Sociology of the Body

Diverse theoretical traditions have been influential in the development of the contemporary sociology of the body, such as philosophical anthropology, Marxist humanism, and phenomenology. However, Michel Foucault (1926–84) has been a dominant influence in late twentieth century historical and sociological approaches. His research on sexuality, medicine, and discipline gave rise to a general theory of the government of the body. The distinction between the discipline of the individual body (‘‘the anatomo politics of the body’’) and regulatory controls (‘‘a bio politics of the population’’) in The History of Sexuality (1978) stimulated a general sociological investigation of ‘‘governmentality’’ (Burchell et al. 1991). Systematic sociological interest in the body began in the 1980s with The Body and Society Turner 1984) and Five Bodies (O’Neill 1985). The journal Body and Society was launched in 1995 to cater for this expanding academic market.


Taking a wider perspective, there has been a persistent but erratic and uncertain interest from symbolic interactionism in body, identity, self, and interaction. Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) demonstrated the importance of the body for identity in disruptions to interaction. Recognition of the need to manage bodily functions to avoid embarrassment was an important consequence of Goffman’s approach. While the body began to appear in the study of micro interactions, it also had major implications for the historical sociology of the norms of civilized behavior undertaken by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process (1978). The training of the body, especially in relation to martial arts, dance, and general comportment, was studied by Elias in the transformation of court society. Domestic utensils, such as the fork or spittoon, were important features of the regulation of manners through the training of the body. By the 1990s, the history of the body had become a major academic development in research on sexuality, culture, and the representation of the human body.

Academic interest in the body was a response to significant changes in post war society, namely, the rise of consumerism and the growth of leisure industries. In the nineteenth century, the body was an implicit problem of economic theory in relation to labor as a factor of production. The issue was to make the body productive by increasing its efficiency through training, regulation, and management. Diet was a government of the body, and the efficiency of the human body was increased by correct rationing, exercise, and dietary control (Turner 1992). Taylorism in the management of labor in factory conditions would be another example, and domestic science for girls in schools was recognized as a method of making the working class body more healthy and efficient. In the 1920s, the eugenic management of the body became an important part of government policy in societies such as Turkey, Sweden, and Germany. Fascism in Italy also sponsored mass sport and gymnastics as a method of disciplining populations and of incorporating the working class into fascist aesthetics.

In the late twentieth century, there was increasing social and economic emphasis on leisure and consumption rather than production. The growth of a new hedonistic culture was identified by Daniel Bell in The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976). Bell described new contradictions in a society that still required a disciplined labor force, but also encouraged and promoted hedonism through advertising, credit, and consumerism. In a neglected article on the ‘‘expressive revolution,’’ Talcott Parsons (1974) noted a shift away from the cognitive rational components of culture to the affective expressive elements. He suggested that countercultural religious movements would articulate the new quest for self enjoyment, gratification, glorification of the self, and ‘‘pure love.’’ Leisure industries, mass consumption, and extended credit have developed in tandem with the emphasis on youthfulness, activism, and the body beautiful. The body became a major conduit for the commodification of the everyday world and a symbol of the youth cultures of post war society. In addition, aging, disease, and death no longer appear to be immutable facts about the human condition but contingent possibilities that are constantly transformed by medical science. Cosmetic surgery has become a growth industry in western societies through which the body can be constructed. These cosmetic practices have become the target of the ironic surgical drama of the French artist Orlan, whose facial reconstruction is filmed as an artistic performance.

The post war baby boomers became the social carriers of a popular culture that focused on the athletic, groomed, and sexual body as an icon of liberalism and the do it yourself culture that followed the Events of 1968. There are two salient social phenomena that illustrate these developments in consumerism – the global growth of mass sport, especially international football, and popular dance. Football stars, such as David Beckham, are the new celebrities whose bodies are an essential marketing device for major football teams. The creation of dance fashions from disco to ‘‘storm rave’’ and the transformation of venues from the dance halls of the 1950s to the club experience of the 1990s created social spaces for the expressive and erotic body. Popular dance forms have become a global ‘‘dancescape’’ in which the body is sexually charged as part of the gay scene. Finally, the playful body, the body as a personal project of self development, the eroticism of bodily experience, and the erosion of a sharp division between straight and gay bodies have been associated with the postmodernization of society. The postmodern body is one that can be endlessly recreated and reshaped.

