Coming to Our Senses: AppreciatinG the Sensorial in Medical Anthropology

Mark Nichter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


This article supports the call for the sensorially engaged anthropological study of healing modalities, popular health culture, dietary practices, drug foods and pharmaceuticals, and idioms of distress. Six concepts are of central importance to sensorial anthropology: embodiment, the mindful body, mimesis, local biology, somatic idioms of distress, and ‘the work of culture’. Fieldwork in South and Southeast Asia and North America illustrates how cultural interpretations associate bodily sensations with passions (strong emotions) and anxiety states, and bodily communication about social relations. Lay interpretations of bodily sensations inform and are informed by local understanding of ethnophysiology, health, illness, and the way medicines act in the body. Bodily states are manipulated by the ingestion of substances ranging from drug foods (e.g., sources of caffeine, nicotine, dietary supplements) to pharmaceuticals that stimulate or suppress sensations concordant with cultural values, work demands, and health concerns. Social relations are articulated at the site of the body through somatic modes of attention that index bodily ways of knowing learned through socialization, bodily memories, and the ability to relate to how another is likely to be feeling in a particular context. Sensorial anthropology can contribute to the study of transformative healing and trajectories of healthcare seeking and patterns of referral in pluralistic healthcare arenas.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-197
Number of pages35
JournalTranscultural Psychiatry
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • body memory
  • healing
  • sensorial anthropology
  • somatic idioms of distress
  • trauma

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


Dive into the research topics of 'Coming to Our Senses: AppreciatinG the Sensorial in Medical Anthropology'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this