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Faculty of humanities and social sciences

Cultural and Social Anthropology

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liebelt_Olfaktorien der Hygiene en

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Funding: DFG - German Research Foundation

Duration:  April 2020 to March 2021, as part of a Heisenberg-project on "Gender Body Beauty: transnational Formations of the Self"

Project lead: PD Dr. Claudia Liebelt


Taking the use of hand sanitizers during the COVID-19 pandemics in Turkey and Germany as a starting point, this projects seeks to analyze the social, cultural and affective configurations of sanitization, bodily hygiene and smell. Drawing on an online survey, Auto- and virtual ethnography (including video interviews, participant observation in social media) as well as the keeping of diaries by selected research participants, Olfactories of Hygiene seeks to enable a deeper understanding of the bodily sensual and everyday hygienic practices in relation to different public containment measures. Moreover, it will contribute to conceptual debates in the anthropology of the senses and science and technology studies, such as, will post-Pasteurianism (cf. Paxson 2008) receive a setback during the COVID-19 pandemics? In what ways are the notions of hygiene and sanitations related to sensorial affects, or: does sanitized modernity smell, or is it rather odourless? What do the smells of cleaning and disinfecting agents remind us of? How do we relate to and what do we associate with cleanliness and disinfection?

Background and relevance

Due to the global outbreak of COVID-19 practices of bodily hygiene, cleanliness and sanitation have achived new meanings in their everyday uses. While in many contexts, medical hand sanitizers were quickly sold out, in some, the disinfectant effect of perfumed alcohol-based Eau de Cologne have been rediscovered: For example, in Turkey, so-called kolonya, traditionally associated with hospitality and used in particular social situations, has assumed new meanings and now stands for a cultural understanding of hygiene and self-conscious self-sufficiency. Since early April, millions of Turkish citizens aged 65 and older have received Eau de Cologne as part of a COVID-19 emergency kit from the government. This has sent output figures and prices of locally produced Eau de Cologne skyrocketing. In Germany, olfactory displays of hygiene and cleanliness function in different ways. While it is here that Eau de Cologne first became popular during the 18th century, more recently, its use has been considered rather old fashioned, a thing one's grandmother might still use. The hand sanitizers agents increasingly provided in shopping malls and public offices in Germany are commonly non-perfumed or smell of their chloride or alcohol-based ingredients. 

Olfactories of Hygiene aims at studying the everyday practices and multi-sensorial meanings and affects of bodily hygiene, sanitation and smell in relation to cleaning and disinfecting agents during times of rapid societal change. How are bodily hygiene and cleanliness manufactured and what is the role of smell in these processes? How have these practices changed in Germany and Turkey during the COVID-19 pandemic? What kind of affects, emotions and meanings are ascribed to different notions of hygiene and cleanliness? What are the material and immaterial effects on sanitizing practices? In what ways are the Olfactories of Hygiene bound up with intersectional categorizations of age, class, gender and ethnicity? And finally, what are the public politics of hygiene in Turkey and Germany and in what ways are these tied to what could be called olfactorial politics? To sum up, the research project seeks to contribute not only to scholarly debates, but also to highly relevant sociopolitical understandings of everyday olfactorial practices of hygiene.


Heather Paxson 2008. 'Post-Pasteurian Cultures: The Microbiopolitics of Raw-Milk Cheese in the United States.' Cultural Anthropology, 23(1): 15–47.

Do you have a story to share about the Smell of Hygiene? For more information on the project or for participation, please get in touch with claudia.liebelt@uni-bayreuth.de

Visit our research blog at https://culthygiene.hypotheses.org/

Webmaster: PD Dr. Claudia Liebelt

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