Sociology of the Embodiment

The "embodiment" is the term that refers to the sociocultural ideas and values concerning the body, how these influence individual bodies and experiences and perceptions of people inhabiting those bodies. Embodiment emphasizes the importance of both nature and biology, on the one hand, and culture and society on the other hand, in shaping ideas, values, experiences related to the body, and physical features of the body.

French sociologist and anthropologist Robert Hertz, in the text "The Dominance of the Right Hand", shows that the social and religious definition of the right hand influenced its primacy and not biological asymmetry. The right hand is an expression of the sacred, community and altar, order and harmony, prosperity and serenity; while the left hand symbolizes night, lawlessness, chaos, and evil.

Anthropologists Marcel Mauss and Henri Hubert collaborated on the book A General Theory of Magic (2001, in French 1902a). They explain the nature of magic by studying the concept of mana used in Melanesian and Polynesian societies. In these societies, mana is a mystical force that is the basis of all magical beliefs. In humans, magical powers are associated with bodily functions, especially with substances that leave the body. However, magic is, in essence, a social phenomenon, because it is shaped by social structure and rules. 

Marcel Mauss, in the article "Techniques of the Body" (1934), calls the techniques of the body specialized physical activities that reflect certain aspects of culture. Everyday physical activities are related to cultural expectations, with the author researching in detail what and how we work with our bodies. He believed that body techniques should be studied from a physiological, psychological, and sociological aspect. Mauss advocated for an approach that would combine the physiological, psychological, and social aspects of the body. 

Anthropologist Lévi-Strauss is known for his “culinary triangle”, which consists of the interrelationship of baked, boiled, and smoked foods, that is, their symbolic-structural position in different cultures. Relying on the basic theoretical premise of structuralism, that the human symbolic universe is divided into binary oppositions, Lévi-Strauss applies the same principle to human diet and ways of preparing food. The basic binary oppositions in this sphere are: processed/unprocessed; culture/nature; fresh/rotten; boiled/fried and food/feces. The main culinary triangle consists of fresh, cooked, and rotten, which represent pure forms. Cooking is a process of thermal processing of food in hot water, with the fact that water, as the most favorable medium for food rotting, essentially "carries out the natural transformation of food in the same way that the human body does through digestion, with the difference that it does it outside, and the human body inside" (Lévi-Strauss, 1983). The myths of the North American Indians are replete with myths about animals and people who have digestive problems or do not have an anus as the end of the digestive tract. Digestion in these myths performs the mediating function of stopping the natural process of rotting, and the same function is performed by the culinary processing of food.

Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso studied the relationship between inherited biological factors and behavior. He was heavily influenced by Charles Darwin's theory of biological evolution and Herbert Spencer's theory of social evolution. Lombroso was very attached to the positivist method and measurements, so, for the sake of researching his theory, he made extensive measurements of the body and face dimensions of hundreds of criminals and members of the general population.

German-British sociologist Norbert Elias in the first volume of his book On The Process of Civilization: The History of Manners deals with the adoption of etiquette rules. Elias follows the development of rules that regulate many areas: eating behavior, the way physiological functions are performed, regulation of sexual behavior and gender relations, and the like. He calls this process the "sociogenesis" of civilization. The rules of good behavior are adopted on the cognitive and behavioral levels by individuals. The main change on the individual level is an increase in the feelings of shame and anxiety concerning one's own body and satisfying the most basic biological needs. Behavioral changes are directly related to changes in the structure of the wider society. When the aristocracy became part of the court society, individuals from the aristocracy came to a state of greater physical closeness, but also greater interdependence. 

French philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty analyzed the lived body In the Phenomenology of Perception (1982) where he studied the relation of perception of reality and the specific location in the body. Ponty showed that cognition is based on an embodied perception of the world. His phenomenology critiques the idea of dualism of the mind (active) and body (passive).

Sociologist Michel Foucault, in the book, The Birth of the Clinic (1973, in French 1963), documents how the French Revolution and the ideas of rationality and enlightenment transformed medicine into a precise and empirical science. After the Revolution, the body was anatomically mapped, and diseases were classified. All these changes have affected our understanding of health, disease, life, and death. Foucault believes that the structure of medical knowledge continues to be regulated in a similar, arbitrary way.

