I specialize in the history of business, technology, and culture with particular focus on the twentieth-century United States. My research encompasses the history of the senses, business history, cultural history,the history of technology, and environmental history.
(Harvard University Press in 2019)
Winner: Hagley Prize in Business History, Business History Conference, 2020
Winner: Shimizu Hiroshi Book Award, Japanese Association for American Studies, 2020
My first book, Visualizing Taste, explores the role of business in shaping Americans’ sensory experiences from the 1870s to the 1970s. It analyzes the development of visual appeal, particularly color, as a key driver of demand in the food industry. I argue that the color that Americans came to associate with certain foods was a result of complex—and colorful—processes, implemented by various agents, including farmers, food processors, dye manufacturers, scientists, advertising agents, and government officials. They co-created a “natural” color for food that was, in fact, a hybrid of nature and technology.
“Richly textured and full of colorful characters, Ai Hisano’s Visualizing Taste shows us that what many consider ‘natural’ about food is in fact historically and culturally constructed. This book highlights how central the history of the senses is to the development of capitalism and modern consumption. Original, fascinating, and eye-opening.”
— Daniel Horowitz, author of Happier? The History of a Cultural Movement That Aspired to Transform America
“An intriguing analysis that establishes food color as a critical example of how twentieth-century business strategies deployed the human senses. Visualizing Taste makes us think about what color means, to producers and to consumers.”
— Susan Strasser, author of Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market
“Seeing is believing, right? Not so fast. In this nuanced and highly original history of the ‘capitalism of the senses,’ Ai Hisano shows how the American food industry taught consumers to associate particular food colors with freshness, authenticity, and safety. In colonizing perception to suit business needs, food marketers radically changed the way we think about nature, health, beauty, and truth itself.”
— Warren Belasco, author of Appetite for Change: How the Counterculture Took On the Food Industry
“Visualizing Taste makes a major contribution to business history and the history of the senses by investigating the multiple factors, including government regulation, that have shaped the visual presentation of today’s comestibles. Through Ai Hisano’s critical interrogation of the color code, this book will refresh your palate.”
— David Howes, Concordia University
“Hisano’s book provides a compelling historical perspective on contemporary debates on sensory marketing and branding.”
— John Quelch, Miami Business School
Shikakuka-suru Mikaku: Oishisa no Shikisai no Rekishi
[Visualizing taste: A history of tasty colors]
(Iwanami Shinsho, 2021 forthcoming) [Japanese]
My forthcoming book in Japanese builds on my first book, Visualizing Taste, with additional research on the case of Japan. It examines how "foodscape"—visual environments surrounding the consumption (buying and eating) of food— changed in Japan from the early twentieth century. In particular, I explore the implications of so-called the modernization and westernization of Japanese society since the Taisho era and onward.
Current book project
My current book project, Aesthetic Capitalism, examines a history of aesthetics in capitalist development from the late nineteenth century until today. I use the term “aesthetics” to refer to holistic human perception and sensation rather than simply the domain of art or appearance, following the original definition derived from the ancient Greek word Aisthesis. In historicizing the transformation of aesthetics as a discourse of body, I take a comparative approach between the United States and other parts of the world, including Japan, China, and Britain. The book analyzes the role of entrepreneurs, scientists, marketers, and business consultants in creating a new world of aesthetics. It situates them within broader shifts in political, social, and economic contexts, including scientific innovations, the emergence of visual media, and globalization. I argue that these agents of aesthetic capitalism constructed a new kind of aesthetics, which became not only an industry standard in product design and marketing but also a social norm based on sensory characteristics of goods and of people. The ramification of this development was not simply the diversification of sensations. New technology and business strategies helped raise sensory awareness and enhance sensory experience by creating new sensations, but at a cost of diminishing more traditional, localized senses.