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Entering the gourmet cheese shop, the customer is confronted with dozens and sometimes hundreds of different cheeses. This chapter discusses how the search, identification, and selection of a possible buyable is accomplished, through actions that characterize the beginning of the purchase and that are consequential for the possibility (or not) to engage in a closer sensorial exploration of the materiality of the cheese. The first access to the cheese products is distant, characterized by sighting, looking and starring, within actions that either display the customer knows what they want or not. Chapter 3 shows how customers not knowing what they want look around in the shop asking for advice or/and then adopt a focused look on one product and ask questions about it. These actions constitute a praxeological, interactional and sensorial context that emergently projects the relevance of a closer examination of the materiality of cheese.
As seen for touch and smell, the closer sensorial access to the materiality of the product is characterized by an orientation of all participants to the normativity of sensorial practices, which might be forbidden – for reasons of hygiene and for preserving the integrity of the product – but also permitted – when that is relevant for the progression into the selling encounter. In the case of tasting, the customer either requests to taste or is offered to taste. Tasting as a sensorial access to the object supposes its ingestion and therefore its destruction: this practical problem is solved by the seller cutting a tiny sample from a bigger piece and giving it to the customer. The chapter explores the distinctive circumstances in which tasting is requested and offered and their consequences for the next actions, explored in Chapter 8. In particular, it focuses on the sequential environments in which offers to taste are produced by the seller, which connect back to some epistemic features emerging at the very beginning of the purchase (explored in Chapters 3 and 4).
Touch constitutes a closer sensorial access to cheese, enabling to check its texture and consistency and inferring its creaminess, intensity, and maturity. However, touch is often forbidden in specialized shops. This chapter explores the paradoxes of touch as a both a normatively constrained practice and a crucial access to some essential sensorial qualities of the product. On the one hand, the seller has a privileged right to touch the cheese, within a form of “professional touch” – in the form of palpating movements of the hand – that can take the form of diagnostic checks orienting to the evolving state of the cheese or of demonstrative gestures addressed to the customer. On the other hand, the customer can obtain the right to touch the products in some circumstances, either requesting permission to touch or being offered to touch by the seller. Touching the cheese contributes to the selection of specific items, orienting to the unicity of each piece of cheese as far as its consistency, maturity, and organic evolution is concerned. So touching accesses specific relevant sensorial features that are crucial for evaluating cheese and making decisions about its selection and purchase.
An alternative way of initiating the purchase consists for the customer in requesting a specific product. The way requests are formatted, and the way they are produced by looking and possibly pointing at the products, displays whether the customer is a connoisseur or a novice, and project the relevant service expected. The seller provides for a differentiated response to requests displaying more or less knowledge of the requested product. Whereas customers knowing what they request just name the product and are fetched with it, customers not fully knowing what they request are responded to in a more expanded way by the seller. The seller engages in informing – providing a diversity of verbal information about the cheese, within an expert and relatively standardized discourse – and in showing the product, associating visual characteristics with verbal descriptions. When this is considered by the participants as an insufficient basis for decision-making, the seller offers them to taste the cheese. In this way, the access to the materiality of cheese is provided, depending on the sequential unfolding of the interaction, in a stepwise way ordering vision, talk, and closer sensorial approaches, like touch, smell, and taste.
The outcome of tasting as an embodied sensorial practice is, in the context of the gourmet shop, an assessment. This chapter offers a systematic analysis of the way not only assessments are verbally uttered, but also preceded and accompanied by facial expressions and other incarnated manifestations constituting embodied assessments. These are closely witnessed by the seller observing the customer tasting, and in some cases even anticipated by them. Assessments are a type of outcome of tasting that contrasts with outcomes, like descriptors, characterizing other activities – for example in tasting sessions participants rather search for the best word to express the tasting qualities of the sample. Even when minimal, they both address the quality of the sensed item and its coincidence with personal taste and orient to the embeddedness of the sensorial experience within the local actions and the global activity: assessing often retrospectively responds to a previous offer or proposal of the seller and prospectively orients to the closing of the purchase, in the form of a decision about buying (or not, in the case of negative assessments). Thus, assessments are followed by decision-making and often enable the seller to anticipate the latter. Assessments do not only complete the sensory experience of tasting in an intersubjective way but also demonstrate its relevance for broader activities, which reflexively also shape it.
The model of the five senses is persistent through Western culture since Aristotle. This chapter explores the contemporary debates that animate the study of the senses across disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. It also locates the specific approach of sensoriality developed in this book within this interdisciplinary landscape, insisting on the importance of language, the body and action. Grounded on ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, the book proposes a novel conceptual and analytical approach, focusing on sensing (rather than the senses) in social interaction, and insisting on the way sensing is embedded in situated actions and activities, and more specifically within social interaction. This provides for a conception of sensoriality that is social, praxeological, and intersubjective, based on the way people engage in sensorial practices mobilizing their body and talk, as well as the way these actions acquire their intelligible, accountable and normative character in and through social interaction.
The final chapter discusses the results of the analyses in light of the proposed conceptual and analytical framework for the study of sensoriality in social interaction. The conclusion provides for an integrated view of the sensorial moments analyzed in the previous chapters and highlights their systematicity in terms of methodic accomplishments of the participants within specific and consequential sequential environments. The sensorial qualities sensorially discovered, explored and recognized as well as the sensorial access making them possible, be in terms of sight, touch, smell, or taste, are made relevant within specific courses of action. This reveals the deep praxeological and interactional organization of sensoriality, which concerns both its situated character within the unfolding of the activity and also the minimal details of a body bending over the obejct to smell, of the tongue exploring the mouth, of the quick and repeated palpation movements of the hands. The book reveals both how these sensorial practices are carefully formatted and how these details are made witnessable and observable for others, securing their intersubjectivity. Far from being a private interiorized neurophysiological process, sensoriality is a strongly social, intersubjective, interactional web of practices.
Once presented the interactional perspective on sensoriality proposed by this book (Chapter 1), Chapter 2 offers a methodology able to document and to analyze embodied sensory engagements in social interaction. It discusses fieldwork, video-recordings, and multimodal transcriptions, as well as alternate approaches, showing the coherence and adequacy of a video and multimodal methodology for studying multisensoriality. It also presents the empirical case that will be developed in the book, focusing on food as an exemplary field in which all the senses play a crucial role. It presents the field of study, an exemplary activity in which participants sensorially engage with food: practices of looking, touching, smelling, and tasting cheese in gourmet shops. The empirical data on which the remaining of the book is based are video-recordings of shop encounters between cheese sellers and customers, gathered in a dozen of cities in Europe, drawing on a dozen of different languages. This unique and rich corpus of video data enables to develop a systematic analysis of the detailed way in which it is possible, within a praxeological, interactional, multimodal approach, to study multisensoriality in action.