Sociology of the Body Research Paper

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Locating the Sociology of the Body

The body is a contested and problematic feature of modern societies, giving rise to the view that we live in a “somatic society” (Turner 1992). The political and cultural complexity of the modern notion of the body is a product of changes in the medical and biological sciences and their application to, for example, human reproduction. It is also a consequence of social movements such as feminism and environmentalism. The result is that many of the most pressing moral problems of the modern world are related to changes in the nature of human embodiment. With stem cell research, it has been claimed that in principle we can live “forever.” In addition, in advanced societies, women in old age can claim an unlimited right to reproduce through assisted reproduction. With the use of drugs (or, metaphorically speaking, “mental steroids”) to enhance brain cells, it is theoretically possible to manufacture an intellectual elite. These are some of the pressing political and ethical issues relating to the human body that modern society needs to address.

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The sociology of the body is a product of this emerging social complexity. Research on the body is, of course, not necessarily new in the social sciences. There is a wellestablished anthropological tradition of research on dance, tattooing, body symbolism, and somatic classification schemes from the work of Marcel Mauss to Mary Douglas (Blacking 1977). Anthropologists have contributed in particular to the analysis of body decoration (Caplan 2000) and to the study of healing and trance in relation to body states (Strathern 1996). The research of Douglas (1966) on the classification of pollution and taboo through metaphorical references to apertures in the human body—what goes into man does not defile him, but what comes out does— remains the classical text on the categorization of danger. However, the sociology of the body is a relatively recent development, largely emerging in British sociology at the beginning of the 1980s (Turner 1984). Sociological studies of the body originally examined the impact of consumerism on the representation of the body in urban societies (Featherstone 1982): gender differentiation through bodily practices and the “mask of ageing” (Featherstone and Hepworth 1991). The journal Body & Society was founded in 1995. This research interest was initially confined to British sociology (Featherstone, Hepworth, and Turner 1991; Shilling 1993), but there has also been an expanding interest in Canada with Five Bodies (O’Neill 1985), in France with Le gouvernement des corps (Fassin and Memmi 2004), and in Germany with Soziologie des Körpers (Gugutzer 2004). The study of the body has also become increasingly multidisciplinary as a topic, and major contributions have come from history, religious studies, and archeology. In this context, one can refer to influential works such as Richard Sennett’s Flesh and Stone (1994), Thomas Laqueur’s (1990) Making Sex (1990), and J. J. Brumberg’s Fasting Girls (1988).

One can find earlier historical roots of the study of the body in various strands of sociology, as illustrated by Erving Goffman in The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959) and Stigma (1964) and by Norbert Elias on the civilizing process (1978). However, the study of the body has drawn on a heterogeneous range of theoretical sources from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality (1979), and through the work of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967), it has included the philosophical anthropology of Arnold Gehlen (1980). It is also possible to identify an intellectual history that goes back eventually to Karl Marx’s Paris manuscripts, in which he developed the notions of praxis, species-being, technology, and alienation, which were subsequently influential in critical theories. It is also important to recognize that sociology has drawn significantly from modern philosophy. At least one linking theme here is the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and broadly, “continental philosophy” in terms of the creation of a social ontology. Finally, the sociology of the body can be seen as an aspect of a broader philosophical criticism of the legacy of Cartesian rationalism by the Frankfurt School, existentialism, and Heideggerian ontology (Stauth and Turner 1988).

In simple terms, the sociology of the body involves the study of the embodied nature of social action and exchange; the cultural representations of the human body; the social nature of performance in dance, games, sport, and so forth; and the reproduction of the body in the social structure. In intellectual terms, the sociology of the body is an attempt to offer a sociological reflection on the separation of mind and body, which has been characteristic of Western philosophy since the time of René Descartes (1591–1650). Recent research has often been significantly influenced by feminism, cultural anthropology, and postmodern social theory, and hence sociologists have been concerned to understand how the naturalness of the body is socially constructed as a social fact. For example, sociologists have questioned the notion that right-handedness is produced by left- and right-sidedness in the brain by arguing that the superiority of right-sidedness in human societies is a cultural convention that is reinforced by socialization. As a result, the sociology of the body has had a critical edge in disability studies and radical feminism, where activists have used sociology to deconstruct the dominant, hegemonic interpretation of the body as an unchanging aspect of nature. In contrast, it is asserted that the body is constructed to support dominant relations of power and authority. In a postorthodox intellectual setting, the sociology of the body shades off into queer theory, lesbian and gay studies, film theory, dance studies, radical feminism, and postmodernism (Halberstam and Livingston 1995).

