Body and Society Essay

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Since the late 1980s there has been growing interest in the sociology of the body. The sociology of the body has been divided analytically into two distinctive, often contradictory, approaches. These two traditions represent alternative answers to the question: is the human body socially constructed? In social constructionist approaches, the body is treated as a system of cultural representations. In the phenomenological tradition, the ”lived body is studied in the everyday world of social interaction.

The body is often studied as a cultural representation of social life. In this sociological and anthropological tradition, research considers the ways in which the body enters into political discourse as a representation of power, and how power is exercised over the body. This approach to the body, which has been dominated by the legacy of Michel Foucault, is concerned with questions of representation and control in which diet is for example a regulation or government of the body. The Foucauldian perspective is not concerned to understand our experiences of embodiment; it does not aim to grasp the lived experience of the body from a phenomenology of the body.

The principal starting point for an analysis of the lived body has been the research of the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty. In the Phenomenology of Perception (1982) he examined how perception of reality occurs from the specific location of our body, and hence he showed how cognition is always an embodied perception of the world. Phenomenology is a critique of the dualism of the mind and body, in which body is seen to be passive and inert. Research inspired by the phenomenological tradition has been important in showing the intimate connections between body, experience, and identity. For example, traumatic experiences of disease have a major impact on self-perception and identity, and hence loss of a body part can have devastating consequences for self-identity. This division between the body as representation and as experience has dominated the sociological debate about the body, and there have been many attempts to reconcile this difference.

While there is therefore a sociological and anthropological tradition which examines the body as a symbolic system, we can also examine how human beings are embodied and how they learn a variety of cultural practices that are necessary for walking, sitting, dancing, and so forth. The study of embodiment has been the particular concern of anthropologists who have been influenced by the concept of ”body techniques” (Mauss 1973). These anthropological assumptions have in turn been developed by Pierre Bourdieu through the concepts of hexis and habitus in which our dispositions and tastes are organized. For example, within the habitus of social classes, Bourdieu showed in Distinction (1984) that the body is invested with symbolic capital in which the body is a living expression of the hierarchies of social power. The body is permanently cultivated and represented by the aesthetic preferences of different social classes. The different sports that are supported by different social classes illustrate this form of distinction. Weightlifting is part of the habitus of the working class; mountaineering, of upper social strata.

If the body is understood exclusively as a system of cultural representation, it becomes very difficult to develop an adequate sociology of the body as lived experience. Sociologists have therefore become interested in bodily performances, which cannot be grasped simply as static cultural representations.

The contemporary anthropology and sociology of the body has also been continuously influenced by feminist social theory. Simone de Beauvoir s The Second Sex (1972) was a major contribution to the study of the patriarchal regulation of the female body. Feminist theories of the body have employed social constructionism to show how the differences between male and female bodies, that we take for granted as if they were facts of nature, are socially produced. More recently, there has been increasing interest in the question of men s bodies, health, and masculinity.

The underlying theory of gender inequalities was the idea of patriarchy and much empirical research in sociology has subsequently explored how the social and political subordination of women is expressed somatically in psychological depression and physical illness. Creative scholarship went into historical research on body image, diet, obesity, and eating disorders.


  1. Featherstone, M., Hepworth, M., & Turner, B. S. (eds.) (1991) The Body: Social Processes and Cultural Theory. Sage, London.
  2. Foucault, M. (1973) The Birth of the Clinic: The Archaeology of Medical Perception. Tavistock, London.
  3. Mauss, M. (1973) Techniques of the Body. Economy and Society 2: 70-88.
  4. Turner, B. S. (1984) The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.

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