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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. 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 Selfin Everyday Life (1959) demonstrated the importance of the body for identity in disruptions to interaction. 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). Domestic utensils, such as the fork or spittoon, were important features of the regulation of manners through the training of the 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 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. 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.
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. 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 or the postmodern body is one that can be endlessly recreated and reshaped.
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 Pierre 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.
Since the 1980s, a variety of perspectives on the body have emerged. It is unlikely and possibly undesirable that any single theoretical synthesis will finally develop. 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.
- O’Neill, John (1985) Five Bodies: The Human Shape of Modern Society. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.
- Turner, Bryan S. (1984) The Body and Society: Explorations in Social Theory. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Foucault, Michel (1977) The History of Sexuality. Tavistock, London.
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