Kathryn Linn Geurts

Weatherhead Resident Scholar

2000–2001

Culture and the Senses: Embodiment, Identity, and Well-Being in an African Community

When Kathryn Geurts first arrived in Ghana, West Africa, to study sensing among the Anlo-Ewe speakers, she took the five-senses model with her. “I assumed it would be meaningful to them,” she recalls, but her questions about touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing were puzzling to many Ewe people, especially those who spoke no European languages. “They had no over-arching term for those five modes of experience,” says Geurts.

Through a structural analysis of the nearly thousand-year-old Anlo-Ewe language, Geurts eventually identified linguistic categories for the perception of experience that link emotion, disposition, and vocation to physical sensation. Many Anlo-Ewe people consider abilities such as speaking and balance to be “senses.” In addition, Geurts explains, “they have a complex category called seselelame, translated as ’feel-feel-at-flesh-inside’ or feeling in the body. In some contexts, it serves as a meta-sense uniting multiple sensory modes. In others, seselelame is used to describe specific experiences we might call ‘intuition.’” Geurts notes that although research in cutting-edge science has come to recognize the limitations of the strict five-sense categories, “the validity of this model has not really been questioned as to its cross-cultural relevance.”

In her book, Culture and the Senses: Embodiment, Identity and Well-being in an African Community, Geurts explores the relationship between sensory orientations and cultural difference in psychological functioning. “I argue that sensory orders are culturally relative and that child socialization involves the acquisition of culturally distinct ways of perceiving that play a vital role in how people experience and ‘know’ the world around them.”

As an example, Geurts explains that balance, both literally and figuratively, is considered by many Anlo-Ewe people to be an essential component of what it means to be human. Infants are encouraged to “Do agba!” or “Balance” when learning to sit up, toddlers balance small bowls and pans on their heads, and school children carry books and desks on their heads—all progressing toward an adult orientation “in which balance is considered a defining characteristic of mature persons.”

“That sort of analogical relationship—between sensory experiences cultivated at an early age, and perceptions of self and other, sensibilities about society, the world, and the universe—is the central subject of my book,” says Geurts.

Affiliation at time of award:
Post Doctoral Research Associate, Committee on Human Development, University of Chicago


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