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  • Writer's pictureMonique

What is Embodiment?

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Because we are not isolated subjectivities trapped within our bodies, but share an intersubjective milieu with others, we must also specify that a somatic mode of attention means not only attention to and with one's own body, but includes attention to the bodies of others (Csordas, 1993:139).

Why Embodiment?

Embodiment moves beyond an intellectual and cognitive understanding of experience. As a concept, embodiment takes in the felt experience of the body and recognizes that the body is both a source of and holder of knowledge. Anna Harris (2016) writes of embodiment as “a way of describing porous, visceral, felt, enlivened bodily experiences, in and with inhabited worlds.” Andrew Strathern (2011) notes that embodiment does not ignore cognitive experience “but it does situate mind in ‘practice’” (Strathern, 2011:397). However, from a Western perspective, embodiment is a learned, and relatively new, way of understanding and experiencing human behaviour; for example, within cultural / social and medical anthropology, embodiment work only developed as an area of focus in the mid-1980s (Vivanco, 2018; Harris, 2016). During the 1980s and 1990s there was a shift from “studies of the body to taking the perspective of a bodily being-in-the-world as the starting point” (Harris, 2016; emphasis added). With a focus on the experience of the body, embodiment work reflects “a rejection of Cartesian mind-body dualism” and instead turns toward an “embrace of phenomenological, practice, and biocultural perspectives” (Vivanco, 2018:6). The theoretical approach of embodiment “developed largely in opposition to Western dualisms and stagnate bodily categories, emphasizing process and contingency” (Harris, 2016). Anthropologists began to work with the body not as an object in relation to culture but rather “as the subject of culture” (Csordas, 1990:5; italics in original). They developed a focus on ways that “diverse social phenomena – power, oppression, violence, discrimination, ideologies of gender and race, etc. – produce sickness, morbidity, emotions, pain, stress, and other psychological and biological outcomes in the body” (Vivanco, 2018:6). Thomas Csordas (1990) explores a paradigm of embodiment which he noted requires an exploration of dualism as well as the “behavioural environment” or the context in which the practice of dualism, is carried out.

As it developed theoretically and in ethnographic practice, embodiment allowed anthropologists to consider the “processes through which social and material worlds are experienced by and incorporated into human bodies” (Vivanco, 2018:6).

The collection edited by Margaret Lock and Judith Farquhar called Beyond the Body Proper: Reading the Anthropology of Material Life (2007) captured the vast theoretical and ethnographic work of anthropologists and other writers of the human body and embodiment, including pre-1980s work. In one of the book’s section introductions, Lock and Farquhar (2007) make the point that when human activity, customs, and cultural practice are presented as unnatural, bizarre, even disturbing, it allows the Western mind to dismiss the bodies presented as “exceptions to all the natural rules governing our commonsense embodiment” thus leaving our Western human experience to remain unchallenged (Lock & Farquhar, 2007:187). Many of the writings in Beyond the Body Proper demonstrate how activities of the body are only seen as “bizarre or deviant” (Lock & Farquhar, 2007:189) because, looked at from a Western perspective, they are removed from their context and original meaning. Embodiment as an approach, therefore, offers a way of considering how social and cultural conditions inform both human cognitive perspective and human felt and emotional experience (Harris, 2016).

[1] He considers and compares the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty on phenomenology and the work of Pierre Bourdieu on habitus: “Merleau-Ponty (1962), who elaborates embodiment in the problematic of perception, and Bourdieu (1977, 1984), who situates embodiment in an anthropological discourse of practice” (Csordas, 1990:7).

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