Conceptual Distinctions

It is important to establish some guidelines to terminology. In recent studies of the body, it has become commonplace to distinguish between the body and embodiment. The former refers to cultural analyses of how the body is represented in society and how it functions as a symbolic system. For example, the body of the king was often taken to be a symbolic representation of the sovereignty of the state, and in contrast, the study of courtly rituals might focus on embodiment, such as the actual bodily practices of court officials around the monarch. This distinction between symbolic cultures and performance has become a significant division in sociology, where it is also associated with the division between various forms of structuralism, on the one hand, and phenomenology, on the other. Another important distinction in recent debate has been with respect to the relative merits of developing the body as a generic theme of sociology (an embodied or corporeal sociology) versus the emergence of a specific subfield (comparable with the sociology of the family, for example), namely, the sociology of the body. No consensus has emerged on the analytical resolution of these issues.

Theoretical Approaches

One can identify four major theoretical traditions in the sociology of the body. The first demonstrates that the body is not a natural phenomenon but a social construct. The second perspective explores how the body is a representation of the social relations of power. In the third orientation, sociology examines the phenomenology of the “lived body”—that is, the experience of embodiment in the everyday world. Finally, sociology, much influenced by anthropology, looks at bodily performance of acquired practices or techniques.

Social Constructionism

The notion that the body is socially constructed has been the dominant perspective in modern sociology, and it is closely associated with social movements that typically employ constructionism as a critical tool to deny that the body is simply a natural object (Radley 1995). For example, feminist theory has examined the social construction of the body and rejected the notion of an essential or natural body. For instance, Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex (1972) argued famously that women are not born but become women through social and psychological processes that construct them as essentially female. Her work inaugurated a research tradition that concentrates 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, to the explanation that the differences between male and female bodies, which in the everyday world we take for granted as if they were facts of nature, are socially produced. Feminism in the 1970s was ideologically 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 conditions such as depression and physical illness. Creative research in medical sociology examined anorexia nervosa, obesity, and eating disorders—for instance, Susan Bordo’s Unbearable

Weight (1993). There have also been important historical studies of anorexia (Brumberg 1988), while the popular literature was influenced by Susan Orbach’s (1985) Fat Is a Feminist Issue.

Research on the body in popular culture has explored how women’s bodies are literally constructed as consumer objects, and sociologists have become interested consequently in the social implications of cosmetic surgery (Davis 2002; Negrin 2002). Cosmetic surgery involves the actual reconstruction of the “natural” body to produce social—that is, aesthetic—effects. While aesthetic surgery is becoming routine, the negative consequences of cosmetic surgery have come to public attention through sensational cases such as the death of Lolo Ferrari, whose eighteen operations created what were reputed to be the largest female breasts in the world with a 54G cup (Shepherd 2004). There are other celebrity cases, such as that of Jocelyne Wildenstein, who has shaped her face to look like a leopard (Pitts 2003). Orlan’s surgical performances are designed to challenge the alliance between medicine, market, and aesthetics in a consumer society where the human (typically, female) body is being simultaneously physically and socially reconstructed (Clarke 1999). More recently, the notion of the constructed body has become especially significant in political advocacy by disability groups. Influenced by sociological theory, disability activists argue that “disability” is not physical impairment but a loss of social rights (Barnes, Mercer, and Shakespeare 1999).

