Why is the human body an important object of anthropological study?



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For instance, in the West, someone who has been brought up in a higher-class society will have different ‘body techniques’ than those of a person having lived in a lower-class society; enforcing the point that Mauss makes about the part that education plays in the way we behave and hold ourselves. He goes on to draw a parallel between the term ‘education’ and ‘imitation’. It is suggested that the existing differences between the ways in which humans act are a consequence of “3 elements”, that lead to and complete this “imitation”.

This process starts with the “social element”, and happens when a person observes others, usually ones “in whom he has confidence and who have authority over him”, taking part in activities of which he approves or admires. Having seen these actions completed, he will want to impersonate them; “The individual borrows the series of movements that constitute it from the action executed in front of him or with him by others”. After this element come the psychological and biological elements, which consist of the actual act of imitation.

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An important aspect of these ‘body techniques’ with regards to social anthropology is that they constitute a part of tradition. They are passed down through generations and throughout societies, and include “Technical action, physical action, magico-religious action”, all areas of interest to anthropology. Mauss defines the body as “man’s first and most natural instrument”, so it seems clear that studying it would lead to discovering the uses and beliefs that different peoples have of it. Indeed, it has been found that many peoples use their bodies in very different ways to us, in the West.

For example, the positions in which women give birth in India (upright), seems ‘abnormal’ to us, but to them there is nothing more normal, and it is perhaps associated with a belief, and most definitely associated with a tradition, passed down from previous generations. Further examples include the ways in which people sleep, walk, run, dance, and so on. Across the world, people have different perceptions of how the body is formed and what certain parts of it are for, or even how important these parts are.

This is why when using the body as an object of anthropological study, it is important to consider other people’s beliefs, for their ideas regarding the body may have much influence on their way of life. All humans are formed in the same way, and are born with the same potentials for developing their bodies. However, there is a big difference cross-culturally between this and how the body is developed, and what it is used for. As Shelly Errington points out in ‘Recasting Sex, Gender, and Power’, “Humans are also obliged to eat, but the universal command (“Eat!”) is fulfilled by a content particular to a particular environment, culture and system of meaning”.

Because “all humans have approximately the same sorts of bodies” (S. Errington), it is possible for researchers to study the differences in the human body in order to understand better the environment in which a certain person lives, as well as his or her habits. This is because such things as “Height, weight, posture, what prompts the person’s adrenaline to flow – those are shaped through the cultural environment, not solely by genes” (S.Errington).

This is saying that although all humans are made up of the same elements – like adrenaline, chromosomes, hormones and genes – the ways in which these elements are manifested depend on culture and environment. Another way of putting this is seen in Michel Feher’s ‘Introduction’, taking the idea from Mauss, saying that the body is “adapted to circumstances”. Using the example of adrenaline, we can see how culture has an effect on its manifestation, because its flow occurs in “a person who is very frightened or very elated.

Yet what causes fright and elation depends partly on the culture in which a person finds himself or herself, and partly on the person’s own self-restraint and training”. Some examples of how gender and the body are conceived differently in other societies include those of the Bimin-Kuskusmin of New Guinea, who believe that males are born with both male and female characteristics in them. In this culture, young boys are “initiated”, made to vomit and bleed, in order to expel the female characteristics, which are thought to be impure.

On the other hand, the Tchambuli of New Guinea think the opposite – that sex, gender, manhood, womanhood and so on, have nothing to do with the body, that they have to be acquired through achievements or behaviour in life. Having glanced at some contrasting conceptions of the body in different societies, we can start to see why it is an important object of anthropological study. It allows the anthropologist to learn more about the habits and way of life of the studied person or people in the given society.

Not only is the body perceived and used in opposing ways throughout cultures, but it also develops in different ways according to the environment and culture which surround this society. It is important to study the body when wanting to learn about certain societies because some peoples have completely different ideas on matters that we in the West consider almost natural. Matters such as sex and in some cases gender; eating, sleeping and walking habits (‘Body techniques’); and to a certain extent, the way our bodies look.

Studying the body, therefore, allows us to observe physical difference between societies, which in turn allows us to begin the inquiry on the environmental, social and cultural differences that exist throughout the world. This, as far as I understand, is one of the aims of social anthropology.

References  Errington, S. 1990 ‘Recasting Sex, Gender, and Power: A Theoretical and Regional Overview’. In J. Atkinson and S. Errington (eds), Power and Difference: Gender in Island Southeast Asia.Stanford: Stanford University Press. Pages 11-37  Feher, M. 1989 ‘Introduction’. In M. Feher, R. Naddaff and N. Tazi (eds), Fragments for a History of the Human Body, Part one. New York: Zone.  Mauss, M. 1979 ‘Body techniques’. In Sociology and Psychology: essays by Marcel Mauss. London: Routledge ; Kegan Paul. Eriksen, T. H. 2001 Small Places, Large Issues. London: Pluto Press. Chapter 1, p. 1.  Lectures in week 6 by Tsintjilonis, Dimitri.

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