As Waskul and Vannini (2006) point out in Chapter 1 of their edited collection Bodies/Embodiment, social and cultural changes in the Western world have made questions of the body and embodiment “appear more substantially more visible than ever before”. This visibility has resulted in a large and varied corpus of sociological work that can loosely be labeled “the sociology of the body”. Waskul and Vannini focus on the sociology of the body from the perspective of symbolic interaction.
As with the theorists we took up earlier, Waskul and Vannini take the position that “the body as an object” [i.e. the body as something tangible, physical] cannot be separated from “the body as a subject “ [i.e. the meaning the body holds both for the individual and for society]”. For Waskul and Vannini “embodiment” is the process whereby the ‘object body is actively experienced, produced, sustained, and/or transformed as a subject-body”. One does not just “inhabit” a body. Rather one is “subjectively embodied in a fluid, emergent, and negotiated process of being”. This means that body, the self and the social interactions the self is involved in are all tightly integrated.
To repeat, for symbolic interactionists, the body is never just an object. It is always embodied and therefore subjectively experienced.. The questions of interest for social interactionists that follow from this are: “how” and “by what means”? is the body experienced. Waskul and Vannini point to four different, although as they say, highly inter-changeable orientations that symbolic interactionists take up when answering these two questions:, viz. the looking-glass body, the dramaturgical body, the phenomenological body, the socio-semiotic body, and the narrative body. In this section we will take up the first two of the symbolic interactionist orientations noted by Waskul and Vannini, i.e. the looking-glass body, and the dramaturgical body:
The Looking Glass and Point of View Symbolic Interaction
The concept of the looking-glass body derives its inspiration from the theorizing of Charles Horton Cooley (1902). Cooley famously wrote:
In a very large and interesting class of cases, the social reference takes the form of a somewhat definite imagination of how one’s self—that is an idea he appropriates—appears in a particular mind, and the kind of self-feeling one has is determined by the attitude toward this attributed to that other mind. A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking-glass self:
“Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.”
As we see our face, figure, and dress in the glass, and are interested in them because they are ours, and pleased or otherwise with them according as they do or do not answer to what we should like them to be; so in imagination we perceive in another’s mind some thought of our appearance, manners, aims, deeds, character, friends, and so on, and are variously affected by it (1902:183-4).
Cooley went on to claim that the “looking-glass self” has three elements: “…the imagination of our appearance to the other person; the imagination of his judgment of that appearance, and some sort of self-feeling, such as pride or mortification” (ibid.). And that …“There is no sense of “I” … without its correlative sense of you, or he, or they…. A social self of this sort might be called the reflected or looking-glass self” Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and Social Order (1902)
The “looking-glass body” Waskul and Vannini (2006) tell us “obviously and intentionally resonates with Cooley’s familiar “looking-glass self”. The looking-glass body is the result of the individual seeing and interpreting the bodies of others. It is the result of the individual imagining what others see and feel about him/her. The looking-glass body is “an imagined reflection built of cues gleaned from others” (ibid).
The Looking Glass and Point of View Symbolic Interaction and The Body as Abject
One type of body that sociologists have focused on are ill, disabled bodies- bodies that are “troublesome”; “abject bodies. How then, is the disabled and/or chronically ill body constructed and experienced? What does it mean to have an abject body?
The “body as abject” approach to embodiment “privileges a controlling mind over the material form of a person” The abject body is “at once a site of attraction and revulsion” (Cregan 2006:11-12). In this approach, the body is treated either as a “site of spiritual and ritual significance” (as in the work of many anthropologists), or as a “producer of reviled products”.
Theories that treat the body as abject, Cregan tells us, “center on the individually situated mental control of bodily acts and processes” (2006: 8). Feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva has theorized how “abjection” occurs as “the rejection of and revulsion at what both is and is not the body”. Abjection involves “dealing with evidence of the body’s boundaries”, an act that is both “necessary and dangerous to the self-constitution subject” (Kegan 2002:96). Mary Douglas, an anthropologist also writes about pollution and taboos and their effects on abjection. But as Cregan points out there is a significant difference between Douglas and Kristeva. Whereas Kristeva focuses on the transition between infancy and adulthood and metaphoric issues of abjection, Douglas “is interested in how abjection functions materially in social relations, amongst adults…” (ibid)
Berit Lindahl (2010) applies the concept of the object, taken from the work of Julia Kristeva, to an analysis of the “situation of people living at home on a [home mechanical] ventilator [HMV]”. Lindahl collected stories from HMV users, arguing that the “concept of abjection adds a deeper understanding to issues about embodiment …” As you read this article, try to assess Lindahl’s arguments that the work of Kristiva on abject embodiment can help us to recognize our own “incompleteness and strangeness” thus making it possible to have and to appreciate “relations with others who at first sight seem strange to us…”
Bodily excretions and/or by-products are objects of fascination, attraction and/or revulsion in all cultures. But across cultures what attracts repulses or fascinates differ. There are codes aimed at controlling and regulating the body and different acts or materials bring different responses. The issue for theorists who focus on the body as abject is the cultural and social regulation of the practical power of the mind over the body (Cregan p 13).
For those following a “looking-glass body” approach to the question of disability/illness, an individual’s experiences of their embodiment is central to their sense of being- including who they think they are, and what they think others attribute to them. For some sociologists, like Waskul and van der Riet (2002) important research question emerge: “how does the self handle the implications of a gruesome body? How do people manage selfhood in light of grotesque physical appearance?” (p. 487). In answering these questions Waskul and van der Riet (2002) begin with the understanding that the body and experiences of embodiment are central to an individual’s sense of self. What happens, they ask, “…when one’s body is humiliating? How does the self handle the implications of a gruesome body?” They draw on Charles Horton Cooley’s concept of the “looking-glass self” as their theoretical framework in order to write about how a person experiences and manages a body that is in a state of “abject embodiment”. While you are reading this article pay close attention to the concepts of abject embodiment and the concept of “looking-glass self” in order to assess their analysis of how an individual experiences, and manages, a body that is in a state of “abject embodiment”.
Brooks Gardner and Gronfein (2006) drew inspiration from Irving Goffman’s classic work Relations in Public (1971) to examine and theorize about “how fragile and unpredictable bodies are “armoured” in public space to better defend and manage trespass”. Read the article, paying close attention to the concepts that Brooks Gardner and Grofein have adapted from Goffman’s work (i.e. “the huddle”, “allowable breaches”, ‘the shell”, ‘body doubles”, and “chaperones”. They use these concepts to illustrate ‘the micropolitics of everyday life” as experienced by persons with disabilities.
Once you have read the articles, watch the film “My Left Foot”. My Left Foot is a 1989 film adaptation of an autobiographical book of the same title by Christy Brown, an Irishman born with cerebral palsy. View the film