The Body and Social Theory


Chris Shilling

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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

    Nicholas Gane, University of York

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Aberdeen

    Couze Venn, Nottingham Trent University


    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:

    Education and Cultural Citizenship

    Nick Stevenson

    The Tourist Gaze 3.0

    John Urry and Jonas Larsen

    French Post-War Social Theory

    Derek Robbins

    Immaterial Bodies

    Lisa Blackman


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    To Debbie, Max and Kate

    About the Author

    Chris Shilling is Professor of Sociology in SSPSSR at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. Having completed a BA in Politics and an MA in Social and Political Thought at the University of Sussex, he was awarded his PhD at The Open University. Growing increasingly dissatisfied with cognitive conceptions of agency and disembodied theories of social and cultural processes, his research and writing from the late 1980s has sought to contribute to the embodiment of sociology and sociological theory and to promote the interdisciplinary field of ‘body studies’. He has lectured in Europe and North America, has written on embodiment in relation to a range of substantive issues (from religion, archaeology, sport, music and health and illness, to work, survival, technology and consumer culture) and his publications have been translated into a number of different languages. His major books include Changing Bodies: Habit, Crisis and Creativity (Sage, 2008), Embodying Sociology: Retrospect, Progress and Prospects (editor, Blackwell, 2007), The Body in Culture, Technology and Society (Sage, 2005) and, with Philip A. Mellor, The Sociological Ambition (Sage, 2001) and Re-forming the Body: Religion, Community and Modernity (Sage, 1997). He is currently editor of The Sociological Review Monograph Series and is continuing to research and write on embodiment as a foundational grounding (albeit an evolving, developing and partially porous grounding) for social thought and research.

    Preface to the Third Edition

    In the 25 years that have passed since I first started researching into the subject, body matters have moved to the centre of public and academic debate. Developments in transplant surgery, stem cell research and reproductive technology, advances in new media, ambient advertising and virtual reality, and controversies ranging from the desirability of radical body modification, to the claims made for neuroscience, to the legitimacy of religious dress in ostensibly secular civil societies are just a few of the issues to have stimulated excitement and concern about the current state of our embodied being. Have we lost or gained control over our bodily identities, capacities and properties? What impact have these innovations and conflicts had on our lived experiences of the social world, on the technologically mediated extension and ‘unfolding’ of our senses onto our environment, and on social inequalities? How have they intervened in and shaped our relationships with culture, with other people, and with the increasingly endangered planet on which we live? These are just a few of the questions prompted by recent events.

    Alongside this heightened general interest in body matters there has during the last three decades been a ‘turn to embodiment’ across the social sciences. This refocusing of attention on corporeality and the ‘enfleshment’ of social relations, culture and technology highlighted the need for disciplinary, inter-disciplinary and even post-disciplinary renewal across areas as diverse as sociology, sports science, archaeology, architecture, philosophy, religious studies, gender studies and cognitive science, and has culminated in the establishment of a new field of ‘body studies’. This academic turn has yielded many benefits, but carries with it certain risks.

    Positively, it has enabled us to keep pace with social, cultural and technological trends that have made bodies increasingly contested components of social control, self-identity and individual action. Such an engagement also serves as an important counterweight to the continued influence of, and cognitive bias within, the dominant Western philosophical tradition: a tradition that equated our humanity with our minds, while generally overlooking the creative capacities of our physical being. As Norbert Elias (1991a: 196–201) argues, philosophy has long conceived of us as homo clausus or ‘thinking statues’ sealed within unreliable bodies that obstruct us from acquiring reliable knowledge about the ‘outside world’. The suggestion that we should somehow seek to live life apart from our bodies is not only unrealistic and damaging for all, but has historically been used to stigmatize and control women in particular as the sex most ‘tied to’ and ‘limited by’ their (reproductive) bodies (Bordo, 2003: 145). This denigration of the body has also been associated with repressive national, colonial and genocidal political projects, including the eugenics movement of the early- to mid-20th century that targeted variously the disabled, the ‘feeble minded’, the working classes, and particular ‘racial’ groups (Thomson, 1998; Overy, 2009).

