Sociology and the Body

Nick Crossley. The Sage Handbook of Sociology. Editor: Craig Calhoun, Chris Rojek, Bryan Turner. Sage Publication. 2005.


Although sociological interest in the body is by no means as new as some accounts suggest, the growth of a sociological ‘industry’ of body studies has been one of the most notable developments in the discipline over the past 20 years. Key texts by Bryan Turner (1984, 1992) and John O’Neill (1985, 1989) constitute founding moments of this new wave of interest, at least in the English-speaking sectors of the sociological field, and date it at the mid-1980s (see also Frank, 1990, 1992; Shilling, 1993). Since that time a massive body of work has accumulated, covering a wide range of issues and sociological perspectives. New objects of interest have emerged and many old ones have been returned to and examined in new ways. The sheer volume and diversity of this work defies any possibility of summarizing it in just one chapter and I do not pretend to attempt that here. Many good overviews are available (Shilling, 1993; Williams and Bendelow, 1998). What I will present here is an overview of five issues which I take to be central to much of the sociological debate surrounding the body:

  • The dualisms: mind/body, body/society and biology/culture
  • The problem of intellectualism
  • The socialization of the body
  • The embodiment of society
  • Reflexive embodiment.

A multitude of important thinkers and works could be discussed in relation to each of these issues but, again, it would be impossible to do justice to them in the space available. I have been highly selective by force of necessity.

The Dualisms

One of the persistent claims of the pioneers of the sociology of the body, as well as those who have argued for a closer relationship between sociology and biology, has been that sociology manifests a Cartesian tendency towards mind/body dualism (Turner, 1984; Shilling, 1993; Williams and Bendelow, 1998; Burkitt, 1999). There are many problems with this claim in my view. For our purposes here, however, suffice it to say that it overlooks the reflections of the discipline’s founder. In his essay, ‘Individual and Collective Representations,’ Durkheim clearly marks his distance from the dualist position:

There is no need to conceive of a soul separated from its body maintaining in some ideal milieu a dreamy and solitary existence. The soul is in the world and its life is involved with the life of things, or we could say that all thoughts are in the brain. (Durkheim, 1974: 28)

In this particular passage the key to Durkheim’s post-dualism appears to be the brain, thus suggesting that his position is a variety of vulgar and reductive materialism. Elsewhere, however, he is at pains to distance himself from this position too, stressing that mental life is organized through meanings and representations which are strictly irreducible to the chemical interactions upon which they rest:

It is obvious that the condition of the brain affects all the intellectual phenomena and is the immediate cause of some of them (pure sensation). But, on the other hand … representational life is not inherent in the intrinsic nature of nervous matter, since in part it exists by its own force and has its own particular manner of being. […] the relations of representations are different in nature from those underlying neural elements. It is something quite new which certain characteristics of the cells certainly help to produce but do not suffice to constitute, since it survives them and manifests different properties. (Durkheim, 1974: 23-4)

His position here is relationalist. Human beings are entirely physical beings. We are composed of one substance (matter) not two (mind and matter) as Descartes (1968) suggests. However, an adequate account of human behaviour and experience, as it takes shape in the structured and processual interaction between the human organism, functioning as an integrated whole, and its environment involves emergent properties which, by definition, are irreducible to the basic properties of matter. Norbert Elias makes a similar claim:

complexes of physical events organised as organisms, plants and animals, possess regularities and structural characteristics which cannot be comprehended by merely reducing them to physio-chemical reactions … organised units at a higher level of integration are relatively autonomous with respect to events on the next lower level of integration. And distinctive forms of thought and methods of research are needed if scientists are to comprehend correctly the forms of organisation of the higher levels of integration. (Elias, 1978: 105)

Amongst the emergent properties considered by Durkheim are consciousness and symbolic meaning. Human behaviour, though entirely embodied, is not the mechanistic effect of physical forces acting upon the organism but rather a purposive interaction with a meaningful situation, meaning being strictly irreducible to the physical properties of the situation. In The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, for example, he claims that:

We know what the flag is for the soldier; in itself, it is only a piece of cloth. […] A cancelled postage stamp may be worth a fortune; but surely this value is in no way implied in its natural properties. […] Collective representations very frequently attribute to the things to which they are attached qualities which do not exist under any form or to any degree. Out of the commonest object, they can make a most powerful sacred being. Yet the powers which are thus conferred, though purely ideal, act as though they were real; they determine the conduct of men with the same degree of necessity as physical forces. (Durkheim, 1915: 260)

This does not preclude the possibility that events best conceived in physical terms can have psychological effects. Eat magic mushrooms and your representations will change. Conversely, as Peter Freunds (1988) important work suggests, effects may pass in the opposite direction. Read a sad novel and its meaning will have a physiological effect. It is important to emphasize, however, that these are not ‘interactions’ between different ‘substances’ or ‘things’ but rather consist of a single event which can be described at different structural levels. For example: sadness does not cause physiological change; rather ‘physiological change,’ on those occasions where it coincides with ‘sadness,’ is a partial and lower level description of ‘sadness.’ More to the point, most actions, most of the time, can only be explained by reference to the meaningful-representational level, for Durkheim. The same physical ‘stimulus’ will have a very different effect on our action if, for whatever reason, it assumes a different meaning.

