Appointed As

Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities


ACLS Emerging Voices Fellowships program


Northwestern University

PhD Field of Study

PhD, Geography, University of California, Los Angeles

Dissertation Abstract

"Scentscapes: Understandings of Nature, Consumption, and Commodification through Agarwood and Olfaction"

This dissertation explores the olfactory economies of agarwood, a high-value non-timber forest product prized for its unique fragrance and used in incense, perfumes, and traditional medicine. It is primarily derived from a genus of trees called Aquilaria, which is native to Southeast Asia and is traded globally. Aquilaria species are classified as vulnerable or endangered and are subject to regulations under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).
This project demonstrates how varied understandings of nature, consumption practices, and consumer preferences can create irregularities in a globalized production network. In contrast to scholarship on commodity networks that detail how trade and consumption patterns are formed, and how people and places become systematically enrolled into structured networks of trade and production, the production of agarwood shows how culturally and geographically specific meanings and preferences create a commodity network that is inconsistent, characterized as diffuse, disarticulated, flexible, and often obscured. I show this by tracing the “scentscapes” of agarwood, based on 15 months of fieldwork in Southeast Asia using ethnographic methods. Drawing from the work of Arjun Appadurai, I define
“scentscapes” as the different economies of olfaction, production, use, and meaning across space and cultures. Each scentscape draws a path between places and practices of consumption, and corresponding places and practices of production. I detail the peculiarities of olfaction as a sense and olfactory practices as consumption, which contribute to the irregular form of agarwood’s commodity network.
I define and contextualize agarwood’s three main scentscapes: the domestic “homeland” of Aquilaria’s native range in Southeast Asia, the traditional export markets of the Middle East and East Asia, and the new market in the West. These scentscapes provide insight into how different actors across the Global South and Global North value and understand nature within a context of commodity production, endangerment, and international regulation. Agarwood’s diverse scentscapes and commodity characteristics make it resistant not only to consolidation in production, but to regulation as well: because CITES’s conceptions of nature and understandings of sustainability are predicated on the Global North’s notions of commodities and production, it is mismatched with the diverse valuations that manifest and are expressed in these scentscapes.