In the books, The History of Sexuality (1978) and Discipline and Punish (1977), Foucault continues to explore the interaction between the body, medical practice, and systems of belief. He called these relations the ‘‘anatomo politics of the human body’’. Foucault also researched how new sciences regulated individuals and their bodies. Anatomo politics focuses on micro-politics of identity and the issues of sexuality, reproduction, clinical examinations, and life histories. Foucault researches how the body becomes the focus of mechanisms of power and ideology in the 18th and 19th centuries. Foucault introduced the term governmentality to explain novel strategies of surveillance and control over the body that new technologies allowed

Pierre Bourdieu borrowed the term "habitus" from Elias to denote the mental and cognitive structure of every person, which enables people to act in society. Each person internalizes these mental structures by living in society. Habitus gives people rules for understanding, valuing, and classifying all aspects of society. On the other hand, the habitus gives people the ability to act in society, because it creates long-term predispositions to, more or less, instinctively react in a certain situation. Habitus is associated with social class, because individuals, that are in the same class, share a common culture and taste. Habitus is not adopted by simple internalization and acceptance of social norms, but cognitively, through daily action within the field. Habitus is adopted partly on a conscious level and partly on an unconscious level. Bourdieu states that individual bodies are shaped by the system of cultural representation. Aesthetic preferences of different social classes are the basis of status differences that form the habitus and are visible on the bodies of individuals from those classes. 

British sociologist. Bryan Turner developed his sociological approach based on the sociology of action. The two main categories of his approach are "emplacement" - the relationship of people to the environment and "embodiment" - the relationship to one's own body, and they are universal categories of human experience. emplacement and embodiment are shaped by a network of social institutions that regulate normative coercion. Emphasis is placed on the situational (historical and comparative) nature of the actions of social actors. Turner believes that sociology should study society, in the way that Durkheim did, that is, as a set of "social facts" that act as external forces that limit the behavior of the individual. On the other hand, actors have the opportunity to question the coercive nature of these external normative and coercive factors (social facts). In this context, he believes that sociology must be a reflective, but also value-neutral science.

Turner applied this approach in formulating a universal theory of citizenship and human rights. emplacement and embodiment are universal categories in all societies. The need for social ties and the weaknesses of our body is an incentive to formalize empathy in the form of human rights. Also, all societies face economic problems and difficult political decisions. All these factors affect the recognition of the need for a universal approach to citizenship and human rights issues. The state is an important factor in protection, but also in violation of human rights.

Turner also applied his interest in the human body to the study of medicine. In his book Medical Power and Social Knowledge (1995), he shows how all societies have developed specific roles related to diseases. These roles prescribe specific patterns of behavior in cases of illness, but these roles and patterns differ significantly between different societies. In Western societies, there are individualized patient roles, for example, one stays in hospitals only when it is really necessary, one stays as short as possible, and the possibilities of visits are very limited. In Japan, on the other hand, disease-related roles are more community-oriented. Patients in Japan stay longer in hospitals, and visits from family and friends are more frequent and longer.

Sociologist Anselm Strauss contributed to the development of medical sociology by studying: psychiatric institutions; value systems that emerge in medical institutions; attitudes of medical staff and other people towards terminally ill patients in hospitals, as well as towards chronically ill people who are treated at home; the relationship between the physical body of the individual and his personal identity. In the book Awareness of Dying (1965), Strauss and Barney Glaser introduced the concept of „awareness context“, which pertains to awareness of dying patients, that are in hospital care, of their incoming deaths.  Glaser and Strauss distinguished four types of awareness contexts: closed awareness, suspicion awareness, mutual pretense awareness, and open awareness. Closed awareness context relates to patients who are unaware of their health status, while the staff of the hospital knows patients' prospects. In the suspicion awareness context, the patient suspects that the staff thinks that they are about to die, but the staff doesn’t reveal that to the patient. Mutual pretense awareness context exists in situations when both patients and staff know that the patients are dying but are pretending otherwise. Open awareness context pertains to situations when both staff and patients know and acknowledge that the patient is dying.

Because our identity is constituted by our embodiment studies of people with disabilities showed various existential challenges associated with the problems of mobility and physical and mental autonomy. are fundamental to the life world of the elderly, the chronically sick, and the disabled. The experience of disability shapes our notion of the self and our relation with the wider society.

                                     Body and Racism

British sociologist Paul Gilroy deals with the complex interrelationships of modernity, race, state, nationalism, and culture. Gilroy opposes views that view race as a biological or cultural category. Gilroy states that the emergence of a specific "race" is an ongoing process in which groups of people are defined and organized around the idea of ​​race, with resistance to racism, and the political organization of people that are grouped into a "race", playing a major role. Gilroy's analysis of racism in Britain, after the Second World War, focuses on the issue of cultural differences between members of other races in relation to the British and their culture. The cultures of other races are presented as outsider cultures and anarchic.