Durkheim’s challenge to mind/body dualism is brief. It is little more than an outline. We can flesh out the argument, however, by reference to a very similar argument made by Merleau-Ponty (1962, 1965, 1968). Descartes and those who follow him, Merleau-Ponty observes, conceive of the ‘substance’ of the body in terms of brute physical matter, such that it is defined entirely in terms of its sense-perceptible properties. The Cartesian body is an object that fills space, can be seen, touched and smelled etc., and which is moved only by the action of other external bodies upon it:

[By ‘the body’] I understand all that can be terminated by some figure; that can be contained in some place and fill a space in such a way that any other body is excluded from it; that can be perceived, either by touch, sight, hearing, taste or smell; that can be moved in many ways, not of itself, but by something foreign to it by which it is touched and from which it receives the impulse. […] I am not this assemblage of limbs called the human body; I am not a thin and penetrating air spread through all these members … (Descartes, 1968: 104-5)

This concept of the body is extremely limited and one-sided. As such it effectively forces Descartes into a dualistic position. It refers exclusively to perceptible properties of the body, for example, failing to account for the nature of the being who perceives them, and it precludes any recognition of the phenomenological sense Descartes has of his own being. Hence his claim, in the above passage, ‘I am not this assemblage of limbs called the human body If this is what the body is then Descartes is not a body.’ He must be something else. This ‘something else,’ for Descartes, is a distinct ‘substance’ which he calls ‘mind,’ a substance which parallels ‘body’ or ‘matter’ and yet is radically different from it. To avoid dualism, it follows, we must rethink our concept of the body in such a way as to remove the necessity of invoking something other or extra. This is just what Merleau-Ponty does.

The definition of the body which Descartes arrives at, Merleau-Ponty notes, is derived from the definition of matter which was achieving purchase in the emerging scientific culture of his day. It is Galileo’s definition (see also Ryle, 1949; Husserl, 1970). This is methodologically problematic because Descartes’s Meditations are supposed to be foundational philosophical reflections that will establish a basis for science. They should not, therefore, be reliant upon scientific definitions. More to the point, it is his acceptance of this scientific definition of matter, as noted above, which generates the need for a dualistic schema in the first place. In contrast to this, Merleau-Ponty encourages us to recognize that ‘matter’ is a scientific typification which abstracts certain aspects of physical being, bracketing out others, for the purposes of its investigations. For these purposes it is perfectly legitimate and adequate but only for these purposes. He suggests that for philosophical and human scientific purposes we look beneath and beyond this typification to a more primordial layer of physical being, which is both sentient and sensible. He terms this more primordial layer of physical being ‘the flesh.’ This is a complex aspect of Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) later philosophy which I do not have the space to explore here. Suffice it to say, however, that the flesh of the human body is ‘reversible’; that is, it is both sentient and sensible, perceiving and perceptible, seeing and seen etc. The body is a sensuous or sentient as well as a sensible being. It is not merely a being which can be seen, touched, smelled, tasted and heard, a slab of meat, but also a being which ‘has’ sensations of sight, touch etc. Like Durkheim, Merleau-Ponty conceives of this in structural terms. The ‘flesh,’ at least of human and other animate bodies, is a higher level structure of physical being than that abstracted in the concept of ‘matter.’ Furthermore, like Durkheim, Merleau-Ponty emphasizes both that the sensations of the flesh form meaningful gestalts, such that perception amounts to an intentional apprehension of a meaningful world, and that these meanings are socially shared and constructed.

We should add here that Merleau-Ponty’s agent responds purposively to the meaningful situations which comprise its ‘milieu.’ This touches upon a further aspect of his critique of the Cartesian-inspired conception of the body. The Cartesian conception of the body, he argues, implies that human behaviour should be conceived mechanically, as movement caused by the action of external physical forces upon it. At Merleau-Ponty’s time of writing this conception was being championed by the psychological behaviourists, and much of his early work, inspired by Goldstein (2000) amongst others, was devoted to a critique of this school. I do not have the space to discuss this critique in detail (see Crossley, 2001a) but its basic outline is important. First, Merleau-Ponty (1962, 1965) assembles a mass of both empirical and philosophical materials to establish that the behaviourist programme is flawed. It is not borne out by experimental and other empirical studies and is theoretically incoherent. Human behaviour cannot be explained in terms of physical stimulus-response reflexes. Secondly, he argues that the same empirical materials which refute behaviourism are most parsimoniously accounted for in terms of an account that emphasizes the role of ‘meaning’ and purpose’ in the interchanges between the organism and its milieu. Finally, like Durkheim, Merleau-Ponty argues his case in broadly relational terms. The agency of the body is not the result of an addition of something to the flesh and bones of the organism, for him, but rather of the irreducible structure formed through the interaction of its parts both between themselves and with the immediate environment.

The Embodiment of Society: Nature and Culture

Durkheim’s structuralist critique of mind/body dualism is, for him, little more than a stepping-stone towards an argument for which he is much better known. Just as the parts of the body interact between themselves and with the physical environment, giving rise to a psychological life, he observes, the interaction of individual psychological beings gives rise to a still higher structure, society:

When we said elsewhere that social facts are, in a sense, independent of individuals and exterior to individual minds, we only affirmed of the social world what we have just established for the psychic world. Society has for its substratum the mass of associated individuals. […] In such a combination, with the mutual alterations involved, they become something else. (Durkheim, 1974: 24-6; emphasis in the original)

In the essay from which this passage is taken Durkheim argues that the representations integral to the mental life of the social agent derive from the higher level structure of collective life. The soldier perceives coloured cloth as a flag and acts and emotes appropriately, to return to earlier quotation, because that is how the cloth is defined in the system of representations of the society to which he belongs. Collective representations are but one aspect of the sui generis order that Durkheim conceives of, however, as is widely acknowledged (Durkheim, 1954, 1962).

