Body, Culture and Society: An Introduction
Melissa Tyler Hancock, Philip, Bill Hughes, Elizabeth Jagger, Kevin Patterson, Rachel Russell and Emmanuelle Tulle-Winton
Open University Press: Buckingham
x + 146
The body is central to many contemporary political projects, and this book is an excellent introduction to theories of the body in a wide range of areas, including medical sociology, disability, consumption, ethics and ageing. It draws on a wide range of critical cultural perspectives, including feminism, critical theory, postmodernism and social gerontology.
Chapter One, "Medicalized bodies" by Bill Hughes is a fascinating discussion of individual and collective responsibilities for healthy bodies. Hughes suggests that over the last 100 years, medicine shifted from a narrow "biomedical" approach which focused solely on biology to a "biopsychosocial" approach which focuses both on bodies and their environments. This shift has been accompanied by the medicalisation of everyday life, where individuals are under increased pressure to regulate and monitor their own bodies. Hughes argues that individuals are expected to be fully responsible for the shape and size of their bodies. This pressure towards vigilance over the body is further promoted by narratives of personal transformation through dieting, exercise and other physical activities. Moral, aesthetic and medicalised "body work" has therefore become central to contemporary practices of the self.
It is ironic, given the primacy of bodies in many contemporary social practices, that some academic disciplines may avoid discussions of the carnal and sentient elements of a corporeal life. However, this avoidance of the discussions of the sentient body is a theme of Chapter Two, "Disabled Bodies" by Kevin Patterson and Bill Hughes, Chapter Four "Old Bodies" by Emmanuelle Tulle-Winton, and Chapter Five, " "Working Bodies" by Phillip Hancock and Melissa Tyler. For Patterson and Hughes, the development of a social model of disability (which stressed the importance of removing disabling barriers rather than focusing on fixing individual impairments) was absolutely necessary for the empowerment of disabled people, but had the unintended effect of silencing discussions of the corporeal body. This silence around impairment has left medical hegemony unchallenged, since the body is assumed to be strictly biological. Similarly, social gerontology has tended to emphasise the social exclusion of older people rather than discussing the corporeal dimensions of ageing. The danger of ignoring the fleshy realities of older bodies, however, is that their sentient features may be subject to biological reductionism under a medical gaze. Likewise, studies of work and its organization have tended to ignore the body - even though corporations often expect their employees to conform to certain body images.
Elizabeth Jagger's "Consumer Bodies" (Chapter Three) emphasizes the crucial role of the body in mediating between consumption and identity. The body transmits messages about identity and is particularly important in the reproduction of social differences. However, individuals have some agency with regard to body shapes - even though this agency is not evenly distributed throughout the population. By examining the strategies adopted by female body builders, Jagger suggests that women are both the objects and subjects of consumption. Rachel Russell's discussion of "Ethical Bodies" (Chapter Six) also deconstructs those cultural processes which equate ethics with aesthetics - the good with the beautiful. Like some of the other authors, Russell shows how "the ethic of the aesthetic, albeit in the moral desert of consumer culture, functions to regulate the body and its appearance" (p.109).
Each chapter in this book discusses complex ideas in a very accessible manner. The summaries at the end of each chapter, and the guides to further reading, will also benefit students embarking on a journey into the often-difficult realm of body theory.
University of Chicago at Illinois