Learning Methodology from Historians

I was so very excited to hear Dr. Mark Smith’s keynote at the Bertoti Conference last week—I had recently been advised to read his work The Smell of Battle, The Taste of Siege and was interested to hear what he had to say about sensory history. It seems my ill-luck was to be two-fold, last week. The VT library not have Smith’s book, and interlibrary loan didn’t get it in time for me to read it before his lecture. Not that it would have helped all that much, as I fainted halfway through and spent the remainder with the beginnings of what proved to be a massive migraine. Yes, this is me whining. I’m sorry, but I’m very bummed about it all. That being said, I was coherent enough to hear Dr. Smith note that he doesn’t see sensory history as a subfield, but rather as a habit, as an ingrained approach to history. Though I have yet to read his book, my research hopes to explore taste, and how it operated as a manifestation of identity and was influenced by consumer culture. While it is new to me, I feel that sensory history will have a place in my research. I am very excited to explore Smith’s work to better understand the methodology involved with sensory history, though I am sure Dr. Kiechle will be able to point me in the direction of other useful sources.

I also believe that using economic history will be important to my research, since I hope to explore how food was a consumer item during the mid to late 18th century. T.H. Breen’s concept of a consumer revolution helping to homogenize culture will be central to my argument. His treatment of material culture and food items within a framework of economics and consumption are also very important for my research, and have helped me to learn how to approach food as a signifier (to borrow Michael LaCombe’s term) of greater social, political, and economic trends.

I have always seen myself as a cultural historian, and hope that my research will continue in this vein. While hoping to utilize the methods of the above historians, I plan to focus on individuals and their specific place within a specific history. I will need to rely on identity theory, while also understanding and appreciating the nuances of food as a subject in its own right. Finally, I will need to approach cookbooks in a unique way, as more than just a collection of recipes. Works by Janet Theophano and Barbara Ketcham Wheaton will help me to approach these sources with an appropriate frame of mind.


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5 Responses to Learning Methodology from Historians

  1. kj

    With a bit of massaging, this post seems to be the framework for the methods section of your proposal. What struck me as I read it was the absence of any reference to material culture. Is that meant to be implicit or are you “moving on?”
    I was also curious about your choice to begin with sensory history, then construct a list of other methods also influencing your work. I wonder if, as you move forward, you might want to set up sensory history as sort of an overarching idea that will perhaps frame the way you look at the other approaches to food history. How these methods work together to create a new way to look at food that food historians haven’t thought of? (The library didn’t have Smith’s book?! Send a note to Bruce to make sure he orders it!)

    • saraevenson

      I believe that material culture is important to my work, and suppose it has just become so second-nature for me that I forgot to include it in my post! I will certainly have to change that. The material culture of food is an important aspect of my explorations, and directly tie it to commodification and consumption, and again link it to the concepts of taste and identity. Your thoughts on sensory history are also well taken, and I agree that it might work well as a framework for my other methodologies and thoughts. I’m excited to see what I discover moving forward.

  2. Laura


    I’m so sorry to hear you fainted and that you had a terrible migraine to follow that up! I completely understand your frustration and I would definitely be feeling the same way as you right now!

    But nevertheless, I like this idea of sensory history and how it may play into your research and thesis. I agree with Dr. Jones, however, in wondering how material culture will factor in if you decide to take a route focused on sensory history: can you use both types of history in the same thesis? Has anyone else done this before? I feel as if you could get both to work together simultaneously but I will be interested to hear your thoughts on the matter.

  3. Melanie Kiechle

    I too am so, so disappointed that you missed Smith’s talk–and hope you will pump everyone who was there for all of the details. I agree with Smith that sensory is a habit or an analytical tool rather than a subfield, and think it offers great promise for what you’re looking for. Responding to your other commenters, though, sensory analysis requires rather than jettisons material culture. While you may need to discuss both in your proposal, I’d argue that thinking about the senses implicitly means thinking about the material aspects of the world–you can’t do the former without the latter.

  4. davidatkins

    When I heard the topic of Smith’s lecture I immediately thought of you , because when I think about food I immediately start to remember smells. Using smell to analyze recipes in a cookbook could be an interesting approach for you to take in your project. I hope you still requested Smith’s book from Illiad and I would be happy to talk to you more about his talk. I agree with Dr. Kiechle’s assertion that sensory analysis implies using material culture, and I know this aspects appeals to you!

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