The various pros and cons of Durkheim’s sui generis argument are well rehearsed in the literature. I will not revisit them here. What is important, from our point of view, is the implication of his view that the physical, psychological and social worlds’ are different levels of organization of what Merleau-Ponty (1968) calls the ‘flesh.’ Without denying the possibility of tensions and mutual adjustments between these successive orders of reality (see below), this conception effects a pre-emptive strike against any inclination we may have to conceive of body and society or nature and culture in dualistic terms:

… even if society is a specific reality it is not an empire within an empire; it is part of nature and, indeed, its highest representation. The social realm is a natural realm which differs from the others [e.g. the chemical, biological and psychological realms] only by a greater complexity. (Durkheim, 1915: 31)

Society is also of nature and yet dominates it. Not only do all the forces of the universe converge in society, but they also form a new synthesis which surpasses in richness, complexity and power of action all that went to form it. In a word, society is nature arrived at a higher point of its development, concentrating all its energies to surpass, as it were, itself. (Durkheim, 1974: 97)

We cannot reduce society to either psychology or biology. Each is a distinct and irreducible structure. For this same reason, we cannot, contra the claims of naïve positivism, study society and social relations in exactly the same way as we study other natural structures. The particular nature of social phenomena must be attended to. However, society and culture are structures of the natural world, albeit higher level structures, and we must refuse the temptation to think otherwise. Thus, if human beings are cultural or social beings this is not at the expense of them also being natural or biological beings. This is not to deny that there are uses and meanings of the term ‘natural’ which necessarily juxtapose it to ‘social.’ In some cases, for example, it may mean ‘innate’ as opposed to ‘learned.’ In the broad ontological sense under discussion here, however, society is a part of nature.

At the level of the individual this implies, as Merleau-Ponty (1962), Elias (1978) and a number of more progressive biologists have argued, that human beings are biologically equipped for a cultural and historical life (Levins and Lewontin, 1985; Lewontin, 2000). That is to say, the process of natural selection has in the case of human beings given rise to a creature characterized by a capacity for intelligent innovation and invention, as well as learning and habituation; a creature who, in interaction with others, plays a considerable role in fashioning the environment (social and material) in which they live, investing it with normative and semiotic structures, and who both incorporates those innovations, in the manner of habits (see below), such that they acquire the force of nature or instinct, and passes them on to offspring equipped to learn and incorporate them also. The human organism is a historical being in the fundamental sense that it is disposed to take over the ‘story’ from its ancestors and push the ‘plot’ forward.

This conceptual schema implies no concession to vulgar varieties of materialism or naturalism which seek either to explain social phenomena by reducing them to lower level biochemical orders or to naturalize them by way of pseudo-evolutionary ‘just so’ stories. To the contrary, it offers a strong critique of reductionism and effectively calls for a much more expansive and progressive view of the natural world. We must not adjust our conception of society or human beings to fit ‘naked ape’ conceptions of the world. Rather we must expand our conception of nature to fit the evident facts of human social life and history. Nature is a far more complex phenomenon than natural science inclines us to recognize because it contains the constantly changing structures of the social world. Integral to this, however, is the imperative to resist both the tendency to think of society in disembodied terms, in isolation from the embodied practices in which it consists, and the tendency to think of these social practices as outside of or above ‘nature.’

As it stands this argument is quite abstract and focused on some of the more fundamental ontological assumptions of social science. We can advance this position by considering the more concrete level at which society is embodied. I mean two things by this. First, as Durkheim himself reminds us, society is generated byway of interactions between (embodied) social agents. It is ‘done’ by human agents and that ‘doing’ is necessarily embodied. It is perhaps obvious that our manipulation and transformation of the world presuppose our own physicality but this is no less true of our social interactions, both direct and mediated.

We exist for each other only insofar as we are perceptible to each other, which entails our bodily being, and we communicate meaning only through the embodied media of gesture and language (written, spoken, broadcast etc.). In this sense the social world presupposes what Merleau-Ponty (1968) calls ‘the chiasm’ or ‘intercorporeality’; an ‘intertwining’ of bodies which see and are seen, touch and are touched, hear and can be heard. The networks comprising the social world are intercorporeal networks. Secondly, the embodiment of structure entails that social structures are incorporated within our bodies, in the form of ‘habitus,’ such that our various interactions, which reproduce society, do so in ways specific to that society and its historical trajectory. In what follows I seek to elucidate this. I begin with Merleau-Ponty’s critique of intellectualist conceptions of agency, a critique which itself begins with the Cartesian view of perception.

Intellectualism, Practical Agency, and Habitus

For Descartes the meaning of our perceptions is determined by a mental act of judgement or interpretation. What we perceive is not what we see with our eyes, hear with our ears etc., but rather what we judge to be before us with our minds:

If I chance to look out of a window at men passing in the street, I do not fail to say, on seeing them, that I see men […] and yet, what do I see from this window, other than hats and cloaks, which can cover ghosts or dummies which move only by means of springs? But I judge them to be really men, and thus I understand, by the sole power of judgement which resides in my mind, what I believed I saw with the eyes. (Descartes, 1968: 110)

Similarly ‘action,’ qua physical movement, is not intrinsically meaningful, intelligent or purposive, but only acquires meaning, intelligence and purpose by virtue of the deliberations, plans and judgements of reflective consciousness. The body, for Descartes, as we saw in the quotation cited earlier in this chapter, ‘can be moved in many ways, not of itself, but by something foreign to it by which it is touched and from which it receives the impulse’ (Descartes, 1968: 104). The mind, which bestows meaning upon the world by way of acts of judgement, instructs the body how to act in that world. This is problematic on a number of counts.

