSC). One of the outcomes of the latter research program was  “Uncommon Senses: An International Conference on the Senses in Art and Culture” held in April 2000, which attracted close to 300 participants from around the world.

Numerous publications and another conference followed. The conference, “Sensory Collections and Display,” held in February 2005, reflected a new focus within CONSERT on the study of the museum and other sites for the arousal and management of sensory experience, including the theme park, church, and department store. At the time, Bianca Grohmann of the Department of Marketing was working independently on the influence of sensory stimuli on consumers’ responses to retail environments and products. In view of her convergent interests, Grohmann joined CONSERT in 2007. The trio of Grohmann, Classen and Howes applied for and was awarded a grant by the SSHRC to investigate the phenomenon of “Multi-Sensory Marketing” from a combined historical, ethnographic (qualitative) and experimental (quantitative) perspective. Grohmann has since been appointed a Concordia University Research Chair in Marketing (Tier 2) and founded the Laboratory for Sensory Research with funding from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI).

In recent years, Synnott’s research has come to focus mainly on the social construction of masculinity and male sensibilities – see his book Re-Thinking Men (2010) – while Classen and Howes have continued their historical and ethnographic research on the senses in the museum. Classen has also devoted herself to writing the definitive cultural history of touch (to be published by the University of Illinois Press in 2012) while Howes, through conversations with Chris Salter of the Department of Design and Computation Arts, has become increasingly interested in matters relating to the technologization and  mediatization of the senses in the context of contemporary installation and performance art. Salter is a leading theorist of technology and the (sensorial) transformation of performance in the modern period – see his book Entangled (2010) – as well as an internationally acclaimed creator/inventor of immersive environments using digital media and diverse kinds of sensors. In 2009, Salter and Howes collaborated on a grant application to the FQRSC for a project entitled “Mediations of Sensation” which built on their respective expertise in new media and sensory anthropology. The first work to emerge from their collaboration was “Atmosphere,” which suffused the FOFA Gallery with novel combinations of visual, sonic, thermal and vibratory sensations in February 2011. In this way, CONSERT’s research platform expanded to include research-creation alongside marketing research and cultural and social studies in the senses.

The CONSERT approach to the study of the senses and sense perception has a number of distinctive features. These include:

• a focus on the social and cultural life of the senses as distinct from the physiology and psychology of perception;

• attending to the lower senses in an effort to offset the privileging of vision (and audition) in the conventional Western hierarchy of the senses;

• a focus on the relations between the senses (or “intersensoriality”) rather than studying the senses individually;

• an interest in multisensory aesthetics, consistent with the original meaning of the term “aesthetic,” which comes from the Greek aesthesis meaning “sense perception”;

• a focus on analyzing the commercialization and technologization of the sensorium; and,

• a profound commitment to multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research.

Founding of the Centre for Sensory Studies

In late 2010, CONSERT found itself at a crossroads. The team could either continue to develop its profile project by project or take steps to become recognized as a research centre. The decision to apply to the Faculty of Arts and Science for  recognition as a research centre was motivated by a variety of considerations, including above all the explosion of interest in the Sensory Studies website:


The latter site, a joint initiative of CONSERT and colleagues at the University of Copenhagen, was launched in March 2010. It sparked tremendous interest right from its inception, and further galvanized an already dynamic interdisciplinary field of inquiry, in addition to giving it a name: “sensory studies”.

In the late Fall of 2010, it was resolved to seek university recognition for the activities of CONSERT and, following a preliminary meeting, VPRGS Louise Dandurand generously granted Howes internal funding to develop a proposal for university recognition and underwrite the burgeoning publication agenda of the unit. We – which is to say Howes, Synnott, Classen, Grohmann and Salter – decided that the best way forward would be to: 1) create a centre that would serve as a hub for the integration of the activities of the research team directed by Howes and the labs directed by Grohmann and Salter; 2) broaden the coverage of the senses as well as the range of social science and fine arts disciplines represented by the unit; 3) explore common ground between the social study of the senses and the psychology of perception (in something of a departure from earlier practice); and, 4) explore the potential contribution of a sensory studies approach to the fields of sensory engineering and communication. An application for recognition of the proposed Centre for Sensory Studies as a faculty research centre was elaborated over the course of the ensuing year and the application was approved by a unanimous vote of Arts and Science Faculty Council in January 2012. In April 2016, after four highly dynamic years which saw the addition of 10 new faculty members (and retirement of two others), the Centre was granted university recognition by a unanimous vote of Senate.

