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The Body

Culturally Variable Bodies

Freud drew his conclusions about the inevitable struggle between ego and id from his own psychiatric practice, largely composed of well-to-do Victorians whose problems, arguably, were more the product of the culture they lived in than universal forms of human discontent. The point seems obvious in the early twenty-first century, after half a century of criticism of the many questionable assumptions about gender, class, and sexuality contained in classical Freudian theory. Many people associate such criticism with feminism—and indeed, feminism played a major role in placing Freudian theory in historical perspective. But it was anthropologists who first called into question the universality, not just of Freudian theory, but of the Western tendency to regard the body—sexuality in particular—as a source of unruly impulses that are fundamentally in tension with the need for human order.

Mead and Mauss.

Margaret Mead's (1901–1978) pioneering research in Samoa and New Guinea, for example, was concerned with debunking Western ethnocentrism, including with regard to sexuality. In Samoa, Mead (1928) found that adolescence was not a period of rebellion from parents, nor was adolescent sexuality fraught with the moral constrictions of the West. By revealing the more relaxed child-rearing practices and less rigid sex roles in Samoa and New Guinea, Mead critiqued American patterns and called for their modification.

Marcel Mauss's (1872–1950) reflections on cross-cultural variations in what he called "techniques of the body" constituted another important moment in the development of anthropological thinking about the body. Mauss noted (1934) that while, universally, people successfully hold themselves upright, walk, gesture, talk, and eat, the precise renderings of these activities varies from one society to the next. Later (1938), he formulated the important distinction between the self (moi) and the social or culturally constructed person (la personne). The former refers to individuals' private, personal sense of themselves; the latter to the cross-culturally variable ways in which societies define the contours of individuals, such as expectations and rights varying by gender and life stage; the degree to which cultural members are perceived to be connected to one another and to nature; and beliefs about the human soul, its essence and location, and how it and the souls of deceased relatives influence the affairs of the living.

Personhood has been the realm of rich sociocultural research, yielding cross-cultural data with myriad implications. For example, in preindustrial societies, where perceptions of the demarcation between nature and culture, and between the living, deceased, and yet-to-be-born, are more gradual than in the postindustrial West, the proper or improper actions of humans are perceived to directly influence the well-being of entire communities (including the spirits of the dead and future generations), and nature's bounty and benevolence as well. A closer connectedness to the suprahuman world is expressed through the greater homage paid to its deceased, to widely varying burial practices centered on the corpse, and to a host of prescriptions and proscriptions concerning the bodies of the bereaved, which vary by gender and kinship status.

Biology and culture.

With Mauss, Mead, Bronislaw Malinowski, Ruth Benedict, and others leading the way, anthropologists began to accumulate a storehouse of knowledge concerning the tremendous cultural variation that exists in ideas about the body and their corresponding implications for attitudes toward and practices of sexuality, reproduction, abortion, infanticide, child mortality, breast-feeding, child-raising, pawn-ship and slavery, and gender roles. It was from such cross-cultural knowledge that anthropology's concept of the body emerged. It is one that sees the corporeal body and its constituent parts, as well as its movements, gestures, needs, and desires as inextricably both physical and sociocultural. While language, social interaction, eating, drinking, and sexual activity are primary needs for which human bodies contain intrinsically biological capacities, none of these primary needs can be undertaken apart from culture. Thus the physical body is never just a biological organism. It cannot be, because human beings, as Clifford Geertz has observed, "are caught in the webs of significance that they themselves weave" (p. 5).


Mary Douglas's work, as well as feminist deconstructions of the meanings contained in representations of the female body, inspired a generation of anthropologists and cultural theorists to explore the human body as a text that can be read to reveal a great deal of cultural information. This symbolic function of the body applies not only to the taboos and rituals described by Douglas, but to parts of the body, to representations of the human body—in artworks, medical texts, racial ideology, and advertisements—and to decorations and modifications of the flesh, from ornaments, hair fashion, cosmetics, masking, costuming, tattooing, piercing, and scarification, to body fattening or thinning, muscular development, and cosmetic surgery. However extreme or seemingly whimsical the practice, it always has meaning, always is shaped by the sociocultural context in and through which people act. Anthropologist Terence Turner called this dimension of the body the "social skin," a concept that applies just as aptly to the nineteenth-century corset and twentieth-century implants as to the traditional neck rings of the Karen peoples of Burma or lip plugs of the Amazonian Kayapo.