First, the account of perception is flawed. Insofar as Descartes identifies an active element in perception on behalf of the perceptual agent we might be persuaded to concur. What we perceive is not merely what is ‘there’ before us, as any number of perceptual illusions and ambiguous images illustrate. We can make sense of the same perceptual materials in very different ways and might fail to see what could be seen because we do not configure our perceptual field appropriately. It is for this reason that we are inclined to reject empiricist accounts of perception which explain it as the caused effect of the objects of perception. Nevertheless, there is a flaw in Descartes’s account also. His account of how perception works, which emphasizes the reflective activities of a thinking subject, collapses into infinite regression. It presupposes a prior perception to have occurred and cannot explain this prior perception without presupposing a further perception and so on ad infinitum. In the particular illustration that he gives in the passage quoted above, for example, Descartes claims that his perception of men’ is, in fact, a judgement. He has judged the hats and coats which he sees before him to be men.’ This begs the question of how we are to explain his perception of hats and coats. That cannot be explained by reference to an act of judgement unless we presuppose an earlier perception still, which is judged to be hats and coats, and so on. There is no escaping this problem because acts of judgement, interpretation or similar such predicative acts, will always presuppose perceptual materials which are judged or interpreted.

For this reason Merleau-Ponty, in his account, reverses the Cartesian position and argues that we do, indeed, perceive with our eyes and not by way of any abstract predicative mental processes, such as judgement. Like Descartes, Merleau-Ponty believes that perception is an active process in which perceptual meaning is constructed but the activity is that of a sensuous bodily whole which scans the environment, focusing in and out, foregrounding different elements and pushing others to the background. This is an activity of the eyes but also of the head, neck, feet, indeed of the whole body functioning as an integrated system. Furthermore, he suggests that this process of interrogation and the meaningful gestalts it settles upon are the outcome of a process of learning in which habitual schemas of perception are acquired:

every perceptual habit is still a motor habit and here equally the process of grasping a meaning is performed by the body. […] The gaze gets more or less from things according to the way in which it questions them, ranges over or dwells on them. To learn to see colours is to acquire a certain style of seeing, a new use of one’s own body; it is to enrich and recast the body image. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 153)

Reading a written text or listening to a speech provide a very clear illustration of this. It is obvious that the meaning of our perceptions, in these cases, is conventional and based upon the acquisition of particular perceptual schemas. We cannot understand texts written in languages we have not learned. This also illustrates the active element in perception, the element of ‘reading,’ because the same text maybe meaningful to one agent (who has acquired the language) but not another (who has not), such that the difference must involve something that they are able to do; that is, read this or that text. And yet texts and speeches generally strike us as immediately meaningful and we are not generally aware of the active processes we are instigating. The activity of reading is conducted, for the most part, at a level of pre-reflective habit. This same point applies to all perception, for Merleau-Ponty. We ‘read’ social situations as surely as we read written texts, and the role of pre-reflective schemas of perception is just the same.

A very similar argument can be made with respect to ‘action.’ Ryle (1949), for example, has noted that the Cartesian conception of action, which understands it to be an outcome of deliberation or planning, necessarily collapses back into an infinite regression. If actions must be deliberated upon or planned in order to be meaningful and intelligent, he asks, then where does this leave planning and deliberation? They too are acts and one assumes that they must be intelligent and meaningful in order to bestow meaning and intelligence on that which they deliberate upon or plan. If Descartes is correct, therefore, then plans and deliberations must be planned and deliberated upon too. The problem, of course, is that these prior plans and deliberations too must be planned and deliberated upon and so on ad infinitum.

Merleau-Ponty comes at this same point from a more phenomenological angle. Descartes’s argument implies that I enjoy the same relationship to my body as to any ‘other’ external objects in my world, he notes. But I do not. When I move an object I do something in order to move it and am generally aware of doing so. To move the fridge in my kitchen I must first grab it, position myself appropriately relative to it and so on. I do not ‘move’ my body in this way, however. It just moves, or rather I, qua corporeal agent, move. I do not have to locate my arm in order to then lift it above my head and I cannot tell you how I lift my hand above my head. I don’t know how I do it because, as far as I am concerned, I don’t do anything. I simply am my body and its actions are my actions. I enjoy a pre-reflective mastery over both my body and its immediate spatio-temporal milieu. Merleau-Ponty refers to this basic pre-reflective bodily sense and practical mastery as the ‘corporeal schema’ and he views this corporeal schema as the fundamental basis of our agency (see Crossley, 2001a for an elaboration).

Integral to this notion of the corporeal schema is a concept of embodied ‘knowledge’ and ‘understanding.’ The Cartesian conceptualizes knowledge and understanding in reflective and predicative terms. Knowledge is conceived in propositional terms as ‘knowl-edge-that,’ a reflective awareness and positing that ‘x’ is the case. Similarly, understanding is conceived as a reflective and conceptual achievement. This definition is flawed on a number of counts (see Ryle, 1949; Merleau-Ponty, 1962; Crossley, 2001a), not least of which is that it ignores a whole range of more practical forms of embodied ‘know-how.’ Consider, for example, my ability to type. I can type and that means that I ‘know’ where the various letters are on the keyboard in front of me. But in what way do I know? I do not think about where the keys are before I type. I just do it. More to the point, I could not say where the keys are if I were asked. I do not know, in a reflective way, where the keys are. My knowledge is an embodied knowledge; knowledge which is indissociable from my ability to do certain things. This is a relatively mundane example but the same might be said of my higher order competencies, such as my ability to ‘philosophize’ and play the philosophical ‘game’ or my ability to lecture or make polite conversation. Each entails a form of embodied know-how which consists entirely in my ability to do this or that activity. Kuhns (1970) work on the philosophy of science provides an interesting example here. There are few more ‘cerebral’ activities than science. And yet, as Kuhn argues, the doing of science rests upon a range of practical skills, schemas and forms of competence which the budding scientist must both acquire and take for granted. The reflective and discursive aspect of science rests upon and presupposes this pre-reflective and practical work (see also Polanyi, 1966).