    There are also risks associated with the recent turn to embodiment. In their eagerness to focus on the body, certain perspectives have been accused of engaging in what Walter Schulz (1986) has referred to as an ‘inverted Cartesianism’: a one-sided emphasis on the mind is here replaced by an inverted dualism in which people are equated with a limited conception of physicality. We need to remember that we are not just constituted by flesh, blood and bones, but possess a wide range of social, moral and intellectual capacities made possible by our embodied being (Tester, 2004: 30; Shilling, 2008: 125–43). This is an important point that should serve as a cautionary note for those who conceptualize social actors simply on the basis of their biological needs, or those structuralist or poststructuralist analysts who conceptualize individuals as passive bodily canvases on which ideologies, sexual matrixes, micro-powers or governmental strategies are transmitted and inscribed. Acknowledging the embodiment of human beings should not obscure our reflexive, cognitive capacities that occur within and because of, rather than in opposition to, our organic being. As Antonio Damasio (2010: 20) insists, the body does not exist in isolation from thought, but constitutes ‘a foundation of the conscious mind’.

    These opportunities and risks have acquired added urgency in the context of those social and technological developments and controversies mentioned at the start of this preface, making the task of developing an adequate account of the relationship between embodied subjects and society all the more important. It was against this background that I felt it worth revisiting the previous editions' aim to identify the parameters of what was the then incipient field of body studies, and to develop a broad approach towards embodiment that built on a number of classical and contemporary writings yet to be associated with this area. Rereading the first and second editions of The Body and Social Theory, I was struck by the gaps that had emerged in their coverage as a result of the vast multiplication of body publications that have appeared over the last 20 years, yet also felt there was sufficient merit in their analysis to warrant revisiting and revising this book once more. In this respect, I still endorse the previous editions' determination to demonstrate the importance of embodiment to the traditional concerns of sociology, to oppose naturalistic and social constructionist approaches (neither of which recognizes the emergent properties of the embodied subject), and to develop an approach towards body matters which focuses on the interactions that occur between embodied subjects and social/technological phenomena (interactions that alter the structure and properties of both people and the societies of which they form part, and that facilitate varying degrees of connectivity between them). I also want to re-emphasize the argument that whatever divides humans in our contemporary world, the general conditions of embodiment impose on us common needs and frailties which constitute a basis for dialogue and cooperation.

    This approach continues to guide closely the third edition. Far from losing popular currency, for example, naturalistic approaches to the body (see Chapter 3) have been given renewed impetus by those who view the Human Genome Project as revealing the genetic constitution of identity and destiny. There remains a need to reveal the limitations of such thinking and to demonstrate that social processes entered into human evolution, and remain vitally important in affecting the health, well-being and life chances of people born into the 21st century. Society may not construct the body in any simple or total sense, but social relations and environments do affect deeply those physiological and neurological pathways that shape people's health and capacity to make a difference within particular situations (Wilson, 2004; Freund, 2006; Franks, 2010). This new edition also provides a welcome opportunity to highlight how the ‘new genetics’, as well as other recent critical approaches to biology and evolution, has itself helped undermine the determinism associated with naturalistic approaches to the body (e.g. Atkinson et al., 2007).

    If the excesses of naturalistic approaches still need curbing, so too do those associated with the reductionism and conflationism evident in many cultural, technological and social constructionist approaches to the body (see Chapter 4). While highlighting usefully how our identities and relationships are irreducible to ‘natural’ or ‘biological’ factors, there remains a tendency for these constructionist theories to imagine that our embodied being is reducible to discourse, to technological advances, or to the forms and structures of society. Such approaches have the effect of erasing the materiality of human biology (Wilson, 1998). Underneath these constructionist assumptions, indeed, are fantasies about the infinite flexibility of nature and biology; fantasies that are likely to grate with those who have close experience of the body's limitations through sickness and disability (Williams, 1999; Thomas, 2004; see also Newton, 2007). Whatever the future holds, we are not yet at the stage when the materiality of humans can be altered without taking into account and dealing with the frequent intractability of their biological, physiological and neurological complexity. Constructionist perspectives made a valuable ‘epistemological break’ from commonsense thinking about what is supposedly ‘natural’ or inevitable about the bodily capacities of women, men, gays, lesbians and heterosexuals, and those belonging to different ‘racial’ groups. In so doing, however, they frequently continue to ignore how embodied subjects are not only locations for the transmission of social classifications, but also possess physical and reflexive capacities that are actively generative of social relations and human knowledge. Even when we are not immediately consciously aware of shifts in our external environment, our bodies monitor and react to incoming stimuli, with our internal organs and tissues exhibiting an ‘active response to change and contingency’ (Birke, 1999: 45; Damasio, 1999).

