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Book: Analyzing the Media

Chapter: Smell as Social Semiotic: On the Deployment and Intersemiotic Potential of Smell

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.32955


Our sense of smell is mediated by physicochemical and biological interactions. This sense is part of the material basis for what we might call a mode of smell, a socially mediated semiotic system (van Leeuwen 2005, Norris 2013). The resources of such systems or modes, to the extent that they are recognized as such, are rarely if ever deployed alone, but as part of a multisemiotic arrangement (van Leeuwen 2005, Kress 2010, Norris 2013). Here, I discuss the meaning potential of smell by considering how social actors produce, manipulate, combine, and organize certain smells to create sophisticated ‘messages’ that can be interpreted and evaluated by others. As an example, I examine real-estate agents’ use of specific smells, created among other things by preparing coffee and cinnamon buns, as part of open-house viewings. I consider the potential meanings encoded by those and other smells in the ‘smellscape’ (Margolies 2006, Porteous 2006, Pennycook and Otsuji 2015) in that particular context of situation (Malinowski 1923). I also discuss the use of those resources as part of a multisemiotic event or activity that includes the co-deployment of verbal, visual, and spatial resources. By considering some of the types and relative amounts or degrees of meaning instantiated through those different semiotic systems, I demonstrate how smell can be deployed to make meanings that are potentially complementary to as well as incongruent or inharmonious with those committed verbally, visually, and spatially (see Hood 2008, Martin 2011, and Painter, Martin, and Unsworth 2013, inter alia, on ‘commitment’).

Chapter Contributors

  • Daniel Fryer ( - dlfryer) 'Østfold University College, Norway'