The acquisition of these various corporeal skills and ‘principles’ constitutes a modification and enlargement of the corporeal schema, and Merleau-Ponty generally refers to such modifications in terms of ‘habit.’ However, he is sure to distance his conception of habit from the narrow and mechanistic version of the concept which rose into prominence in the early twentieth century (Camic, 1986). Habits, for Merleau-Ponty, are flexible, intelligent and multi-track dispositions. They are embodied, practical and pre-reflective ways of understanding the world:

If habit is neither a form of knowledge nor an involuntary action what then is it? It is knowledge in the hands, which is forthcoming only when bodily effort is made, and cannot be formulated in detachment from that effort. The subject knows where the letters are on the typewriter as we know where one of our limbs is, through knowledge bred of familiarity which does not give us a position in objective space. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 144)

We said earlier that it is the body which understands in the acquisition of habit. This way of putting it will appear absurd, if understanding is subsuming a sense datum under an idea, and if the body is as an object. But the phenomenon of habit is just what prompts us to revise our notion of understand’ and our notion of the body. To understand is to experience the harmony between what we aim at and what is given, between the intention and the performance—and the body is our anchorage in a world. (p. 144)

This practical, embodied understanding and knowledge lies at the root of human being-in-the-world, for Merleau-Ponty. It subtends even our most reflective postures. The reflective subject of the Cartesian schema is not therefore the bottom line on human subjectivity, as Descartes famously takes it to be. Beneath and before our more theoretical modes of dealing with the world we are practical beings. Following Husserl, Merleau-Ponty marks his distance from Descartes on this point by arguing for the primacy of the ‘I can’ over the ‘I think.’ Even this formulation fails to capture the radical nature of his argument, however, at least insofar as reference to ‘I’ invokes an image of a reflexively aware and reflective ego. The ‘I’ of Merleau-Ponty’s ‘I can’ is an anonymous being which subtends the life of the reflective ego. One is reminded of Zarathustra’s message to the ‘despisers of the body’:

You say ‘I’ and you are proud of this word. But greater than this—although you will not believe in it—is your body and its great intelligence, which does not say ‘I,’ but performs ‘I.’ (Nietzsche, 1969: 62)

None of this is intended to deny that human agents do indeed reflect upon their possibilities for action and entertain conscious thoughts. However, Merleau-Ponty performs a similar ‘deconstruction’ on the process of reflective thought as upon perception. In the first instance he argues that reflective thought is achieved in and through speech and thus language. This is not a matter of arguing that language ‘causes’ thought or vice versa. Causation is only possible between two independent beings but thought and speech are not separate, for Merleau-Ponty. They are two sides of the same coin or ‘flesh.’ Speech (or writing) is the ‘body’ of reflective thought and thought is the sense or meaning of speech (or writing). More to the point, both speech and thought are practical activities rooted in acquired forms of habitual competence. My ability to speak, forming thoughts in the words of my native language, is a practical activity whose physical mechanisms and linguistic principles I am unable to explain. I ‘understand’ language and its rules but in a practical rather than a theoretical or reflective way. It is an activity I perform without thinking about it. And given the linguistic basis of reflective thought, this too must be underscored by practical and embodied activity. I may of course prepare my thoughts and utterances before expressing them but only by means of prior expressions and linguistic uses which I have not prepared in this way. If it were necessary to think about thinking before doing it then my mental life would collapse back into a black hole of infinite regression.

Habit, Habitus, and Body Technique: The Socialization of the Body

Through his concept of habit Merleau-Ponty opens the door to a distinctly sociological conception of the body. Human beings do not have fixed instincts, he argues, but our embodied ways of being do nevertheless achieve a degree of stability and regularity in virtue of our habits:

Although our body does not impose definite instincts upon us, as it does other animals, it does at least give to our life the form of generality, and develops our personal acts into stable dispositional tendencies. In this sense our nature is not long-established custom, since custom presupposes the form of passivity derived from nature. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 146)

Here Merleau-Ponty rejoins my earlier claim, in respect of Durkheim, regarding nature/culture dualism. Human beings are ‘creatures of habit’ but this is not contrary to ‘nature.’ It is what we are by nature. More importantly, however, Merleau-Ponty recognizes that the habits which shape our subjective lives and actions are often shared. Our individual biographical histories, which give rise to our habits, are interwoven with the lives of others in collective histories, such that our habits are shared too. Hence his reference to custom.