The Centre for Sensory Studies is a federal structure. Each of the labs and team function independently and in synergy. The creation of the Centre has also provided the opportunity to expand our circle and bring in a range of highly dynamic new faculty members from the humanities, social sciences and fine arts. They include:

• Andra McCartney of the Department of Communication Studies. McCartney is a soundwalk artist and researcher. In addition to leading soundwalks, she has created gallery installations, recordings, and works for radio. In her project, “Soundwalk Interactions,” she is concerned with situating soundwalks in relation to current scholarly research on arts and mobility, and cultural studies of place, gender, and improvisation. McCartney has turned the act of listening into a vital form of epistemology and deep personal expression.

• Jordan LeBel of the Department of Marketing. LeBel has a background in the food and food services industry and regularly consults on matters of product development and communication. His research focusses on pleasure with products, most notably comfort foods such as chocolate. His adventures in gastronomy have led to, among other things, the development of the award-winning cookbook “Gastronomy and the Forest.” He also researches experiential marketing, which has as one of its hallmarks the ideal of engaging all five senses. LeBel is the paragon of the taste expert.

• Marc Lafrance of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Lafrance’s work is at the cutting edge of research in the sociology of the body and senses. He is particularly focused on the body’s surface, its skin, and how subjectivity is bound up with the skin. French psycho-analyst Didier Anzieu in The Skin Ego was the first to enucleate this connection, and Lafrance has emerged as the principal interpreter of Anzieu to the English-speaking world. Lafrance also researches bodybuilding, facial transplants, skin diseases, masculinity and the visual culture of pop culture. The main point of Lafrance’s research is that skin matters.

• Cynthia Hammond of the Department of Art History. Hammond researches the designed environment (including architecture) with particular reference to the question of how users produce space. Her work has shown that space is not an a priori category, but rather a product of sensory and social experience. Cynthia maintains various forms of artistic and studio practice alongside her academic work, including painting, urban interventions, sound work, and community collaborations.

• Jeremy Stolow of Communication Studies. Originally trained as a social theorist, Stolow works in the emergent, inter-disciplinary field known as “religion and media.” One area of his research focusses on how religious experiences and forms of knowledge are materialized in objects and practices (“material religion”). A second area deals with the “supernatural” or “magical” dimensions of modern techno-scientific practice, and with the ways scientific knowledge and practice resemble “religious” or “magical” modes of knowing, doing, and perceiving things. He adds to the Centre’s strength in sensory communication.

• Martin French of the Department of Sociology and Anthropology. Martin’s current research bridges sensory studies and surveillance studies in order to interrogate facets of the emerging ‘sensor society’. While the notion of the sensor society evokes a world saturated by sensing devices, where intelligent environments produce a massive amount of actionable data about the everyday lives of the actors and actants that transit through them, Martin’s current research documents the work of sensing assemblages at the level of practice. The goal is to produce an account not only of what is sensed, but also of what escapes sensation.

• Hillary Kaell of the Department of Religion. In her research on North American Christianity, Hillary engages theories of religion and materiality to ask how objects and places factor into emic understandings of modernity. These themes are central to her first book, Walking Where Jesus Walked: American Christians and Holy Land Pilgrimage (NYU Press, 2014), which explores how objects and places transmit a sense of presence that links humans to unseen others, including the dead and the Divine. She argues that these sensory experiences complicate secular modes of ownership, consumption, and memory transmission, as well as religious understandings of shared space and ecumenism.

• Kelly Thompson of the Fibres and Material Practices division, Studio Arts. Kelly lived and worked in California, Australia, New Zealand and the U.K., before landing at Concordia. This mobile and nomadic life informs her research as an artist involved in contemporary fibres/textiles. Her work has explored aspects of family and personal narratives, travel and material culture read through postcolonial theory, textile practices as signifiers of place and identity and notions of visual touch, signs, order, mapping, surface and structure relationships in objects and installations. Her artistic practice is achieved through intersections of digital imagining and material engagement with traditional weave and fibres construction, print, dye and electronic jacquard weave technologies. Her many exhibitions include “Inter-sensorial Threads” (2013) and “Fibreworks”(2012).

• Kathleen Vaughan of Art Education. Kathleen’s personal artistic and scholarly work explores thematics such as identity and belonging; memory, storytelling and the multisensoriality of the cultural artifact; and, sense of place. She has also experimented with collage as an interdisciplinary research method, and probed the nature of interdsciplinarity itself. She has a manuscript entitled “Finding Home: A Walking Exploration of a Toronto Neighbourhood” under consideration with Gaspereau Press. Kathleen’s work as a visual/textile artist, like Kelly’s, contributes substantially to the research-creation dimension of the Centre’s research platform.

• Aaron Johnson of the Department of Psychology. Johnson’s basic research focusses on the human perception of natural scenes while his clinical research centres on the design of rehabilitation methods for persons with low vision. His expertise in the psychology of vision and disability studies and his openness to social scientific methods for the study of human perception made him the perfect complement to the other members of the Centre. He has dedicated himself to working together with Bianca Grohmann on strengthening the experimental side of our research endeavours.

