In order to evaluate the extent in which sociological analysis sheds light on the experience of embodiment it is essential that we first break down the meanings behind the question. The concept of embodiment is derived from the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, who argued:
“that to the experience the world, we have to perceive it…. the embodiment of the human being is fundamental.” (cited in Reber & Reber 2001. p115).
Reber & Reber (2001) go on to explain embodiment as the mode by which human beings practically engage and interact with the world. The experience of having a body alters in relation to the particular condition, or state, of the body at any one time. These varied states can include differences in long or short-term health or, for example, whether the body is in pain or not at a particular time. Other states can include diversity in age, or just altered states such as pregnancy.
The sociological analysis of any subject matter involves having the ability to trace links between the wider society and the lives of the individuals within it, having an awareness of social structures. In contrast to sociological theories are those within the biological essentialist paradigm, whose explanations reduce the understanding of the body into terms of the physiological and absolute. This essay will attempt to illustrate the importance of the sociological explanation in understanding the body and its varied states, whilst highlighting the limitations of the more essentialist approach.
The health and illness of the human body has traditionally been defined in terms of the biomedical model, which is based upon the reliance of scientific facts. The body is seen as a primarily biological entity thus ignoring external, environment factors, such as the family and the education system, shaping our bodies and minds. The idea that the mind and body are separate entities emanates from Descartes, dating back to the eighteenth century. A time, known as the enlightenment, when societies would come to depend more and more on scientific and rational explanations at the expense of religious explanations.
There was an apparent move towards a more physiological and essentialist understanding of everyday life and a dramatic decline in more spiritual and less scientific explanations. Health and illness is traditionally described in a medical way. Pregnancy, for example, although a natural state for the female body, has undergone extreme medical intervention. Martin (1987) suggests that giving birth is in fact so medicalised that it can be described as “work done by the uterus”. She goes on to create a convincing analogy between the ‘job’ of having a baby and the ability of women as workers to resist their conditions.
The essentialist argument is argued to be both narrow in its assumptions regarding the body and the individual’s ability to have free will. The theorists ignore the impact of external factors, arguing that all human behaviour is innate and fixed. In modern times, largely due to a more sociological understanding of the mind and body, it is understood that they in fact work together much more closely than ever realised before, and thus the concept of mind-body dualism is introduced.
White (2002) argues that on the basis of empirical research sociologists demonstrate how the interactions of social class, power, gender and ethnicity enter into the formation of knowledge about the treatment of a sickness or disease. The social production and distribution of diseases and illnesses, illustrate how these varied states could be differently understood, treated and experienced by demonstrating how disease is produced out of social organisation rather than nature, biology or individual lifestyle choices. White (2002) also suggests that our knowledge of health and illness, the organisations of the professions which deal with it and our own responses to our bodily states are shaped and formed by the history of our society and our place in it. He criticises medical explanations, stating that they only serve to obscure, or completely cover, the social shaping and distribution of disease, disease categories and health services.
Firstly we must consider more traditional sociological theories such as functionalism, mostly illustrated by Parsons’ concept of ‘the sick role’, a social role that is shaped by the social restrains of modern society. The focus is on how being ill must take a specific form in human societies in order that the social system’s stability and cohesion can be maintained. Parsonian sociology emphasises the role of medicine in maintaining social harmony, pointing to the non-market basis of professional groups. Highlighting the social control of medicine in enforcing compliance with social roles in modern society.
Marxist approaches emphasize the causal role of economics in the production and distribution of disease, as well as the role of medical knowledge in sustaining the class structure. Marxists are concerned with the relationship between health and illness and capitalist social organisation.
Feminists’ key argument is that the way in which we are socialized into masculine and feminine social roles will have a determining effect on our health and illness. They argue that medicine plays a vital role in enforcing conformity because controlling women’s ability to reproduce is central to a patriarchal society. Feminists argue that the majority of medical attention paid to women is around their reproductive organs and their life cycle
Marxist-feminists identify the ways in which class and patriarchy interact to define the subordinate position of women in society and the central role that medical knowledge plays in defining women.
In contrast to these more structural approaches the interactionists would argue the focus should be directed at the way illness is a social accomplishment between actors rather than merely a matter of physiological malfunction (Bilton et al 1997). Self-identity has become more fluid and negotiable, separated from ‘social structures’, which are often claimed to be just a figment of the sociological imagination. For some theorists the discovery of the body, linked to these weakened structures, has led to the argument that we construct our bodies as we see fit. White (2002) emphasises the openness of the body, and of the individuals that shape it.
More recent notions of the body have examined the cultural meanings placed upon it, desirable body size, weight and shape etc. There has been much sociological research into understanding the ideas behind the individual’s concept of ‘the self’. Much of this work is revolving around bodily appearance and individual self-perception, labels given to us by others and ourselves. Tyler (1998) investigated the recruitment and training of female flight attendants, concluding that their work:
“involved adhering to culturally prescribed norms on femininity as well as organisational regulations governing her figure”
Feminists’ reactions to the way in which medicine ‘medicalises’ their bodies have raised crucial issues at the centre of sociological explanations of disease.