Within this constructionist perspective, there has also been considerable interest in the social implications of machine-body fusions, or cyborgs (Featherstone and Burrows 1995). For example, there has long been a strong association between technology and masculinity. In popular culture, Robocop was at one stage the ultimate cyborg, the merging of machine and organism, but he also illustrated very traditional gender themes about power and sexuality. The technology of Robocop now looks antiquated by comparison with the more sophisticated computerized world of Terminator, Star Wars, and Matrix. However, this homo faber perspective remains a vivid myth that conceptualizes Man as the maker and builder, whose hands are potent tools. This pervasive urban myth elevates a particular form of masculinity and denies the potential of alternative relations between the body and technology. In recent years, however, feminists have begun to confront the conventional relationship between women and technology and to explore not only the potential benefits for women of reproductive technologies but also the reproductive and emancipatory implications of new technologies (Haraway 1991). The new information technology and the potential of virtual reality and cyberspace all attracted great interest. Computer simulations and networks create the possibilities of new experiences of disembodiment, re-embodiment, and emotional attachment. All this threatens to transform conventional assumptions about the nature of social relationships.

Technological construction, as an implicit framework, can also be said to include the political statements of performance artists like Stelarc and Orlan. Through a series of artistic performances, Stelarc explored the interconnections between the body, technology, and the environment to promote the idea of the end of the body as a natural phenomenon (Fleming 2002). In the case of Orlan, the surgical reconstructions of her face are intended to be performances in which she ironically questions the transformation of women’s bodies by cosmetics and cosmetic surgery. By transforming surgery into a public drama, she critically explores the exploitative relationships between cosmetics, medical practice, and gender stereotypes. She is literally showing how medical technology can socially reconstruct her body. Here, we see the body being used as a site on which a performance occurs that delivers a powerful political statement. Although this technological dimension is an underdeveloped aspect of social constructionism, one should include it here to make a contrast with more deterministic models of the cultural production of the body. Orlan’s surgery ironically displays the power of medical technology while also calling technology into question as part of the economic apparatus of a consumer society.

Cultural Representation

Within a cultural perspective, the body is often described as a cultural representation of social organization and power relations. This approach has been a common aspect of historical research, art criticism, and social anthropology. The human body has been a potent and persistent metaphor for social and political relations throughout human history. Different parts of the body have historically represented different social functions. For example, we can refer to the “head of state” without really recognizing the metaphor, while the heart has been a rich source of ideas about life, imagination, and emotions. It is the house of the soul and the book of life, and the “tables of the heart” provided a perspective into the whole of Nature. Similarly, the hand occupies an important position in shaping the imagination with respect to things that are beautiful (handsome) or useful (handy) or damaged and incomplete (handicap). For example, left-handedness represents things and relationships that are sinister (Hertz 1960). Following the work of Foucault, historical research has demonstrated 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 (Petersen 1998).

Sociologists have shown how disturbances are typically grasped in the metaphors by which we understand mental and physical health. Body metaphors have been important in moral debate about these social disruptions. The division between good and evil has drawn heavily on bodily metaphors; what is sinister is related to left-handedness, the illegitimate side, the awkward side. Our sense of social order is spoken of in terms of the balance or imbalance of the body. In the eighteenth century, when physicians turned to mathematics to produce a Newtonian picture of the body, the metaphor of hydraulic pumps was used to express human digestion and blood circulation. The therapeutic bleeding of patients by knife or leech was to assist this hydraulic mechanism and to relieve morbid pressures on the mind. Severe disturbances in society were often imagined as poor social digestion. These assumptions about social unrest producing disorder in the gut are reflected in the basic idea of the need for a government of the body. Dietary management of the body was translated into fiscal constraint, reduction in government expenditure, and downsizing of public institutions. In the language of modern management science, a lean and mean corporation requires a vibrant management team. In neoliberal ideology, central government is an excess—a form of political flatulence.

