Key Concepts in Body and Society


Kate Cregan

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  • Recent Volumes Include

    Key Concepts in Sport Psychology

    John Kremer, Aidan Moran, Graham Walker and Cathy Craig

    Key Concepts in Sport and Exercise Research Methods

    Michael Atkinson

    Key Concepts in Tourism Research

    David Botterill and Vincent Platenkamp

    Key Concepts in Leadership

    Jonathan Gosling, Ian Sutherland and Stephanie Jones with Joost Dijkstra

    Key Concepts in Sociology

    Peter Braham

    The SAGE Key Concepts series provides students with accessible and authoritative knowledge of the essential topics in a variety of disciplines. Cross-referenced throughout, the format encourages critical evaluation through understanding. Written by experienced and respected academics, the books are indispensable study aids and guides to comprehension.


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    About the Author

    Kate Cregan is the author of Sociology of the Body: Mapping the Abstraction of Embodiment (2006) and The Theatre of the Body: Staging Death and Embodying Life in Early Modern London (2009). The majority of her writing and research is based around understandings of embodiment across time, space and culture – with particular reference to medical interpretations of the body, medical technologies, and the representation of the body in images. Two of her allied interests are ethics (human, social and research) and writing pedagogies, in particular how becoming a writer informs the process of becoming a researcher. She has extensive experience teaching and researching in the humanities and social sciences. Recently, she has co-ordinated the teaching of ethics to medical students across the five years of a medical degree and lectured in sociology at Monash University. Currently, she is co-ordinator and senior lecturer of the interdisciplinary Graduate Researchers in Print writing programme in the Faculty of Arts, Monash University, Melbourne.