Gilroy emphasizes that cultures are constantly in the process of changing, so the music made by people of Afro-Caribbean origin was a mixture of original African musical influences and responses to racism and oppression. The later acceptance of that music by the general population is proof of the constant changes that are taking place in the field of culture. Gilroy found that black communities in Britain were presented to the public either as victims or as problems, while they were increasingly regulated by an increased police presence and the criminalization of the inhabitants of those communities.

                             Body in the Feminist Thought

Anarchist Emma Goldman wrote and fought for feminist goals. She rejected double gender standards and puritanical control over natural impulses. She believed that in the existing system, women were treated only as sexual objects, a means of giving birth and raising children, and a source of cheap labor. She believed that prostitution was a special form of exploitation of women, but also that all women were forced to sell their bodies. She opposed the women's suffrage movement, which was widespread in the early twentieth century in the United States because she thought that it would not solve unequal, repressive, and exploitative relations between the two sexes.

The liberation of women must start from the emancipation of the individual, from the rejection of forced sexual and reproductive relations, and from the rejection of serving God, the state, the husband, and the family. She was a great critic of the institution of marriage and considered marriage and love to be in a hostile relationship. Marriage allows the church and the state to interfere in private relations between people, it serves as an economic relationship in which men become the owners of a woman's body and her ability to give birth to children, while women become dependent and helpless maids. She advocated free love and the right to choose concerning motherhood, so she also promoted the right to contraception and abortion.

Margaret Mead's book Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies  (1935) studied people and their culture in three societies in New Guinea - the Arapesh, Mundugumor, and Tchambuli. Mead resided with each tribe for six months to immerse herself in the cultural practices of each society. In Arapesh society all members (of both sex) had feminine traits – sensitivity, nurture, and harmony; while masculine traits like aggression and violence were discouraged for all members. Arapesch mothers and their children had a prolonged relationship and men helped with childrearing duties. Mundugumor society had more masculine traits and all members were encouraged to display them, while pregnancies were associated with strong taboos. Tchambuli society exhibits duality of gender roles, but they were reversed to traditional gender roles in the US – men were nominally in charge of each collective, but were passive, gentle, and submissive, while women were truly in charge, breadwinners, aggressive and violent. This research uncovered the constructed nature of gender and gender systems. Gender, gender roles, and gender systems are not a product of innate biological nature, but a product of culture and its practices.  

French philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir, in her most famous book, The Second Sex (2021, in French 1949), presented key ideas that would make her the bellwether of the second wave of feminism. In this book, the author presents the idea that "one is not born a woman, but becomes one", that is, that women grow up in a world that gives men an active role, restrains a woman, and forces her to accept a subordinate role. In this sense, the role of women is a social and cultural construct. Dominant culture defines a woman as "Other" - something that is different from the standard that is the men. Simone de Beauvoir advocated the rejection of imposed gender roles and a change in the way the sexes treat each other - overcoming the roles of domination and subordination. Roles that are imposed on the sexes always contain the aspect of acting and performance in themselves.

American feminist theorist Kate Millett, in the book Sexual Politics (1969), introduces the difference between a biologically determined sex and the social construction of gender roles and sexual identities. Sexual politics, for Millett, represents the idea that gender is a status category within a stratified system of gender hierarchy, and therefore gender has great political implications. The patriarchy establishes norms that regulate gender and sexuality and creates a distinction between the role of both sexes in the public and private spheres. This causes the reproduction of inequality between men and women, both in the public, that is, the political sphere, and in the private sphere. She sees patriarchy as the most widespread ideology and as the most significant relationship of domination in every society.

American philosopher Judith Butler is one of the most eminent theorists in the field of gender studies, feminism, and queer theory. Her work has intellectual roots, except in feminism, in the works of Sigmund FreudFoucault, Hans-Georg Gadamer, Schütz, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and Derrida. Butler holds a doctorate from Yale and has been teaching at the University of California, Berkeley since 1993. In Gender Trouble (1990), Butler argues that feminism, by embracing the concept of coherent gender identity, has influenced the strengthening of the binary gender order, although feminism has been very critical of that same binary gender order. The uncritical adoption of the norms of heterosexuality is the basis of the binary order and the dualism it produces. Sex is always gendered, and the reason for that is that every observation and interpretation of the human body takes place within a socially determined context and through gendered language. After the birth of a baby, the sex is determined, and the gendered language shapes the gender patterns of that person.