Phenomenological Perspective

The concept of the “lived body” was developed by the French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1982) in his Phenomenology of Perception. 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 to everyday phenomena 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 Descartes’s cogito ergo sum (“I think, therefore I am”), which had established the dualism between mind and body. Merleau-Ponty developed the idea of the “bodysubject” that is always situated in a specific space within a determinate social reality. Rejecting behavioral and mechanistic approaches, he claimed that the body is central to our being in the world. Perception cannot be treated as merely a disembodied consciousness. Research inspired by this idea of the lived body and lived experience has been important in demonstrating the intimate and necessary connections between body, experience, and identity. Studies of traumatic experiences relating to disease or accident have shown how damage to the physical body transforms the self and how sharing narratives can be important in sustaining an adequate sense of self-worth (Becker 1997). This phenomenological perspective on the body has consequently been important in medical sociology, especially in research dealing with pain and discomfort. Research on violence and torture has also drawn on the sociology of the body to understand how the everyday environment (of tools and domestic appliances) can be used to undermine the ontological security of people (Scarry 1985; Turner 2003).

Bodily Practices

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 on. 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 can think about the body as an ensemble of practices. These Maussian assumptions have been developed by Pierre Bourdieu in terms of two influential concepts. Hexis refers to the 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 (1984) has employed these terms to study the everyday habitus of social classes in Distinction. A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. 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 is important because it has identified the significance of performance in his notions of practice, cultural capital, and hexis, and his approach has been influential in studies of habitus from boxing (Wacquant 1995) to classical ballet (Turner and Wainwright 2003).

Empirical work inspired by Bourdieu is currently the most promising framework for the development of sociological perspectives. One neglected area in sociology however is performance. For example, to study ballet as performance rather than as representation, sociologists need to pay close attention to the performing body. Richard Shusterman in Performing Live (2000), drawing on the work of Bourdieu and developing a pragmatist aesthetics, has argued that an aesthetic understanding of a performance such as hip hop cannot neglect the embodied features of artistic activity. An understanding of embodiment and lived experience is crucial in comprehending performing arts and also for the study of the body in sport. While choreography is in one sense the defining text of the dance, performance takes place outside the strict directions of the choreographic work and analysis. Dance as performance has an aesthetic immediacy, which cannot be captured by disembodied discourse analysis. It is important to recapture the intellectual contribution of the phenomenology of human embodiment in order to avoid the unwarranted reduction of bodies to cultural texts. Dance is a theoretically challenging topic because it demonstrates the analytical limitations of cultural interpretations of the body as text, but dance studies are also an interesting field because they demonstrate the important connections between state formation, national culture, and globalization (Archetti 2003).

Whereas the work of Foucault was probably the most important influence on the study of the body in the 1980s, Bourdieu’s intellectual legacy has became one of the most influential foundations for the development of the sociology of the body in the 1990s and later (Wacquant 2004). Bourdieu’s Distinction (1984) played an important role in the evolution of work on class, style, and body, but sociology has yet to incorporate fully the insights of his Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) and Pascalian Meditations (2000) for an understanding of performance and reflexive embodiment.

We can simplify this fourfold map of theoretical traditions by reducing this complexity to two fundamental, but distinctive, theoretical options: (1) 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 (2) the phenomenological study of embodiment, which attempts to understand human practices that are organized around the life course (birth, maturation, reproduction, and death). The work of Bourdieu offers one possible solution to these stubborn tensions between meaning and experience, between representation and practice, and between structure and agency. Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, practice, and bodily knowledge provide 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. These theoretical conflicts between representation and practice can be resolved by arguing that “the body” is a cultural system in which bodies are considered as carriers of powerful symbolic realities and “embodiment” as the practices that are necessary to function in the everyday world (Turner and Rojek 2001).

Toward a New Agenda: Reproduction and Longevity

The sociology of the body has a promising and important future, but it is also in danger of becoming repetitive rather than innovative. One possible research agenda for this subfield is to consider the transformation of the body by modern science and technology. In this section, let us consider reproductive technologies and the new social gerontology (Turner 2000, 2004). This account of the sociology of the body has been particularly influenced by the social philosophy of Foucault. His perspective is useful because he described a division between the study of the individual body and the study of populations (Foucault 1979). In the first distinction, which he referred to as “an anatomo-politics of the human body” (p. 139), Foucault examined how various forms of bodily discipline have regulated individuals. In the second distinction, which he referred to as “a bio-politics of the population” (p. 139), Foucault studied the regulatory controls of the state over populations. Anatomo-politics is concerned with the micropolitics of identity and concentrates on the sexuality, reproduction, and life histories of individuals. For instance, the clinical inspection of individuals is part of the anatomo-politics of society. The biopolitics of populations uses demography and epidemiology to examine and manage whole populations. The anatomo-politics of medicine involves the discipline of individuals, whereas the biopolitics of society achieves a surveillance and regulation of populations. Foucault’s study of the body was thus organized around the notions of state power, body discipline, and regulatory controls or “governmentality.”