This claim overlaps in important ways with Mauss’s (1979) observations on ‘body techniques.’ Mauss observes that there is variability in the ways in which individuals in different social groups ‘use’ their bodies. There are, he notes, different ways of, for example, walking, speaking, eating, sleeping and making love, and these different forms of activity tend to follow a social distribution, such that we speak of them as ‘social facts’ in Durkheim’s (1982) sense. These different uses’ of the body are not mere differences in the mechanics of movement, however. Rather, they are collective techniques for getting a grip upon the world, making sense of it and making out within it. Like Merleau-Ponty’s habits they are embodied forms of understanding and knowledge. They give shape to purposive action and, as such, they form an integral part of the practical reason’ of a particular group. In an effort to capture both this purposive understanding of body techniques and their social facticity, Mauss elects to use the concept of the habitus:

Please note that I use the Latin word—it should be understood in France—habitus. The word translates infinitely better than ‘habitude’ (habit or custom), the ‘exis,’ the ‘acquired ability’ and ‘faculty’ of Aristotle (who was a psychologist). It does not designate those metaphysical habitudes, that mysterious ‘memory,’ the subject of volumes or short and famous theses. These ‘habits’ do not vary just with individuals and their imitations; they vary between societies, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges. In them we should see the techniques and work of collective and individual practical reason rather than, in the ordinary way, merely the soul and its repetitive faculties. (Mauss, 1979: 101)

‘Body techniques’ mirror Durkheim’s ‘collective representations.’ They are elements of a collective psychological life. But they entail a pre-representational level of collective life, such as is identified in Merleau-Ponty’s critique of intellectualism and his concept of the corporeal schema. Specific social groups share a habitus and specific body techniques. They share a manner of being-in and practically understanding the world.

Within more recent sociology the work of Pierre Bourdieu has done most to explore and develop these notions of habitus and body techniques. He draws upon both Merleau-Ponty and Mauss, extending the concerns of Mauss in particular by reflecting upon both the causes and the consequences of a social distribution of habitus or body techniques. Different social groups can be identified by their body techniques, he argues. In particular he has focused upon differences relating to class and gender, and he has often returned to the uses of the mouth as his example:

Language is a body technique, and specifically linguistic, especially phonetic, competence is a dimension of bodily hexis in which one’s whole relation to the social world, and one’s wholly social informed relation to the world, are expressed. […] The most frequent articulatory position is an element in an overall way of using the mouth (in talking but also in eating, drinking, laughing etc.) […] in the case of the lower classes, articulatory style is quite clearly part of a relation to the body that is dominated by the refusal of ‘airs and graces’ […] Bourgeois dispositions convey in their physical postures of tension and exertion … the bodily indices of quite general dispositions towards the world and other people, such as haughtiness and disdain. (Bourdieu, 1992b: 86-7)

The bourgeoisie use their mouths differently to the proletariat in speech. Furthermore, their oral hexis, which Bourdieu deems ‘tight-lipped,’ embodies their broader manner of being-in-the-world. They are, in Bourdieu’s view, generally ‘up tight.’

The precise reason why specific groups have particular body techniques is never made explicit in Bourdieu’s work, but there are hints. At one level his position is purely relational. There is nothing intrinsic to either groups or body techniques which links them, he suggests. Rather, groups-in-formation seize upon arbitrary body techniques in an effort to construct a sense of collective identity and distinguish themselves from other, particularly ‘lower’ groups. On this point Bourdieu overlaps with Durkheim, who, in his study of the totemic clans of Australia, notes how their members alter the external appearance of their bodies in various ways as a means of marking out group identity and proving group loyalty and belonging:

They do not put their coat-of-arms merely upon things which they possess, but they put it upon their person; they imprint it upon their flesh; it becomes part of them, […] it is more frequently upon the body itself that the totemic mark is stamped; for this is a way of representation within the capacity of even the least advanced societies. It has sometimes been asked whether the common rite of knocking out a young man’s two front teeth at the age of puberty does not have the object of reproducing the form of totem … (Durkheim, 1915: 137)

The best way of proving to oneself and to others that one is a member of a certain group is to place a distinctive mark on the body. (p. 265)

By bearing the mark of the group the individual announces its existence and their belonging to it to both ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders,’ thus reproducing the sense that the group has of itself. Group members do this, Durkheim argues, because they feel the force of the group pressuring them to do so. The collective generates a demand for its members to identify with it. The body is particularly important here on account of its public and perceptible presence. To wear a sign of group belonging upon the body is instantly and immediately to communicate one’s group belonging.

In addition to these processes of group formation and distinction Bourdieu has observed how the habitus of specific groups is shaped by the social and material environment in which the group exists. Circumstances cultivate a shared attitude towards life, which is reflected in body techniques and sedi-mented in the habitus. Habitus are shaped by the jobs people do, the demands these jobs make, the resources of time, money etc. that are available to groups, the conditions in which they live and so on. Habitus, in this respect, are adaptive phenomena, although again Bourdieu is concerned to emphasize that they sediment and assume a more durable form. Habitus outlive their conditions of production and whatever adaptive functions they may serve therein.

Embodied styles achieve more than the marking of identity in Bourdieu’s view, however. They contribute to the reproduction of social hiearchies. His arguments on this matter are complex and cannot be expounded satisfactorily here. It must suffice to make two points. First, embodied dispositions can function as cultural or physical capital, generating advantages for those they dispose in a variety of different situations. Liza Doolittle, in Shaw’s Pygmalion, is a classic literary illustration of this. To better herself and secure employment in a ‘posh’ flower shop she must become a lady; that is, acquire the hexis and social competencies of a middle class woman. Secondly the embodiment of class difference by way of hexis has the effect of making social inequalities appear ‘natural’—in the sense of ‘non-variable.’ Acquired competence and style assume the appearance of innate qualities and talents which, in turn, justify inequities in life chances. In addition to this, challenging the tendency in theories of the social contract, legitimation and ideology to locate the ‘agreements’ which hold society together at the level of conscious reflection and belief, Bourdieu argues that the domination of the state is secured at the corporeal level. The cognitive structures which support the state ‘are not forms of consciousness,’ he argues, ‘but dispositions of the body’ (1998a: 54; emphasis in the original). He continues:

The social world is riddled with calls to order that function as such only for those who are predisposed to heeding them as they awaken deeply buried corporeal dispositions, outside the channels of consciousness and communication. (Bourdieu, 1998a: 55)

Furthermore, extending his argument to engage with the notion of ‘false consciousness,’ he adds,

to speak of ideologies is to locate in the realm of representations—liable to be transformed through this intellectual conversion called ‘awakening of consciousness’—what in fact belongs to the order of belief, that is, to the level of most profound corporeal dispositions. Submision to the established order is the product of the agreement between, on the one hand the cognitive structures inscribed in bodies by both collective history (phylogenesis) and individual history (ontogenesis) and, on the other, the objective structures of the world to which these cognitive structures are applied. (p. 55)

What Bourdieu means by this is never clearly spelled out. There are at least three aspects to his basic point, however. At one level, paralleling certain of Durkheim’s (1915, 1974) reflections on the forms of solidarity generated through collective effervescence, he appears to be advancing the idea that agents are bound to the social order through collectively held and generated sentiments which become attached to social symbols (flags, anthems etc.). This seems, at least, to elucidate his notion of ‘calls to order.’ On occasion the state is able to maintain order through an appeal to the patriotic sentiments and identifications of its citizens, reaching behind the domain of rational discourse to the domain of deeply rooted bodily feeling.

Secondly, he is arguing that discursive persuasion is not necessary for effective legitimation most of the time because much of the consent which social agents grant to the state and the status quo is granted tacitly at a habitual level. Agents do not decide anew each day to support the status quo. Indeed, insofar as events conform to their general expectations they do not question it at all. They participate in society, reproducing it, and they do so with great competence and skill. But their participation is rooted in their habitus; in the dispositions and skills that they have acquired through earlier participation and from the patterns of participation of their parents. They play the game’ but neither the game nor their participation in it are thematic or reflective issues for them. This is not to say that these assumptions and beliefs have never been discussed or argued over. They may once have been fought over but they are now repressed, pushed out of the narratives of collective memory and existing in the silence of the pre-reflective world of the corporeal schema:

What appears to us today as self-evident, as beneath consciousness and choice, has quite often been the stake of struggles and instituted only as the result of dogged confrontations between dominant and dominated groups. The major effect of historical evolution is to abolish history by relegating to the past, that is, to the unconscious, the lateral possibles that it eliminated. (pp. 56-7)

Crises and the social movements that sometimes grow out of them might suffice to raise these corporeal dispositions into public consciousness, whereupon they can be debated. But they remain effective to the degree to which they function at the pre-reflective and pre-discursive level of the habitus and the body.

Thirdly, echoing Foucault (1979), Bourdieu notes that and how the dispositions presupposed by the reproduction of political domination are themselves reproduced in the context of a variety of social fields, particularly the educational system. Bodies are disciplined in schools, families, workplaces etc.

What is true of the specific forms of inequality and domination referred to here is, for Bourdieu, true of the social world more generally. Through participation in the games or fields comprising the social world agents acquire, as habitus, the dispositions necessary to continue and reproduce those games. The habitus is thus both shaped by the social world and lends shape to that world. It is a system

of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them. Objectively ‘regulated’ and ‘regular’ without being in any way the product of obedience to rules, they can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of an organizing action of a conductor. (Bourdieu, 1992a: 53)

This claim connects with the concern for ‘the body’ on two counts, both already noted in this chapter. First, it emphasizes that social worlds are sites of practical and embodied activity. Social worlds consist in practices and practices have to be ‘done,’ not by way of disembodied mental acts but through the practical activities of embodied agents acting in concert. Secondly, the duality of the habitus qua structured and structuring structure, which is central to the reproduction of the social world, rests upon the peculiar configuration of the human organism which enables it to innovate, to ‘conserve’ innovations in the form of habits and to absorb the innovations of others by a process of learning.

Habitus and Asceticism

Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus, though entirely corporeal, is much broader than either Mauss’s or Merleau-Ponty’s concept of habit. Alongside the dispositions and forms of competence recognized by these two writers it includes tastes, sensibilities and broader aspects of lifestyle. All of these elements, Bourdieu maintains, are incorporated within the corporeal schema. In addition, it at least hints at the asceticism imposed upon the body by dint of social membership. The middle class habitus, for example, is deemed more restrained than the working class habitus. This notion of asceticism is important for any sociological discussion of embodiment and requires brief elucidation. We can take our lead from Durkheim.

Societies, to reiterate, are composed of interactions and interdependencies between individual psychological beings, for Durkheim, but these interactions and interdependencies give rise to sui generis dynamics and processes. This generates specific demands which act back upon agents. In particular, Durkheim argues, collective life demands that individuals subordinate certain of their specific and particular desires and demands to those of the group. Asceticism is a necessity of social life. There are two reasons for this. First, as writers from Hobbes through Freud and beyond have recognized, the particular desires and impulses of individuals are not necessarily conducive to a just, ordered or harmonious social order. Individual wants often clash and there is a necessity, therefore, that some, at least, are repressed. Secondly, however, and rejoining our earlier point about the relationship of the body to processes of group formation and solidarity, Durkheim argues that the collective psychology of the group generates a demand for all of its members to demonstrate their loyalty to it, putting it above themselves, and that this involves specific tests of loyalty. Rites of passage, for example, specifically those which entail pain, can be understood as ways of training individuals to subordinate themselves to the group and demanding of them that they demonstrate this sacrifice. Similarly with those forms of ritual and taboo which serve no obvious material function. The individual must learn to put the rules and values of society above their own immediate impulses and must demonstrate their willingness to do so. The endurance of pain and discomfort are dramatic ways of doing this.