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Four Perspectives on the Body: Construction, Representation, Experience, and Body Techniques

We can usefully identify four theoretical perspectives in the sociology of the body. The first shows that the body is not a natural phenomenon but is socially constructed. The second considers how the body is a representation of social relations of power. The third examines the phenomenology of the lived body, or the experience of embodiment in the everyday world. The final perspective, which has been significantly influenced by anthropology, looks at the body as a collection of practices or techniques.

Firstly, feminist theory in particular examined the social construction of the body. For example, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1972) argued that women are not born but become women through social and psycho logical processes that construct them as essentially female. Her work inaugurated a research tradition concentrating on the social production of differences in gender and sexuality. The basic contribution of feminist theories of the body has been to social constructionism, that is, the differences between male and female bodies that we take for granted as if they were facts of nature are socially produced. Feminism in the 1970s was important in establishing the difference between biologically determined sex and the social construction of gender roles and sexual identities. Empirical research has subsequently explored how the social and political subordination of women is expressed in psychological depression and physical illness. Creative research examined anorexia nervosa, obesity, and eating disorders such as Susan Bordo’s Unbearable Weight (1993). There have also been important historical studies of anorexia, but the popular literature was influenced by Susan Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue (1985). Research on the body in popular culture has explored how women’s bodies are literally constructed as consumer objects. For example, Lolo Ferrari had her breasts enlarged by silicon implants and appeared as a comical character on Channel 4’s ‘‘Eurotrash’’ show. With her massive breasts, Lolo had herself become, partly ironically and partly tragically, consumer trash. Although feminism has been critical of the commercialization of the female body, post modern irony often makes the classification of the body as a consumer object problematic and uncertain. Madonna is simultaneously religious icon, social critic, and consumer success.

Secondly, the body is often discussed as a cultural representation of social organization. For example, the head is employed as a metaphor of government and the word ‘‘corporation’’ to describe the modern company has its etymological origins in bodily metaphors. In the anthropological tradition, the divisions of the body are used to make moral distinctions between good and bad. For example, left handedness represents things that are sinister. Research on tattooing shows how the skin is both a physical and cultural boundary in which tattoos are markers of inclusion and exclusion. Sociologists have studied how the body enters into political discourse as a representation of power, and how power is exercised over the body. Following Foucault, historical research has shown how representations of the body are the result of relations of power, particularly between men and women. One classic illustration is the historical argument that anatomical maps of the human body vary between societies in terms of the dominant discourse of gender.

Thirdly, the concept of the ‘‘lived body’’ was developed by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty in his Phenomenology of Perception (1982). In developing the phenomenology of the everyday world, he was concerned to understand human consciousness, perception, and intentionality. His work was original in applying Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology to intentional consciousness but from the perspective of corporeal existence. He wanted to describe the lived world without the use of the conventional dualism between subject and object. Hence, Merleau Ponty was critical of the legacy of Rene Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (‘‘I think, therefore I am’’) that became the foundation of the dualism between mind and body. Merleau Ponty developed the idea of the ‘‘body subject’’ that is always situated in a social reality. Rejecting behavioral and mechanistic approaches, he argued that the body is central to our being in the world. Perception cannot be treated as a disembodied consciousness. Research inspired by this idea of the lived body and lived experience has been important in demonstrating the intimate connections between body, experience, and identity. Stu dies of traumatic experiences relating to disease or accident have shown how damage to the body transforms the self and how sharing narratives can be important in sustaining an adequate sense of self worth.