    In evaluating critically the limitations of naturalistic and social constructionist approaches, the original text sought to go beyond these alternatives by outlining a view of the body as an emergent material phenomenon that shapes, as well as being shaped by, its social environment. The body is central to our ability to ‘make a difference to’, to exercise agency in, the world. Furthermore, our bodily emotions, preferences, sensory capacities and actions are a fundamental source of ‘social forms’ (even if many of these social forms have ossified and become separated from their founding desires and dispositions) (Simmel, 1990 [1907]). Thus, while Turner (1996: 34) stated that ‘we do not have to develop a sociological understanding of the physicality of the body since the “natural body” is always and already injected with cultural understandings and social history’, this argument underplays those physical capacities that are productive of creative action and social relations, yet cannot be simply ‘read off’ from society or culture. Far from endorsing the need for an embodied social theory, indeed, such arguments risk removing from our theoretical concerns the materiality of human embodiment and turning issues of human need and well-being into matters of cultural preference (Soper, 1995; Archer, 2000). If we want to develop a sociology of the body that enables us to highlight the damage to human capacities effected by torture or cliterodectomy, for example, or the pleasures associated with sexuality and sensuality, or the importance to humans across the globe of fresh water, food and adequate shelter, we cannot keep deferring recognition of the evolutionarily given, organic, material foundations of our bodily being. This is the context in which I still believe it is worth returning to the approach outlined in Chapters 5 to 9 of the first edition (chapters that explore writings conducive to a view of the body as an irreducibly physical phenomenon engaged in a dynamic and permeable relationship with its social surroundings), and is the reason I have decided to leave intact the structure and main narrative argument of the original text and of the second edition.

    There have been important expansions to the field since The Body and Social Theory was first published, however, and I have taken the opportunity in this third edition to engage a little more thoroughly with some of the most important of them and to update and rewrite portions of the text via what I hope are judicious, selective additions designed to enhance the coverage of relevant perspectives and strengthen the narrative argument and theoretical synthesis that guided discussion in the original and second editions. The introduction expands my discussion of body projects through an acknowledgment of the globalization of body matters and the recent resurgence of religious identities, for example, while Chapter 2 includes revised discussions of the rise of the body and the position of the body in classical sociology. Chapter 3 observes how science has become more of a foe than a friend to naturalistic approaches, and Chapter 4 includes a slightly revised discussion of Foucault supplemented by Nikolas Rose's (2001, 2007) Foucauldian analysis of somatic individuality, and a new section on Actor Network Theory (ANT). ANT distances itself from certain claims made in traditional social constructionist writing on the body, and views people's physicality as assembled through heterogeneous networks of human and non-human ‘actants’. Chapter 5 expands coverage of R.W. Connell's and Peter Freund's work, engages critically but constructively with Damasio's neuroscientific contributions to the mind/body relationship, and includes discussion of recent bodywork research that has appeared since I first wrote about this phenomenon in 1993. It would have been easy to incorporate neuroscience into my critical analysis of naturalistic approaches in Chapter 3, and I do mention its reductionist tendencies there. Nevertheless, I also think that there is something to be gained from a constructive engagement with the potential of neuroscience to be utilized as an adjunct to sociological perspectives on the relationship between the thinking, sensing and feeling body, on the one hand, and the networks, figurations and societies in which we live, on the other. Chapters 6 and 7 update and pay more attention to recent criticisms of Bourdieu and Elias, while I have revisited critically and reconfigured the secular assumptions that informed Chapter 8.