These observations come from Durkheims (1915) analysis of totemic clans in Australia and certain of the details of his account are specific to that society. His basic point has a general resonance, however, and has been touched upon by other key figures from the sociological tradition. Weber’s (1978) analysis of the protestant work ethic, for example, quite clearly explores the relationship between a specific ascetic regime and the type of society it has given rise to, that is, early industrial capitalism. And coming at the relationship from the other side, Elias (1984) has argued that increased societal differentiation and the concentration of the means of legitimate violence in the centralized state have both led to an increased ‘social restraint towards self-restraint.’ The more complex societies have become, Elias argues, the more complex, differentiated and sensitive human behaviour must become, and thus the greater the demand for self-restraint. Not that social agents are necessarily aware of this. Self-restraint is learned and is practised to such a point that it becomes habitual and automatic; a structure of the habitus.

In an interesting argumentative twist, Durkheim (1915) argues that it is this internalized self-control and the reflexivity it imposes upon the agent which gives rise to the belief in (mind/body) dualism. By internalizing the demands of society and applying them to their self the individual experiences a division within’ their self which they are apt to interpret as a division of body and soul.

Reflexive Embodiment: Body Projects

This division and reflexivity is not simply a matter of internalized control, however. Within the context of the social interactions comprising society embodied agents become aware of themselves qua ‘bodies.’ The embodied ‘I’ becomes aware of itself qua embodied ‘me’ (Mead, 1967). And this in turn generates a context in which bodies become (reflexive) objects of (self) transformation. In this respect, furthermore, the body is a central element in identity. Agents recognize and become conscious of their selves as ‘bodies’ and work upon their bodies, both as decorative objects and behavioural systems, in an effort to secure recognition for their identity from others.

Some of this ‘body work’ is quite mundane and is quickly absorbed within the habitus. We brush our teeth, wash, comb our hair etc. without thinking about doing so. In many respects, however, our bodies remain thematic within the reflexive process of self-hood and are consciously worried over and worked upon. Modern bodies are trimmed down by diet and exercise; built up through the use of weights and exercise; painted and decorated; altered through surgery; pierced, tattooed and even branded. Such activities are often deemed highly personal but like many personal acts their distribution and rates of participation betray a social dynamic. Furthermore, they generally entail ‘collective action,’ at least in the sense that they presuppose organized social worlds or ‘fields’ for their successful execution and reception.

This point overlaps with much of what I have already said in this chapter, at least with regard to collective identity. There is more to contemporary ‘body work’ than is captured by the concept of collective identity building, however, at least in the traditional sense of collective identity considered hitherto in this chapter, and not only because ‘the cult of the individual’ has seemingly achieved dominance over more traditional identity forms—though that is important. In the modern context technological developments and possibilities have shattered traditional ways of thinking about the body and its limits, whilst social changes have undermined the traditions which root both identity and bodily life (Giddens, 1991). Body and identity are now both constituted as objects of choice and, insofar as they meld, objects of the same choice. Furthermore, this is complicated by the advance of medical science which, contrary to earlier expectations, has introduced great uncertainty into bodily life, rendering the body at ‘risk’ (Giddens, 1991). The authority of tradition has been usurped by authorities who no longer feel capable of offering us certitude and offer us, instead, a balance of probabilities and risks: ‘x’ reduces the chances of y but increases the chances of ‘z.’ It is in this context that the modern agent plays out their reflexive relationship to their self; balancing risks and striving to build an embodied self which will be recognized and valued in a post-traditional and uncertain context.


In this chapter I have attempted to offer a brief introduction to some of the key arguments and issues surrounding the surge of interest in the body within sociology in the past twenty years. One central theme has been the need to challenge mind/body and nature/culture dualisms, re-rooting both society and the social agent within ‘the flesh.’ This is not to the detriment of what we might call dualities. It does not preclude the fact that, for example, ‘bodies’ can be subject to various attempts to (socially) control them and indeed to curb apparently ‘natural’ tendencies. However, it means that we must seek to understand such dualities from within a non-dualistic framework, and that very often means a reflexive framework. If the demands of civilized society conflict with the demands of unsocialized nature this is not because culture and nature are distinct realms. It reflects rather a torsion with nature (or the flesh) itself, between its higher and lower levels of integration.

Remembering these points forces us to rethink certain of our key concepts. We are required to conceptualize society as a web of interactions between embodied agents but also to reject the vestiges of Cartesianism evident in overly reflective models of the actor. We are required to attend to the pre-reflective and habitual basis of agency. In doing this, moreover, as Bourdieu’s work in particular suggests, we can begin to address a further dualism of sociological thought; that of structure and agency. The concept of the habitus captures for us the way in which the body is moulded by the social world but in such a way that it is then disposed to reproduce the social world by way of its (inter)actions.

The body is not merely a pre-reflective and practical agent, however. It is equally an object of a variety of forms of explicit practices of moulding and modification, particularly in the context of late modernity. Through involvement in society embodied agents become aware of themselves qua ‘bodies’ and are thereby led to act, by way of their bodies, upon their own bodies. In the late modern context this is a process complicated by multiple uncertainties and risks.