Social Constructionism and the Body
This chapter is not a comprehensive survey of social constructionist studies of the human body. Not only is it well beyond the scope of my own acquaintance with the literature to provide such a chapter, but, thankfully, it is beyond the scope of my assignment for this Handbook. That assignment is the more particular task of examining what social constructionists have said and ought to say in reply to the question ‘What is the body?’ It is to critically reﬂect upon the epistemic consequences of adopting a social constructionist perspective on the body. Social constructionism has often been criticized on the grounds that it denies the innate obduracy of the body, its mortality, its vulnerability to pain and injury or its innate capacities for pleasure, regeneration, and reproduction. In light of the self-evident and indisputable reality of these features of our embodiment, social constructionist theorizing of the body is often dismissed as at best limited and at worst little more than a pompous conceit entertained by frivolous and second rate intellectuals. In this chapter I take issue with these charges. I seek to demonstrate that one need not forsake social constructionism to take these matters seriously and that from an epistemic standpoint, social constructionism is the most promising means of doing so. One preliminary point that social constructionists have going for them is that the human body has been
conceptualized, engaged and, indeed, experienced in a multitude of diﬀerent ways throughout history and across cultures. At the very least, social constructionists can claim a superior epistemic standpoint from which to scientiﬁcally describe and explain these variations.1 This goes for the various classiﬁcatory schemes and explanatory frameworks that have been applied to the human body, the various forms of what Marcel Mauss (1973) called techniques of the body (how we comport our bodies while eating, walking, dancing, child-rearing, etc.), as well as the various ways in which bodies have been experienced ﬁrsthand (cf. Csordas, 1994; Lock, 1993; Martin, 1987). Insofar as foundationalist2 philosophies, biology, or any other schools of thought characterize the human body in essentialist terms as pre-social and uniform across all societies, they are rather poorly placed to explain historical and cultural diﬀerences. And to the extent they seek to reduce historical and cultural diﬀerences to biology, or to otherwise naturalize these diﬀerences, they run the risk of reifying and indeed promoting inequality and injustice (Degler, 1991). Social constructionists are much more opportunely predisposed. But social constructionists have not rested content with comparative social analyses of the perception,
conceptualization, use and treatment of the body. Some have trained their analytic gaze directly upon modern Western philosophy and science themselves, suggesting a range of reasons to believe that both
their epistemic legitimacy and the ontological status of the objects they study are far more thoroughly inﬂuenced by their social contexts than has traditionally been thought. These arguments have tended to undermine the common sense understanding of the body as a singular, bounded, and uniﬁed whole or that it possesses any identiﬁable characteristics at all independent of its socio-historical contexts (cf. Mol, 2002). In my view, it is on this terrain that the most important debates are taking place and, for that reason, it is here that most of my attention in this chapter dwells. I begin with a review of the intellectual currents from which social constructionist orientations to the
body have emerged. In this section particular attention is given to whether those who adopt these orientations accept or deny that biology provides universally valid and foundational understandings of the human body. In the next section I move into a deeper consideration of social constructionist studies that have taken issue with biologically foundationalist claims. Here I highlight whether these studies are critical of foundationalism as such, or propose alternative foundationalist claims to those found in biology. In the third section I respond directly to some of the better known critiques of social constructionist accounts of the body and demonstrate their own epistemic shortcomings. I conclude with a few remarks regarding the future of social constructionist research on the body.