Foucault’s paradigm is helpful in understanding developments in contemporary biological sciences and their application to individuals and populations. The social consequences of cloning, genetics, and new reproductive technologies will be revolutionary, and the conflicts that will emerge in policy formation, politics, morality, and law from the new biology will be profound. There is an important area of comparative and legal research on government responses to genetic research and patent policy that raises the question about the legal ownership of the human body in modern societies. This question has already become significant in the field of organ transplants and reproduction, and these debates will become more extensive as new medical procedures become technically possible and economically feasible. The fundamental problem is the changing relationship between the self, body, and society. Medical technology and microbiology hold out the promise (through the Human Genome Project, cloning, transplants, “wonder drugs,” and microsurgery) of human freedom from aging, disability, and disease. These medical possibilities have given rise to utopian visions of a world wholly free from disease—a new mirage of health. It is clear that the human body will come to stand in an entirely new relationship to self and society as a result of these technological developments. These medical changes will have major consequences for family life, reproduction, work, and aging. These social changes raise important issues for the ownership and use of the human body. For example, we might assume that in a liberal society, people should be free to sell parts of their bodies for commercial gain. While we might believe that, for example, selling one’s hair for commercial gain would be trivial, selling a kidney is clearly more serious. These changes create further opportunities for the development of a global medical system of governance in which medicine may exercise an expanded power over life and death. Few national governments have yet attempted to regulate this global medical system through legislation.

The new biotechnology implicitly involves the emergence of a new eugenics. Biotechnology is forcing modern states to develop eugenics policies that will address the new challenges of asexual reproduction. At one level, eugenics can be defined as simply any human strategy to improve reproduction. The term eu-genesis, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, refers to “the quality of breeding well and freely,” while eugenic or “the production of fine offspring” appeared first in 1833. The eugenics of the 1930s, which was associated with authoritarian regimes, has been widely condemned as an evil attack on individual dignity. We might say that if fascist eugenics involved compulsory state policies, postwar eugenics was individualistic and discretionary. However, any policy that influences reproduction can be described as “eugenic.” For example, handing out free contraceptives or giving contraceptive advice to schoolchildren is a eugenic practice. Fascist eugenics, which was couched within a specific ideology of racial purity, was a policy of public regulation of breeding, and in modern times, the one-child-family policy of the Chinese government has been the most draconian policy of population control. In contrast, most liberal societies have regarded reproduction as a private issue in which the state and the law should not interfere.

However, new reproductive technologies have major consequences for the public domain, and in general, the new biotechnology holds out the prospect of a posthuman future; therefore, eugenics can no longer be left entirely to individuals making private decisions about their reproductive careers and the biological futures of their children (Cohen 2002). Because the sex act is still regarded as a private choice, states and their legislatures have been reluctant to regard reproductive activity as a public concern. States have in the past attempted to control, for example, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases among the military and have waged educational campaigns to promote the use of condoms, but democratic states have been reluctant to control directly the spread of AIDS through, for example, the use of criminal law. The separation of private sex acts from reproduction by technology does complicate the legal issue. There are few contemporary societies in which individuals (heterosexual, gay, or lesbian) have an unlimited right to reproduce by whatever technological means available regardless of the future implications for identities and social relationships. Nevertheless, reproductive technology has advanced rapidly, and in principle, we can expect these technologies to change the conditions in which reproduction takes place. The social implications of these medical developments are disturbing because we have neither convincing answers to pressing moral questions nor the institutional apparatus to enforce whatever answers we might eventually agree are appropriate.

