The Body & Society: Explorations in Social Theory


Bryan S. Turner

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University


    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Aberdeen

    Bryan S. Turner, National University of Singapore


    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

    The TCS Centre

    School of Arts and Humanities

    Nottingham Trent University

    Clifton Lane, Nottingham, NG11 8NS, UK



    Recent volumes include:

    The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space

    Scott McQuire

    The Dressed Society: Clothing, the Body and Some Meanings of the World

    Peter Corrigan

    Informalization: Manners and Emotions Since 1890

    Cas Wouters

    The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy

    John Tomlinson

    Consumer Culture and Postmodernism, Second Edition

    Mike Featherstone


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    To Mike Hepworth (1938–2007) Sociologist and Humorist


    Since the original publication of The Body and Society in 1984, I have been concerned to provide an ontological grounding to sociological theory, partly because existing theories of social action typically have what one might call a cognitive bias, thereby ignoring the corporeality of human life and the embodiment of the social actor. I have been motivated intellectually to take the quiddity or ‘stuffness' of the human condition seriously by addressing human embodiment as a basis for writing about politics, rights and human vulnerability. I had taught a course with Mike Hepworth on body, self and society at the University of Aberdeen in the late 1970s which laid the basis for a co-edited work on The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory. Mike Featherstone and I subsequently co-founded the journal Body & Society in 1982 to promote greater awareness of these issues, and in a sense to promote the sociology of the body as a sub-field within the discipline. My approach to corporeality was first developed in the sociology of religion in Religion and Social Theory (1983) in which I argued that, unlike anthropology, sociology had not paid sufficient attention to embodiment in understanding religious belief and practice. Employing these concepts of the body and embodiment I sought to give a new foundation to medical sociology in such works as Medical Power and Social Knowledge (1987), Regulating Bodies (1992) and The New Medical Sociology (2004).

    Over these three decades, in developing the sociology of the body, I have become increasingly critical of social constructionism as an epistemology. Instead I have explored the damaged human body in various publications and written with Steven Wainwright on the ballet dancer as a criticism of constructionist epistemology. The vulnerability of the human body has increasingly dominated my thinking about embodiment, and I have developed this theme with respect to such diverse topics as injury, old age, disease, and more recently, human rights. The critical intersection between medical science, demography and social change is particularly important as a basis for further developing the sociological understanding of the body in society.

    This attempt to provide an ontological grounding for sociological theory is part of a broader project which is to establish the notion of human embodiment as a necessary precondition for any theory of action. Some of these issues were considered in Society and Culture (2001) with Chris Rojek, in which we attempted to develop a three-dimensional view of the social, involving embodiment, enselfment and emplacement.

    The Body and Society was written in part as a response to the work of Michel Foucault. While many of the issues explored in the first edition – religion, medicine and sexuality – are still relevant, it appears necessary radically to revisit those concerns and perspectives. In this edition of the book, I have become increasingly interested in time and the body, and this issue of the temporality of the body with respect to illness, ageing and death necessarily leads one to the philosophy of being and time of Martin Heidegger. His preoccupation with boredom provides a stimulating context for thinking sociologically about age and life expectancy.

    Many people have directly or indirectly contributed to this new edition: Gary Albrecht, Alex Dumas, Anthony Elliott, Mary Evans, John O'Neill, Chris Rojek, Steven Wainwright, Darin Weinberg, Kevin White, Simon Williams and Zheng Yangwen. Various masters, doctoral and postdoctoral students – Caragh Brosnan, David Larson, Rhiannon Morgan, Ruksana Patel and Nguyen Kim Hoa – have over the years contributed to my sharpening awareness of the centrality of vulnerability to rights, health and politics. I owe a considerable debt to Chris Rojek who has over the years encouraged me to persist with the project of the sociology of the body.

    For this third edition I have written a new introduction which surveys some of the developments in the sociology of the body, but more importantly points to new issues such as bio-medical sciences, technology, demography, longevity and human rights. Additions to the text reflect a single thesis, which is that human vulnerability is the foundation of common human experiences and interests, and hence the concept can be employed to question sociology's love affair with cultural relativism.

    Chapter 11 outlines my argument that sociologists have rarely concerned themselves with the body-in-motion. This topic is illustrated by some issues in the sociology of dance, which I studied with Steven Wainwright. This research was originally focused on injured ballet dancers and hence on the assumption that ballet careers are compromised by the very vulnerability of the dancing body. The penultimate chapter on the life extension project reflects my current interest in analysing the possible social and psychological implications of any significant extension of human life expectancy. This new concern with ageing has been developed in co-operation with Alex Dumas. In turn, this final preoccupation with ageing reflects my ongoing critical reaction to the idea of the social construction of the body. I am grateful to Darin Weinberg for help in developing a critique of the social construction paradigm. Life extension projects hold out the promise that science can triumph over our human vulnerability but the promise itself threatens to increase human inequality and hence human suffering. Tom Cushman has been important in encouraging me to develop the concept of vulnerability as an approach to the theory of human rights. The results are presented, partially at least, in the final chapter.

    A version of Chapter 11 was first published as ‘Bodily performance: on aura and reproducibility' in Body & Society (2006) vol. 11 (4). Aspects of the argument of Chapter 12 appeared as ‘Culture, technologies and bodies' in Chris Shilling (ed.) Embodying Sociology (2007). The Epilogue, in which I argue that the original metaphors of religious membership – the shepherd and the sheep – have broken down, but that we need a socio-theology of embodiment if we are to make any sense of our being, was originally one aspect of ‘The end(s) of humanity' in The Hedgehog Review, Summer 2001. All three pieces have been thoroughly rewritten and extensively developed for this third edition.

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