A key difference between the body modifications of traditional societies and those of postmodern culture is that the former are dictated by group membership and are nonnegotiable by individuals. The status-significance of the size of Ethiopian lip-plates among brides-to-be is set by custom, as is who may engage in such modification. In contrast, many contemporary body modifications based on traditional practices—piercing, scarification, and tattooing—are freely adopted for their potential to express an individual's choice of alternative values or group identifications. Other contemporary modifications—for example, exercising to change the shape or fat composition of the body, or having one's face lifted to achieve the appearance of youth—are freely engaged in and (in principle) open to members of all social groups, but reflect norms of beauty to which there is considerable pressure to conform. Those who resist or cannot afford to conform pay a stiff price, in lesser access to jobs, mates, and social power.

Whether traditional or contemporary, all body modifications carry meaning, expressing cultural ideals (and anxieties), racial biases, social status, and membership in particular groups. Those meanings may be complex—both female slenderness and male muscularity, for example, are arguably overdetermined to be attractive in the late twentieth and early twenty-first-century context for reasons having to do with anxiety over changing gender roles, the increasing association of bodily discipline with self-control and power, and the moral valuation of leanness in a "super-sized" culture of indulgence (Bordo, 1993, 1999). Bodily meanings are also unstable and highly context-dependent, raising questions about the changing politics of the body: Does hair straightening by blacks, for example, have the same significance in 2004 as it did when "natural" styles were an expression of racial pride? There is no one answer to a question such as this; different analysts will interpret such practices differently. But however controversial or layered, no bodily style can be considered to be "just fashion," the expression of meaningless or arbitrary taste.

So, for example, while human differences in skin color, hair texture, and body size and shape have been variably selected by the pressure of different environmental conditions, there is no biological basis for the racial classifications that have been built upon those differences. Such classifications arbitrarily abstract particular phenotypical traits from a human array that is both much more varied and much more continuous than the concept of race allows. Race is not a biological "fact" but an idea—an idea around which an elaborate web of significance, with enormous and destructive consequences for the treatment of human beings, has been woven.

The classification and regulation of sexuality and gender, too, always involve the mediation of meaning, of human ideas, in the physical or biological realm. For example, as Malinowski first showed through his groundbreaking ethnographic research among the Melanesian Trobriand Islanders, ideas about conception affect patterns of sexual control. In matrilineal societies, in which the female is believed to contribute the blood—commonly thought to be the substance that ties lineal descendants to one another—to the fetus, female sexuality is not as strictly controlled as in patrilineal societies, where descent is believed to pass through males. In patrilineal societies, female sexuality tends to be closely monitored to insure that the line remains pure of foreign male intrusion. Depending upon the multitude of ways in which patriliny is interpreted, this monitoring may range from the moral sanction that sexual intercourse be confined to marriage, to the female bodily coverings of Muslim societies, to sharply segregating the sexes, or to various forms of female circumcision that, while often performed as a rite of passage, have the effect of decreasing sexual pleasure.

Research on male same-sex intercourse also highlights how similar physical acts can have widely differing social meanings. In some Latin American cultures, males may perform same-sex acts, but according to machismo ideology, it is only if a male plays the role of the passive partner that he is considered to be a homosexual. Among the Sambia of Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, where the conception of the human body is rooted in bodily fluids, same-sex intercourse isn't even considered sexual but is a ritual of maturation. Within this system, as Gilbert Herdt's research demonstrates, adult men are believed to be created through male elders' constant insemination of boys.

The cross-cultural evidence produced by anthropologists is a powerful argument against the notion that there is a single human body whose blueprint is invariant across history and culture. Evolutionary psychologists may argue that patterns of mate selection, gender differences, and even ideals of beauty are universally inscribed in human genes, but most contemporary biological and social scientists believe that whatever the role of biology—and many consider that role significant—it never manifests itself in pure form, untouched by the guiding, shaping, and disciplining hand of culture. Even such pheno-typical results of the genetic code as human height, stature, weight, as well as physiological processes such as sexual orgasm and the onset and cessation of menstruation are more responsive to the socioculturally determined physical environment than was previously thought.

Many psychologists and biologists, too, now believe that genetic determinism does not square with the facts of human physiology. The human brain is extremely large; thus if humans are to squeeze out of their mothers while it is still possible to get through, most of the neural maturation must occur after birth. In the first two years of life, the brain fixes countless synapses it didn't have at birth, while weeding out many others. Which connections are reinforced and which atrophy is the result of the infant's (unavoidably cultural) experience, not inalterable hardwiring that maintains its timeless demands regardless of the particularities of environment and upbringing.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Bilateral symmetry to Boolean algebraThe Body - A Brief Tour Of Western Dualism From Plato To Plastic Surgery, The Mind Embodied, Culturally Variable Bodies