Butler believes that gender identity always grows out of performance. Performative repetition of the gender role is strictly regulated and limited by norms, and it produces a gender identity and creates the illusion of the existence of natural behavior inherent in gender. Butler believes that the construction of gender identity should be subverted and the social and imitative nature of gender itself should be revealed. This will lead to the "denaturalization" of the body and gender. She believes that within the LGBT context, gender is not necessarily derived from sex, desire, or sexuality. Gender identity performance and gendered language serve to reproduce heterosexuality.

American philosopher Sara Ruddick studied maternal practices and believed that this practice produces a specific form of consciousness and way of thinking. She states that maternal consciousness can be a resource for feminist pacifism, as well as for shaping social relations at the local, national, and global levels. She rejects biological determinism in shaping gender differences and believes that men are capable of caring for children, as well as women. However, she believes that it is wrong to use the gender-neutral notion of parenthood. Pregnancy itself and the act of giving birth are shaped by "natal reflection" which is characterized by a specific understanding of oneself and other people. She believes that motherhood shapes the "ethical singularity of women”. In “Woman of Peace: A Feminist Construction” (1997), Ruddick opens a discussion on whether violence is sometimes necessary, or whether feminists must always advocate for peace. She sharply criticizes Western thought because it focuses on abstract thinking that is separate from any particularist, emotional, or bodily experience.

Belgian-French psychoanalyst and feminist theorist Luce Irigaray deals with the relationship between language and the female and male body, as well as masculinity and femininity in language. Irigaray believes that throughout the history of Western thought, female and femininity have been excluded from language, representation, and culture. Language is organized around the male subject and defined by its criteria. The exclusion of the female aspect from language is the basis for the creation of patriarchy and "phallocentric" social relations. Although she accepts the psychoanalytic perspective of Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan, Luce Irigaray criticizes their approach as phallocentric. Phallocentric thought defines male sexuality as primary, because the penis is visible, while female sexuality is defined as lack or deficit (of the penis). She wants to build psychoanalysis and philosophy that will make women and femininity visible. Irigaray bases femininity, in philosophy and psychoanalysis, on the female experience of sexuality and the female body, and especially focuses on the "two lips" experience, which is multiple. She sees writing and speaking from a woman's perspective and women's experience as a subversive activity, which has the potential to transform the dominant "male" culture.


Bourdieu, Pierre. Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture (1977, in French 1970);

     -     Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977, in French 1972);

     -     Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste (1984, in French 1979);

Butler. Gender Trouble (1990);

     -     Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex’’ (1993);

De Beauvoir, Simone. The Second Sex (2021, in French 1949);

Elias. On the Process of Civilisation (2012, in French 1939);

Featherstone, Mike, Hepworth, M., & Turner, B. S. (Eds.) The Body: Social Processes and Cultural Theory (1991);

Foucault. The Birth of Clinic (1973, in French 1963);

     -     The History of Sexuality (1978)

     -     Discipline and Punish (1977, in French 1975);

Fukuyama, Francis. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution (2002);

Gilroy. Darker Than Blue: On The Moral Economies of Black Atlantic Culture (2010);

Goldman. Anarchism and Other Essays (1910);

Hertz. "The Pre-eminence of the Right Hand", in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory (2013);

Irigaray. This Sex Which Is Not One. (1985, in French 1977);

Laqueur, Thomas. Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (1990);

Leder, Drew. The Absent Body (1990);

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Raw and the Cooked, Vol. 1 of  Mythologiques (1983, in French 1964);

Lombroso. Criminal Man (2006, in Italian 1877); 

Martin, Emily. The Woman in the Body: A Cultural Analysis of Reproduction (1989);

Mauss. A General Theory of Magic (1972, in French 1902);

Mead, Margaret. Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies  (1935);

Millett, Kate. Sexual Politics (1969);

O’Neill, John. Five Bodies: The Human Shape of Modern Society (1985);

Orbach, Susie. Fat Is a Feminist Issue (1978);

Probyn, Elspeth. Carnal Appetites: Food Sex Identity (2000);

Scarry, Elain. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985);

Strauss, Anselmo. Unending Work and Care: Managing Chronic Illness at Home (1988);

Turner, Bryan. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (1988).

     -     The New Medical Sociology: Social Forms of Health and Illness (2004);


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