Johnson’s Ph.D. is in electronics and electrical engineering, so his expertise resonates with our fourth objective as well – namely, taking our approach to engineering. Other members interested in fusing sensory studies with sensory engineering and communication include Salter (who has experimented extensively with the use of sensors in the creation of immersive environments), McCartney (who specializes in acoustic communication) and Howes (who has been exploring the implications of Marshall McLuhan’s theory of technology – particularly communications technologies – as “extensions of the senses” for some time

Research Orientations

Going forward, the research activities of the Centre can be grouped along four main axes:

AXIS 1: CULTURE & THE SENSES. The study of the social and cultural life of the senses
based mainly in the sociology, anthropology, history and art history of the senses
and sensation. Viewed another way, sensory studies includes all the divisions of the sensorium, hence visual culture, sound studies, smell culture, etc. as well as . the sixth sense (or “extrasensory” perception)
– Synnott, Classen, Howes, Le Bel, Lafrance, Hammond, Stolow, Kaell, French, Halpern, Cambre, Unger

AXIS 2: MULTISENSORY AESTHETICS. The study of aesthetics in history and across
cultures with a focus on the interaction of the senses, the creation of intermedia/
multisensory artworks, and the design of performative sensory environments.
– Salter, McCartney, Classen, Hammond, Thompson, Vaughan, Cambre, Unger

AXIS 3: SENSORY MARKETING. The study of the sensory turn in marketing which has
resulted in an intense new focus on perfecting the sense appeal of commodities and retail environments.
– Grohmann, Le Bel, Howes, Classen, Johnson, French

AXIS 4: SENSORY ENGINEERING & COMMUNICATION. The study of technologies as
extensions of the senses, either for purposes of control (e.g. the coming to be of “the sensor society”) and/or for the enhancement of well-being (e.g. sensory
substitution, sensory augmentation)
– Johnson, Salter, McCartney, Howes, Stolow, French, Thompson, Halpern

In addition to the axes there are three clusters, which represent emergent areas of research concentration where the intersts of 3-4 members coalesce:.

Cluster A: Sensori-Legal Studies. Sensori-legal studies is a branch of socio-legal studies.
It views law as sense-making activity, redirecting attention from the law as text
to be interpreted to the rootedness of law in the body and senses (e.g. the very
word right, as in “right hand,” “human rights” or “law” itself in the case of droit)
and the role of law in the construction and regulation of the senses.
– Howes, Lafrance, French, Classen, Unger

Cluster B: Emplacement. Emplacement is a new paradigm for research and research creation
which is akin to the paradigm of embodiment, but more extensive. It focusses
on the sensuous relations between people and space, and includes such subfields
as the sense of place, atmosphere, sensuous architecture, and sensorial
– Hammond, Thompson, Vaughan, Howes, Kaell

Cluster C: Disability and the Senses. The sensory turn in disability studies has challenged
both the medical model and the social model of disability by highlighting the
cultural construction of blindness, deafness, etc. and the subjective experience
of those who are otherwise abled.
– Johnson, Lafrance, Classen, Grohmann, Howes

Training of Graduate Students

In addition to promoting research, the other most important goal of the Centre and Centre members is to contribute to the training graduate students. Concordia already has a doctoral program in Sensory Studies. This research area has been featured as one of the “Research Currents” within the Special Individualized Programs (SIP) and the Humanities Doctoral Program (HUMA) since the Fall of 2007.

It is possible to graduate with a concentration in sensory studies in other doctoral programs as well, such as the Ph.D. in Marketing, the Ph.D. in Communication Studies, and the new Ph.D. in Social and Cultural Analysis. Thus, for example, two Ph.D. students graduated with degrees in sensory studies at the 2011 Spring Convocation: one from SIP (Shelley Snow) and the other in Marketing (Soumaya Cheikhrouhrou).

The benefits of student membership include participating in both large and small research and research-creation projects (and the joint publications and/or installations that result from these), supervision for independent studies courses related to degree requirements, funding in the form of research assistantships and access to conference and research travel support.

Sites of Related Interest

Amsterdam Centre for Cross-Disciplinary Emotion and Sensory Studies, Amsterdam, NL

CenSes : Centre for the Study of the Senses, University of London

Crossmodal Research Laboratory, University of Oxford

Cultures Sensibles, groupe de contact FNRS/Universite de Liege

Display Cult, Toronto, Ontario

Sensory Stories Project, Humanities Research Centre, University of York

Sensory Ethnography Lab, Harvard University

Sound Studies Lab, Humboldt University, Berlin

The Sense Lab, Concordia University