chapter  19
11 Pages

The Body, Social Inequality and Health

ByKevin White

Our bodies are the front-line of the micro politics of the social structure and of our experience of inequality. In this chapter, we will explore this interrelation between the constitution of the body and the social structures of inequality. The relationship between the body and inequality has been an area of sociological interest since the foundation of the discipline. While some of the social circumstances of the body described by classical sociologists have changed, significant parallels can be drawn with contemporary embodied inequality. This chapter will explore the relationship between the body and inequality, and the attempts of classical and contemporary sociological theory to explain these links. It will illustrate the ways in which inequality is embodied, that is where physiological differences signal an individual’s positionwithin their respective social hierarchies.This occurs in terms of consumption patterns or of class membership, or of gender or ethnic identity. Embodiment may also signal our adherence to social notions of normality, or indicate active membership of society as self-responsible citizens (Shilling, 1993; Turner, 1996). Through the structures of inequality our bodies are differently experienced, and we have different options for changing that experience depending on our social location. In addition to producing the body, social structures of inequality also result in particular explanations of

the body. Our bodies ‘ … are not only biological and practical but… packed with connotations about what it means to be good, respectable, responsible’ (Crawford, 1994: 1347). The ‘good body’ is constructed against the ‘bad’ other – the lower class, the overweight, the poorly dressed, the incorrectly presented, the disabled, and the old. Through the presentation of their bodily selves, individuals assert these constructions to make claims, often unconsciously, to membership within society, and for access to limited resources of prestige, occupation and income (Cockerham, Rutten and Abel, 1997). In this way, initially biological explanations of the body are used in daily life to legitimate specific social assertions and to justify the ‘naturalness’ of inequalities based on class, gender, ethnicity, disability, age and the sense of ‘otherness’ they give rise to (Marcovich, 1982). Understanding these processes can also elucidate how constructions of the body can be challenged and resisted. Thus, this chapter will explore the way in which the body is explained and classified, and illustrate how these socially produced narratives impact upon embodied inequality.