Sensory STS: A blog-post series

— Co-editors: Nicole Charles, Marianne de Laet, Jia-Hui Lee, Christy Spackman —

A reviewer of one of our recent papers bluntly stated, ‘Instruments don’t sense.’

‘Don’t they?’, we wondered, perplexed, visions of pH meters, spectrometers, and disease-sniffing rats dancing through our heads.

The reviewer’s statement in turn opened a world of questions:

What does it mean to sense? Where are the boundaries of who senses, of how sensing is done, of sensitivity?

We write to introduce a series of posts, drawn from works-in-progress as well as distracting side projects, that situate these questions within a shift in STS scholarship away from the bread and butter of laboratory studies. In the expansion of multispecies, sound studies, critical food science and technology studies, medical anthropology, and beyond, we rather see the emergence of a larger modality of engagement with the ways that science and technology have affect and effect in everyday life: the sensorial. We are curious. What happens when we situate ourselves alongside sensing, opening up the confines that delineate sensing to bodies or instruments? In moving away from explaining sensing to articulating sensing, what new perspectives, standpoints, and limits emerge? Our questions proliferate like mushrooms as we come together in this curious role, inviting us to even ask what role our own methodologies, as STS scholars of different ilks, allow in attending to sensorial experience?

Playing with the idea of transmission – and drawing on a legacy of outstanding scholarly work that makes this play possible – this series brings together scholars thinking alongside and through sensing to highlight the stakes of a sensory STS: Which bodies are recognized as sensing/sensible bodies? What sensory politics (Spackman and Burlingame, forthcoming) and politics of sensing are at play in the research of the scientists, technologists, or legal structures examined, or even in our own research? What happens if we (and let us write this ‘we’ expansively) think athwart bourgeois or Western modes of sensing (Holland et al., 2014; Mann et al., 2011)? Are affective senses and sensibilities contagious? What epistemologies and claims to knowledge might sensibilities of refusal or suspicion (Charles, 2018), offer technoscience scholars? Technologies (of sensing) invite even more questions, complicating perception by shifting the site of action outside of the body and into complex human and a-human networks who seek to enhance or ablate sensing (Spackman and de Laet, 2017). Is sensing necessarily embodied, or does it extend beyond the body to bodies?

In thinking against and alongside sensing, we invite readers to join us, to play with the textbook definition of sensing – as that which is perceived by a sense or senses – by drawing on a core group of keywords, making malleable the sensory modes they represent: eye, ear, nose, skin, tongue, finger, throat, scalp, spine, heart, gut. These terms bring us back to the body, be it affective or otherwise. At the same time, these terms are almost immediately subverted by the spectres of technoscience: cochlear implants, the E-nose, touch screens, guide dogs. Rather than maintain the body as the only site of sensory experiences, we see these words as keys, opening new routes to exploring new methodological and theoretical possibilities.


In the series:

Nicole Charles, Sensibilities of the flesh

Luke Stark, Viscerality and abstraction



Charles N (2018) Unsettling HPV vaccination and affective suspicions in Barbados. Feminist Formations, forthcoming.

Holland SP, Ochoa M and Tompkins KW (2014) On the visceral. GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 20(4): 391–406.

Mann A, Mol A, Stalkar P, Savirani A, Sur M and Yates-Doerr E (2011) Mixing methods, tasting fingers: Notes on an ethnographic experiment. Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1): 221–243.

Spackman C and Burlingame G (2018) Sensory politics: The tug-of-war between potability and palatibility in municipal water production. Social Studies of Science 48, forthcoming.

Spackman C and de Laet M (2017) Science and the senses. Cultural Anthropology (website). February. Available at: