“Smelly Mouths”, Moral Selves, and the Management of Olfactory Transgressions in Everyday Life

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 10:30 AM
Room: 424
Oral Presentation
Noorman ABDULLAH , National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore
Socially constructed meanings behind odours in everyday life are highly contextual and dependent on how social actors interpret smells. Through these interpretive processes, odours perceived as foul emanating from a person’s mouth can potentially be a social impediment and repel anyone approaching him or her. This paper focuses on the sociocultural forces that affix persons with ‘smelly mouths’ and bad breath – or halitosis – as deviant and interrogates the implications these constructions have on various dimensions in their social life. Within this web of constructions, I discuss three interconnected dimensions related to such olfactory transgressions. First, odours are important markers of moral status. Second, odours are imbued with connotations of social class and with these concomitant notions of lifestyle and presentation of self. Third, and given the often strong responses against persons with bad breath and the disruption to social interaction, I show how persons perceived with bad breath respond to such ‘disruptions’ by invoking discourses from biomedical institutions and treatment interventions which appropriate and regulate such perceived transgressions as ‘medical problems’ that have primarily been dominated by rational, scientific models. By closely unpacking these processes, I attempt to demonstrate how and why the basis of the taboo of bad breath is not so much a ‘natural’ illness per se, but rather a response borne out of contextual, everyday life ‘sensory scripts’ as circumscribed by different social actors and institutions. This therefore lends support to the notion of the socially constructed roots of halitosis rather than its nature as an inherent, medically treatable illness.