As Dr. David Abram wrote in his 1996 book ‘The Spell of the Sensuous’ :
“[…] the boundaries of a living body are open and indeterminate: more like membranes than barriers … so that it is very difficult to discern, at any moment, precisely where this living body begins and where it ends.”
Such indeterminacies have prompted Professor Kathleen Riach [pictured left] (Monash University, Australia) and Professor Samantha Warren [pictured right] (University of Essex, UK) to investigate what impact such ‘corporeal porosity’ might have in a white-collar office environment. Specifically via ‘corporeal seeping and secretion’ which lead, perhaps inevitably, to smells. Their paper on the subject will appear in a forthcoming print issue of the journal Human Relations. ‘Smell organization: Bodies and corporeal porosity in office work’
“This article contributes to a sensory equilibrium in studies of workplace life through a qualitative study of everyday smells in UK offices. Drawing on Csordas’ (2008) phenomenology of intercorporeality, we develop the concept of corporeal porosity as a way of articulating the negotiation of bodily integrity in organizational experience. We explore the corporeal porosity of workplace life through smell-orientated interview and diary-based methods and our findings highlight the interdependence of shared, personal, local and cultural elementals when experiencing smell in office-based work. Our analysis explores three elements of bodily integrity: ‘cultural permeability’; ‘locating smell in-between’; and ‘sensual signifiers’. This suggests that while the senses are part of the ephemeral, affective ‘glue’ that floats between and around working bodies, they also foreground the constantly active character of relationality in organizational life. Corporeal porosity, therefore, captures the entanglement of embodied traces and fragments – corporeal seeping and secretion that has hitherto taken a backseat in organizational studies of the body at work.”
For their project, the team conducted a series of ‘smell interviews’ with 14 ‘fairly typical’ UK office-workers.
“After piloting a variety of techniques using postgraduate student volunteers, we finalized a three stage design: (1) videotaped ‘smell interviews’ (average length 62 minutes) that began with initial dialogue about participants’ experience of smell at work followed by a more focused discussion using mouliettes (paper strips) impregnated with ‘office smells’ such as coffee, sweat and office furniture; (2) audio smell diaries, recorded over a period of one working week whenever the participant encountered a ‘smell episode’ they wished to note (average of nine entries per participant); (3) a second round of face-to-face interviews (digitally recorded, average 55 minutes) where individuals further discussed their diary entries alongside pictorial representations of their workspaces.”
The interviews (un)covered experiences of both nice aromas (coffee, perfume etc.) and not-so-nice (men’s toilets etc.). And, in (the) conclusion :
“Exploring one phenomenon – smell – helps to consider the moving, dynamic, lived experience of work as not only intersubjective but a negotiation of the material and ontological boundaries of our existence. The inherent and inevitable reciprocity of feelings and actions are always inhaled through, within and across bodies and subsequently craft work experience.”