  • Glossary

    • Abject and abjection Abject refers to phenomena or properties that are considered to be impure or polluting in a given social formation. Mary Douglas describes many of the bodily excretions that are (variably) considered abject in particular cultures, such as bodily wastes (urine, faeces, dead skin) and bodily excretions (menstrual blood, mucous). Abjection is the wider process of theorizing the rejection of phenomena which is more associated with the work of Julia Kristeva, particularly in The Powers of Horror. See Death and Dying.
    • Biomedicine Biomedicine is the sociological term for the contemporary construction of Western medical knowledge. That is, biomedicine is a scientific endeavour that understands the body as a biological mechanism which can be maintained and repaired. This mechanistic, or dualistic, view of the body tends to underestimate the effects of social context and cultural influences in health and illness. See Dualism, Health and Illness and Medicine and Science.
    • Biopower Biopower is Foucault's term for the regulation of the body through social, political and cultural fields of knowledge (epistemes), the most important of which is medicine. So, biopower is exerted through the medical ‘gaze’, and through surveillance techniques that foster self-regulation, as explained in relation to the ‘panopticon’. See Discourse, Medicine and Science and Power.
    • Body projects Body projects is a term coined by Chris Shilling for the kinds of modifications to the body that have become increasingly popular since the 1980s. That is, treating the body as something that can be altered for personal (often aesthetic) reasons. The means for doing so include cosmetic surgery, tattooing, piercing, exercise, dieting, etc. It has connections with post-modern ideas of self-creation and Giddens' notion of postmodern forms of identity. See Identity and Modification/Dysmorphias.
    • Body techniques Body techniques are the ways we shape our bodily behaviours to meet the rules of our social context, that is, through manners. This is closely allied to the work of Norbert Elias and his history of Western European manners. It is also the term used for the conscious shaping of body habits as discussed in an early essay of Marcel Mauss (1979). See Civilizing Processes and Gesture and Habits.
    • Body work The process by which body projects are enacted, that is, through the physical actions required to carry out the chosen body project.
    • Boundary crossing This is a term developed by Mary Douglas that is built around the importance given social groups' place on what is allowed to permeate bodily boundaries. In her earlier work she argued that those items we consider most profane often challenge the boundaries of the body: what is sacred leaves the bodily boundaries intact. Douglas refined and revised this idea, after studying the pangolin cult of the Lele, to say that the same moment or object of bodily boundary crossing could be both sacred and profane. See Cyborgs, Food and Eating, and Religion.
    • Embodiment This concept underpins all the categories dealt with in this book. The sense in which it is understood here is as the way of approaching the human body as an object to social and cultural importance, and most importantly as how bodies are lived and experienced. More precisely, it is used in terms of Bourdieu's description of embodiment or hexis as the bodily expression of habitus (see below).
    • Habitus and Hexis As formulated by Bourdieu (1977, 1990a), habitus is the social, cultural and physical environment that we as social beings inhabit, through which we know ourselves and others identify us. Our habitus is made up of all the kinds of social connections, achievements, attainments and attachments one acquires from birth, whether by formal or informal means. These include, but are not limited to, the level of education one has reached, the kind of work one does, the sort of entertainments one enjoys, the places one goes, the cultural pursuits one takes part in or values, the class one identifies with, and so on. Bodily hexis, or embodiment, is the political expression of all the factors that make up one's habitus that are embodied or embedded in our physical being. See also Habitus.
    • Masks of ageing The idea of social masks is a commonplace, that is, we display ourselves differently or present varying aspects of our social selves in different situations and for different audiences. Masks of ageing is a term specifically associated with Hepworth and Featherstone's discussion of ageing and the drive in contemporary developed societies to hide the physical signs and bodily effects of ageing, in ways that conflict with the inner experience of ageing. See Ageing and Childhood, and Youth and Children.
    • Medicalization The process by which bodily functions and processes become understood as matters of treatment under medical control. For example, childbirth is to all intents and purposes a natural bodily process but it has become medicalized to the extent that birth and reproduction have become a medical specialty and women are alienated from the lived experience of their bodies during pregnancy. See Medicine and Science.
    • Modernity Modernity is generally understood as the historical era in Western Europe, the precise dates of which are often disputed but are generally held to have occurred between 1500 and the late twentieth century (up to 1989). Modernity is characterized by the move away from traditional social formations based around sovereign rule and agrarian economies (the Early Modern period, 1500–1789), towards industrialization, secularization and the slow and uneven rise of the nation-state (Classical Modernity, 1789–1914) and the period between World War I and the fall of the Berlin Wall (Late Modernity, 1914–1989 – see also Post-modernity below). Not to be confused with Modernism, an aesthetic and cultural movement that rose towards the end of the nineteenth century and held sway into the mid to late twentieth century.
    • Moral Panic This is a term that comes from the work of Stanley Cohen (1980), who wrote on the social dynamics of massed reactions of populations based on fears about supposedly threatening out-groups or scapegoats. It is a process by which individuals or groups are characterized as dangerous to the social and moral fabric. Witch-hunts are a prime example of a moral panic as are their twentieth-century parallels in the fears over communism. The term is used to describe a massed reaction of groundless fears to a perceived (rather than actual) threat.
    • Post-modern, post-modernity This is a sometimes disputed term used to differentiate contemporary social and cultural forms from modernity. Some theorists dispute that we moved beyond the modern era of industrialization into a period in which modes of identity related to national boundaries have disappeared, preferring to describe this as a phase of Late Modernity. Post-modernity is intended to capture a disenchantment with ideology and a heightened sense of individuality in social formations. Not to be confused with Post-modernism, an aesthetic and cultural movement which is largely concerned with the mixing and matching of styles from any aesthetic movement or culture in a parodic or ironic commentary on life and meaning. See Introduction.
    • Post-structuralism Post-structuralism is a theoretical movement that rose in France in the late 1960s and 1970s with which theorists such as Foucault and Derrida are identified. It was a rejection of the formalist assumptions that underpinned structuralism and part of the wider questioning of fixed meanings that was taking place in the wake of the riots of 1968. See Discourse.
    • Sick role This is the process by which a person is positioned as a passive consumer of medical treatment and by which they embody the role of the sick person. It originated in the work of Talcott Parsons (1937).
    • Structuralism A French theoretical movement based in the structural linguistics of Ferdinand Saussure, that rose in the 1950s and 1960s. It was concerned with the connections, or disconnections, between meaning and the signs intended to convey meaning, in an attempt to explain human culture. See Post-structuralism above.


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