Publication 4051

Burkitt I. (1998) Bodies of knowledge: Beyond Cartesian views of persons, selves and mind. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 28(1): 63–82. Fulltext at
In the Western world we have become accustomed to thinking of the body as a purely physical entity, which is separate from the mind and from culture. There are many debates about whether culture affects the body and, if it does so, in what ways and to what extent. However, in this piece I want to explore some of the ways in which the body has been seen as a social construction; that is, as a malleable organism which is open to reformation through its location within historically variable social relations. My position will be slightly different to recent varieties of social constructionism which focus on the discursive production of bodies and, following Foucault, see the body as a surface for textual inscription. From this standpoint the body is theorized as disciplined, regulated and turned into the subject of power. Instead of the metaphor of textual inscription, I want to consider the ways in which the body is made active by social relations: that is, how it is brought into being and mobilized by its positioning in the interweaving networks of interdependence. In this, I adopt a similar outlook to Hirst and Woolley (1982) who argue that social relations have a decisive influence on human attributes, which cannot be characterized as either natural or social, but are both: human attributes are socio-natural. I also share their view that social relations need not form one interconnected whole, but may be fragmentary and disparate (1982: 24). This means that bodily dispositions and capacities will not be uniform or even within cultures, because within any group we will find people of different characters, skills, beliefs or abilities, due largely to the varied influence of social relations upon them.

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