Back to (gendered) bodies
Reintroducing the body has been important for understanding the relationship between sex and gender and sexuality. They fall into two categories: those who theorize the body as a social object and those who attempt to embody social theory. The latter are typically feminist sociologists whose work does not feature as centrally within the sociology of the body as it perhaps should (Howson, 2005). The key tension in sociologically oriented work on the body centres around the problem of to what extent (gendered) bodies are natural entities with some sort of fundamental essence and to what extent they are endlessly malleable products of social life and of discourse. The point of the sociology of gender initially was to highlight social construction in order to challenge arguments that gender inequalities were the inevitable result of ‘natural’ differences between the sexes. The result of this was a bracketing off of the body, despite the influence of second-wave feminism, which paid considerable attention to how women experienced their bodies within patriarchy. In setting aside the importance of bodies within social life, much thinking about gender fell foul of the very dualistic principles that relegated women to the status of unreasonable prisoners of nature because of their supposed inability to transcend their messy bodies (see Beauvoir, 1988/1949; Bordo, 1987). It also reinforced patriarchal power, which was premised on notions of men as exercising cognitive control free from bodily distractions.
The masculine privilege resultant from denying embodiment, however, has not been equally available to all men and there have been recent attempts to characterize hierarchies of masculine embodiment which privilege white middle class men’s embodiment as under rational control (Connell, 1995; Donaldson, 1991; Hall, 1997; Morgan, 1993). However, following Foucault, many feminists have reiterated that new forms of power/knowledge have subjected women to greater surveillance and regulation, with consequences for their autonomy (see Howson, 2005).Yet, corporeal feminism in particular has striven to see embodiment as not entirely reducible to the social (see Grosz, 1994).The strong influence of psychoanalysis within this approach causes an inability to see beyond the development of non-dysfunctional embodied selfhood as a struggle with inevitable gender hierarchies. Phenomenology has more fruitfully explored how bodies are experienced and how the social becomes ingrained or habituated within bodies. The limitations of a feminine gendered habitus can be convincingly set out via explorations of the specific
techniques of the body (for example, Young, 1990) as they are organized around related formations such as class (Skeggs, 1997).Yet for sociologists actual bodies often disappear into abstractions as they revert to their disciplinary reflex of trying to situate those embodied experiences within structural analyses (Howson and Inglis, 2001).The politics of gender has remained central in teasing out connections between the individual and social structure.