Finally, we can also examine how human beings are embodied and how people learn corporeal practices that are necessary for walking, dancing, shaking hands, and so forth. Social anthropologists have been influenced in particular by Marcel Mauss (1979), who invented the concept of ‘‘body techniques’’ to describe how people learn to manage their bodies according to social norms. Children, for instance, have to learn how to sit properly at table and boys learn how to throw in ways that differentiate them from girls. This anthropological legacy suggests that we think about the body as an ensemble of performances. These assumptions have been developed by Pierre Bourdieu in terms of two influential concepts. ‘‘Hexis’’ refers to deportment (gait, gesture, or posture) by which people carry themselves. ‘‘Habitus’’ refers to the dispositions through which taste is expressed. It is the habitual way of doing things. Bourdieu has employed these terms to study the everyday habitus of social classes in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984). The body is invested with symbolic capital whereby it is a corporeal expression of the hierarchies of social power. The body is permanently cultivated and represented by the aesthetic preferences of different social classes whereby, in French culture, mountaineering and tennis require the flexible, slim, and pliant bodies of the middle and upper classes, whereas the working class sports of wrestling produce an entirely different body and habitus. Bourdieu’s work has been influential in studies of habitus in a range of human activities from boxing to classical ballet.

We can simplify these complex theoretical traditions by suggesting that research on the body is confronted by two distinctive options. There is either the cultural decoding of the body as a system of meaning that has a definite structure existing separately from the intentions and conceptions of individuals, or there is the phenomenological study of embodiment that attempts to understand human practices that are organized around the life course (of birth, maturation, reproduction, and death). The work of Bourdieu offers a possible solution to this persistent tension between meaning and experience or between representation and practice. Bourdieu’s development of the notions of habitus and practice in Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) provides research strategies for looking simultaneously at how status difference is inscribed on the body and how we experience the world through our bodies, which are ranked in terms of their cultural capital. This reconciliation of these traditions can be assisted by distinguishing between the idea of the body as representation and embodiment as practice and experience.

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Body, Embodiment, and Performance

In considering the future of the sociology of the body, two issues are important. There is a general view that, while there has been an extensive theoretical debate about the body, there is an insufficient and inadequate empirical research tradition. In this respect, the ethnographic work of anthropologists has been a useful corrective. Secondly, there is a growing research interest in embodied performance, which may also offer further empirical ground ing for the study of the body. For example, to study ballet as performance rather than as representation, sociologists need to pay attention to the performing body. Richard Shuster man in Performing Live (2000), drawing on the work of Bourdieu and developing a pragmatist aesthetics, has argued that an aesthetic understanding of performance such as hip hop cannot neglect the embodied features of artistic activity. The need for an understanding of embodiment and lived experience is crucial in understanding performing arts, but also for the study of the body in sport. While choreography is in one sense the text of the dance, performance takes place outside the strict directions of the choreographic work. Dance has an immediacy, which cannot be captured by discourse analysis. It is important to recapture the intellectual contribution of the phenomenology of human embodiment in order to avoid the reduction of bodies to cultural texts.

Over the last two decades, a variety of perspectives on the body have emerged. It is unlikely and possibly undesirable that any single theoretical synthesis will finally emerge. The creative tension between seeing the body as cultural representation and experience will continue to produce innovative and creative research. There are, of course, new issues on the horizon which sociologists will need to examine: the posthuman body, cybernetics, genetic modification, and the genetic mapping of the body are obvious issues. The wealth and quality of this research suggest that the sociology of the body is not a passing fashion but an aspect of mainstream sociology.

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  1. Beauvoir, S. de (1972) The Second Sex. Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  2. Bell, D. (1976) The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. Basic Books, New York.
  3. Bordo, S. (1993) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Wes tern Culture, and the Body. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  4. Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  5. Bourdieu, P. (1984) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.
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  14. Orbach, S. (1985) Fat is a Feminist Issue. Faber, London.
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  17. Turner, B. S. (1984) The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.
  18. Turner, B. S. (1992) Regulating Bodies: Essays in Medical Sociology. Routledge, London.

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