    An implicitly secular narrative about people's confrontation with death guided Chapter 8 in the first and second editions of The Body and Social Theory, but I felt it was important to reconsider this in the context of the (near) global resurgence of religion that occurred towards the end of the 20th century (Europe can be seen as a partial, but only a partial, exception here). The inaccurate assumptions underpinning the secularization thesis have limited social theory in general, and sociological writings on the body as a secular project in particular, whereas taking religion seriously can enhance our understanding of the subject of death as well as of the embodied identities of the living. In revising Chapter 8, I have extended Elias's concern with webs of interdependent human relationships to relations between the living and the dead as viewed within and outside of contrasting forms of religious affiliation. Elias's writings remain key to some of the steps I take in this book towards building a more adequately embodied sociology, but his writings on death introduce a dualism into his vision of identity and society that he is so keen to limit in his other analyses. Chapter 8 suggests how we can move beyond the secular assumptions that inform this dualism through a post-secular consideration of the figurations that many people and collectivities cultivate between their own embodied identities and the dead. Finally, the Afterword follows closely its structure and content in the second edition, maintaining the engagement with feminist, action-oriented and phenomenological writings, but also includes discussion of three new forms of embodied identity, and develops my previous multi-dimensional approach towards the body as a medium for the constitution of society into a fully fledged corporeal realist basis for the consolidation of this field.

    This third edition remains close in structure, argument and content to its predecessors, then, but each chapter has been edited in order to clarify key points, update examples and coverage of relevant issues where I felt these to be important, and to strengthen the book's overall argument regarding the need for an approach to the body that avoids the reductionisms of naturalistic and social constructionist theories. I have also sought to develop this edition in two further ways. First, I have made more explicit the move that occurs during the book from ‘the body’ as an objectified component of identity/target of control, to ‘embodiment’ as a descriptor of the multiple properties and capacities of the thoughtful body subject. In some of its early uses in the introductory chapter, ‘the body’ often refers exclusively to the physical elements of our being, but the term's meaning moves steadily towards a concern with broader dimensions of our embodied constitution as a whole. Second, the notion of absent presence is developed and reconsidered on the basis of the need to think beyond living bodies – in considering the importance not only of death but also of the emotional orientations and internal conversations that the living direct towards and have with the dead – and in terms of how corporeal realism can enable us to focus on social and cultural phenomena without eclipsing the importance of embodiment for the constitution of society. In making any and all of these changes, however, my main priority has been to maintain The Body and Social Theory as a book that can serve as both a sociological guide and an independent theoretical contribution to the field of body studies.


    The third edition of this book has benefited from the contributions of numerous colleagues. Dave Boothroyd, Mary Evans, Michael Erben, Peter Freund, Keith Hayward, Mike Hardey, Johnny Ilan, Stephen Mennell, Alex Twitchen and Iain Wilkinson all provided advice, suggestions, references and support. Vince Miller, Philip Mellor, Larry Ray, Miri Song and Tim Strangleman were generous enough to comment on individual chapters or sections, while Dara Blumenthal, Tanya Bunsell and Michael Rees provided me with considered and constructive feedback on the entire manuscript. Chris Rojek and Jai Seaman continue to provide me with the valuable assistance I have received in all the projects I have undertaken with SAGE, while I also appreciate the ongoing support of Mike Featherstone and the TCS Board. More locally, this is the first real opportunity I have had to thank publically Chris Hale and the rest of my colleagues at the University of Kent for providing a welcoming and stimulating place in which to write and teach (and to Kalli and her team for their invaluable work and support).

    I completed this third edition at around about the mid-point of a joint project I have been working on with Philip Mellor, and I owe particular thanks to Philip for his personal and intellectual companionship over the last three decades. My work has benefited enormously from his encouragement and support. The greatest debt I have accrued in writing this book, however, is to my family. Max and Kate remind me, in so many ways, of what really matters (and do so at a volume that reassures me that I'm not quite yet completely deaf), while words can only begin to express my gratitude to Debbie for her friendship, love and support (and patience with every book). Thank You.

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