Immortal Bodies

In conventional gerontology, the question about living forever might in practice mean living a full life in terms of achieving the average expectation of life by class and gender. More recently, however, there has been considerable speculation as to whether medical science could reverse the aging process. Between the 1960s and 1980s, the conventional view of mainstream biology was that normal cells had a “replicative senescence”—that is, normal tissues can divide only a finite number of times before entering a stage of quiescence. Cells were observed in vitro in a process of natural senescence, but eventually experiments in vivo produced a distinction between normal and pathological cells in terms of division. Paradoxically, pathological cells appeared to have no necessary limitation on replication, and “immortalization” was the defining characteristic of a pathological cell line. Biologists concluded by extrapolation that finite cell division meant that the aging of the whole organism was inescapable. These research findings confirmed the conventional view that human life had an intrinsic and predetermined limit, and that it was pathology that described how certain cells might outsurvive the senescence of cellular life.

This framework of aging was eventually overturned by the discovery that isolated human embryonic cells were capable of continuous division in culture and showed no necessary sign of a replicative crisis. Certain nonpathological cells, or stem cells, were capable of indefinite division and hence were “immortalized.” The cultivation of these cells as an experimental form of life has challenged existing assumptions about the boundaries between the normal and the pathological and between life and death. Stem cell research has transformed our understanding of the body and the life cycle by developing reserves of renewable tissue, and this research suggests that the limits of biological growth are neither fixed nor inflexible. The body has a surplus of stem cells capable of survival beyond the death of the organism itself. With these developments in biogerontology, the capacity of regenerative medicine to expand the limits of life becomes a feasible aspect of modern medicine. This interpretation of replication locates aging as a shifting threshold between surplus and waste, between obsolescence and renewal, and between decay and immortality.

Because traditional economics interprets the aging of the populations of the developed world as a threat to continued economic growth, there is much interest in the possibilities of stem cell research as a feature of regenerative medicine. Commercial companies operating in the Caribbean are already offering regenerative medicine as part of a tourist package, designed to alleviate the undesirable consequences of degenerative diseases such as multiple sclerosis or diabetes. The idea of biological tourism might become an addendum to sexual tourism in the world of advanced biocapitalism. One sign of these unfolding medical possibilities was an academic event hosted by the Cambridge University Life Extension and Rejuvenation Society in October 2004, in which it was announced that human beings could live forever. It was claimed that within the next 25 years medical science will possess the capacity to repair all known effects of aging. The average age at death of people born thereafter would exceed 5,000 years! In fact, expectations of significant breakthroughs in the treatment of disease and significant profits by the large pharmaceutical companies after the decoding of the human genome in 2001 ended in disappointment. The pharmaceutical industry has become reluctant to invest in new products designed for conditions that affect only small numbers of people. However, the fears associated with “personalized medicine” have begun to disappear because it is now obvious that there are generic processes from which the “genomics” companies can profit. Genetics-based medicine is poised to find better diagnostic tests for and generic solutions to conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, heart problems, and breast cancer. These scientific advances will radically enhance life expectancy.

The Body, Self, and Society

Reproductive technology and new patterns of aging are relevant to the sociology of the body because these examples point to an important field of research—namely, the relationship between embodiment, selfhood, and social relations. New technologies suggest that humans might acquire different bodies and have to develop different ways of relating to and thinking about the body. Heart transplants already suggest that this type of radical surgery forces people to rethink their relationship to the inside of their bodies. In short, these areas of research are relevant to the sociology of the body because they give rise in a new way to the traditional debate about the relationship between the body, self, and society. In fact, these three concepts can be broadly regarded as defining the intellectual field occupied by sociology.

In an important study of theories of the self, Jerrold Seigel (2005) developed a useful model of how societies have conducted a philosophical conversation about the self. There are three basic components of the self. The most important is reflection. To be a self, we must be able to reflect on our identities, our actions and our relationship with others. We must have consciousness, language, and memory. Selfhood, whatever else it involves, must involve a capacity for continuous self-assessment and oversight of behavior. Second, the self is not an independent, freefloating form of consciousness because the self is also defined by its relationship to human embodiment. Recognition of the self depends not just on memory and consciousness but also on its peculiar physical characteristics. We can certainly reflect on our bodies as objects, but my hand does not have the same type of objectivity as the hammer it holds. In short, while the conscious self is a reflective agent, the body is not just an object among other objects but participates in an embodied subjectivity toward the everyday world. The final dimension is the notion of the self as a product of or situated within social interaction. The Western self has not been invariably captured in the romantic but isolated figure of Robinson Crusoe, but it has been interpreted as a social phenomenon that cannot survive without a social world. We are embedded in social networks. Seigel’s argument is that while specific aspects of the self are typically emphasized by philosophers, theories of the self have in practice to address all three aspects.