Illnesses are not simply deviations from the body’s normal functioning, being ill can have a number of meanings that extend beyond a simple biomedical one. Sontage (1991) shows how TB and AIDS have attached meanings, so that they become ‘dirty’ and ‘unclean’ illnesses that ‘invade’ the body. People who suffer from such stigmatised illnesses may well change the way they view their bodies and their own self-identity is affected, thus an illustration of mind-body dualism.
Goffman, a key interactionist, theory of the body can be summarised by three main features. Firstly, that you can view the body as a material, communicating entity, controlled by individuals in order to facilitate and direct social interaction. Secondly, the meanings attributed to the body are determined by shared vocabularies of non-verbal language, such as facial expression and dress, which are not under the immediate control of individuals but which nevertheless categorise and differentiate between people. Thirdly, the body mediates the relationship between people’s self-identity and their social identity, two quite different states. Consequently, these classifications greatly influence how individuals seek to manage their bodies and they way in which their bodies are perceived.
In addition to its reflections on economic, social and political changes in society postmodernism is characterised by a mistrust of ‘science’ as the truth. Senior (1996) suggests that people are more accepting of their own understanding of the world. Post modernists claim that no single theory can explain such a wide variation of experiences. Power is of crucial concern, not only economic power but also in the form of language, or discourse. Knowledge of the body becomes power, possessors of this knowledge can exercise control over those without, for example the doctor/patient relationship.
Foucault, an extreme social constructionist, highlights the social role of medical knowledge in controlling populations. Similarly to Parsons, Foucault emphasises the diverse nature of power relationships in modern society, describing the emergence of a dominant medical discourse, which has constructed definitions of normality and deviance. For Foucault modern societies are systems of organised surveillance with individuals conducting the surveillance themselves, having internalised the ‘professional models’ of what is appropriate behaviour.
The usefulness of Foucault’s position is the way in which he historically locates medical knowledge, especially in allowing for the development of the sociology of the body. By showing how the body is historically constructed, Foucault has been accepted and adapted by feminists, known as Foucauldian-feminisms, who show that it is in fact the construction of gender specific bodies that needs analysis.
Okely (1993) writes a subjective account of her time spent at an all-girls boarding school, linking her experiences of class, gender and power inequalities, and the impact of these inequalities on the human body. She also refers to Mauss (1936) in her writings and the way in which it is discussed that different societies, groups and even forms of education make different uses of the body. These uses may and have often been documented to change over time and in individual variations.
Mauss (1936) isolates three factors that are involved in understanding the body; those are social, psychological and biological (as cited in Okely 1993. p111). Okely (1993) talks of her constant attempts to convince ‘the authorities’, for example teachers, that she had internalised the institutions way of life, of being a ‘lady’ however, her body often let her down. She goes on to recall that the “minutest gesture could betray a lack of conviction, a failure of conversion” (Okely 1993. p112).
Children and adolescents are the most vulnerable to these outside influences, which often permanently shape their minds and bodies. Okely cited a former resident that had attempted to train to become an opera singer, but who could not breath deeply enough. She believed this to be due to a constant requirement to stand tall and firm, therefore, leading the chest to become too ‘rigidly encased’. The girl obviously saw a connection with her education and her bodily state.
In an attempt to draw attention to the social and individual impact of merely wearing a badge on the left or right side of your uniform, Okely highlights that in many cultures the right and left sides of the body, for example the hands, are used to represent symbolic and social oppositions.
“the right is given pre-eminence and may be associated with order, legitimacy and the male while the left can be associated with disorder, disruptive forces and the female” (Hertz 1960 as cited by Okely 1993. p115.)
In an effort to transform society, social constructionists inevitably raise questions about the past and the future, as they call into question prevailing ideological frameworks. Social constructionist approaches call attention to the paradox between the historically variable ways in which culture and society construct seemingly stable reality.
Social constructionist theory suggests that sexuality is a fluid and changeable entity, the product of human action and history rather than the result of the body, biology or an innate sex drive, as essentialism would suggest. Vance (1994) in her research into female sexuality, which can also be seen as a varied state, uses the example of female circumcision. She illustrates that social constructionists have not ignored the body, its function and physiology, and still in fact have the ability to incorporate the body with it’s theory without returning to essentialism.
From a sociological perspective, biology is by no means the overriding factor in the development of a disease. Rather, as White (2002) suggests, it is the prevailing social and economic conditions that allow a disease to develop which must be accounted for. Furthermore;
“given that germs do not speak for themselves, it is our interpretation of events that leads some conditions to be categorised as diseases.” (White 2002. p12)
But to what extent has the sociological analysis of the body and its varied states shed ‘light’ on the experiences of embodiment? It is clear from the brief evidence summarised above and the reading available on the subject that the essentialist explanation of the body in incomplete. As with any aspect of human society the impact of the relationship between the individual and his/her surroundings must be taken into consideration. There is much work to be undertaken in this area of study and many more links, or dualisms, to be uncovered.
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