RRI | Blog

Making Sense of Menthol

by Robert Meckin, Research Associate, SYNBIOCHEM RRI Group, March 2017

Sketch by Lynne Chapman, Artist in Residence at the Morgan Centre for Research into Everyday Lives

Sketch Old-fashioned sweets, mouthwash at the dentists, aromatic chewing gums, muscle rubs, medicinal vapour rubs, toothpastes. These products are linked by a particular compound – menthol. Conventionally, menthol is produced in two main ways: via purification of corn mint (mentha arvensis) plants or via chemical synthesis. I recently joined a project at the University of Manchester’s SYNBIOCHEM centre where bioscientists are hoping to develop a novel synthetic route using genetically altered microorganisms. Although genetically engineered microorganisms are already used in the production of therapeutic products, like insulin, this new connection to mundane, everyday products may alter how people make sense of menthol, and biotechnology more broadly.

Menthol provides an interesting way to turn to the senses in relation to science and technology. In his Taking Turns presentation, David Howes (2014) argued that culture is a “sense-making activity” in that we learn what sensations mean to us: sensing is about “both feeling and meaning”. Although menthol is known for producing a cooling sensation on contact with our skin and for its minty smell and taste, these sensations are produced with and through other activities and interactions. Currently, we are conducting a range of object-elicitation interviews, home tour interviews, tradeshow-style stalls and focus groups to gain an understanding of how menthol is implicated in different practices, and the importance of menthol’s particular sensory and material qualities.

From early analysis of our data we are finding that menthol is implicated in some obvious and some not-so-obvious practices. People often describe menthol as a “strong” smell, and “cold” and “tingly” on the skin. They associate menthol with particular people – grandparents, parents, dentists, and describe using it at particular times, like when they are ill.

What might be predicted from much of the product branding is that menthol is connected to hygiene and health practices. But the emerging picture is nuanced. Borrowing from Schatzki’s (2002) categories, a “dispersed practice” is a type of activity found in other, more complex practices.The act of recollecting, for example, features in many different practices. Some people, when smelling menthol, recalled their grandparents and how their homes used to smell of it, or how they would drop Olbas oil in a pan of hot water and inhale the vapour under a towel. Other participants remembered being ill and how their parents rubbed menthol into their chests and feet.

Menthol also emerges in complex practices of care. A parent described how they chose to use menthol if their children were ill because it was not a medical product and could be rubbed liberally onto their children’s chests, and sometimes feet. Using menthol in this way involves bodily contact, physically connecting parent and child. It is also a way to care for their children without using regulated drugs, to be active yet less invasive, to use a ‘natural’ remedy. It was a way for some to enact the role of a ‘good parent’.

Menthol appears to play an important role in non-medical, familial caring that is passed from parents to their children and to their children’s children. These complex practices – care, hygiene – are what Schatzki (2002) calls “integrative practices”. They are complexes of many different components in terms of emotions, aims, activities and so on. People understand menthol through these everyday sensory and material experiences. Some scientists imagine a wholesale ‘public rejection’ of genetic engineering technologies and products. We hope, through this study, to be able to understand how a change of menthol production methods may raise awareness of where menthol comes from and how such a change may affect how menthol is enrolled in, adapted to or rejected from, various practices.

  • Howes. David. 2014. David Howes’ presentation. Available online
  • Schatzki, Theodore R. 2002. The Site of the Social: A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

This first appeared on the University of Manchester, Sociology, “Taking Turns” blog