Sociology has traditionally defined the self as simply the product of social processes (socialization) and social relationships (the looking-glass self). Émile Durkheim’s (1974) “Individual and Collective Representations” is the classical representative of this tradition, but the idea of social determinism was reinforced in Goffman’s (1959) The Presentation of the Self, where the self merely learns a script that has to be delivered within a dramaturgical setting. But this is a superficial and misleading interpretation. Like the Western tradition as a whole, sociology has struggled conceptually with the contradictions between social action, social structure, and the reflective self. The “solutions” to the quandary are numerous, but sociologists of the body have argued that any solution to the structure and agency dilemma must take into consideration the embodiment of the reflective self.

There is, however, from the perspective of historical sociology, a more interesting way of interpreting Seigel’s theoretical framework. We might plausibly argue that the reflective self was a dominant theme in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a consequence of the Enlightenment following Kant’s challenge to throw off infantile tutelage. At a later stage, the Romantic reaction placed greater emphasis on personality, subjectivity, and embodiment against the world of Kantian cognitive rationalism. The rise of the concept of “the social” took place with the growth of industrial society, and this development also paved the way for the sociological view that the individual is merely a product of social forces. The image of the passive self dominated the middle of the twentieth century and was articulated in sociological theories of mass society, the managerial revolution, and the “organization man.” The individual became passive rather than reflective and active. Finally, the rise of the corporeal self is the dominant paradigm of somatic society, because the scientific revolutions in information science, microbiology, and genetics have provided us with a language of genetic determinism in which both the social and the reflective selves are subordinate. Popular notions such as the “criminal gene” mean that we can avoid any recognition of individual reflexivity and responsibility. Individuals are believed to be driven by whatever bundle of genes they have fortuitously inherited from their parents.

Prospects for the 21st Century

Since about 1984, 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 interpreting the body as cultural representation and embodiment as lived experience will continue to produce innovative and creative research.

There are of course new issues on the horizon that sociologists will need to examine. The posthuman body, cybernetics, genetic modification, and artificial bodies are obvious issues. The wealth and quality of this research suggests that the sociology of the body is not a passing fashion but an important aspect of mainstream sociology.

This overview has provided a critical analysis of the intellectual state of contemporary sociological studies of the body. For the sociology of the body to remain a vibrant and creative area of study, a new research agenda is needed that will embrace the revolution currently unfolding in the biomedical sciences, which has major implications, to borrow an expression from Heidegger, for “the question of Being.” Contemporary applications of science imply an entirely new relationship between self and body, which once more raises the fundamental problem of Cartesian mind-body dualism. The principal criticisms of the existing sociology of the body are, first, that it has become too abstract and theoretical and hence somewhat remote from empirical research, in particular from detailed ethnographies of the body. Second, by concentrating on the body as a text or discourse, it has neglected the issue of human practice and performance. Third, it needs to address more seriously the moral questions related to eugenics, namely cloning, genetics, and new reproductive technologies. In short, it needs to address the possibility of a posthuman society (Fukuyama 2002). Sociology has become too concerned with the symbolic representation of the body in terms of sexual identity, dress, consumption, and obesity. Future research work should also address medical technology, human rights to life, aging, and the diseased body. The future of the subfield should be more concerned with the study of the human consequences of globalization, especially the consequences of global technology (military, genetic, and informational). In summary, sociology has in the past approached the body and embodiment from within a narrow cultural framework, but the contemporary transformation of the human body by biomedical sciences and their economic and military applications must in the future be addressed with greater intellectual rigor, breadth, and determination.


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