Sensory politics: The tug-of-war between potability and palatability in municipal water production

Christy Spackman, Gary A. Burlingame

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

25 Scopus citations


Sensory information signaled the acceptability of water for consumption for lay and professional people into the early twentieth century. Yet as the twentieth century progressed, professional efforts to standardize water-testing methods have increasingly excluded aesthetic information, preferring to rely on the objectivity of analytic information. Despite some highly publicized exceptions, consumer complaints remain peripheral to the making and regulating of drinking water. This exclusion is often attributed to the unreliability of the human senses in detecting danger. However, technical discussions among water professionals during the twentieth century suggest that this exclusion is actually due to sensory politics, the institutional and regulatory practices of inclusion or exclusion of sensory knowledge from systems of action. Water workers developed and turned to standardized analytical methods for detecting chemical and microbiological contaminants, and more recently sensory contaminants, a process that attempted to mitigate the unevenness of human sensing. In so doing, they created regimes of perception that categorized consumer sensory knowledge as aesthetic. By siloing consumers’ sensory knowledge about water quality into the realm of the aesthetic instead of accommodating it in the analytic, the regimes of perception implemented during the twentieth century to preserve health have marginalized subjective experiences. Discounting the human experience with municipal water as irrelevant to its quality, control and regulation is out of touch with its intended use as an ingestible, and calls for new practices that engage consumers as valuable participants.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)350-371
Number of pages22
JournalSocial Studies of Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jun 1 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • aesthetics
  • expertise
  • pollution
  • regulation
  • senses
  • water

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Social Sciences(all)
  • History and Philosophy of Science


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