Whose Body Matters? Feminist Sociology
and the Corporeal Turn in Sociology and Feminism
Sociology is developing a new interest in the body, mostly absent from the overall discourse. It is only recently that the body has have a significance. As part of the natural world, bodies were defined as irrational and irrelevant for sociology. British sociologist Anne Witz argues that the concept is dangerously becoming only the “abject” male body, and not the “excluded” female body. In fact, bodies constitute an “absent presence” (Shilling, 1993) in the sense that they are here, behind the visible presentation of sociality. Feminist sociologists have to explore this history of bodies to reintroduce the female body, because many of the founding fathers of the sociology of the body failed to engage with women’s writing with issues of female corporeality.
In the first section of this article, Witz presented how the “corporeal turn” is negotiated in the new sociology of the body and in the new feminist philosophies of the body. This perspective is inspired by the corporeal turn in social constructionism in recent years and particularly by writers who theorize embodied perspectives on human individuality.
First of all, the new sociology of the body advocates a return of the body as a sociological subject but does not take enough account of how gendered bodies have always been more or less present (called “female corporeality” and “male embodiment”). Women have been only presented through their bodies, which has allowed male theorists to exclude women from the discourse on sociality. Their first approach has consisted in getting women away from the biological to get them closer to the social through the sociality of gender, because women are determined not by nature (biological sex) but by gender which is a social construction. Witz warns that the new male sociology of the body is not using the feminist view the right way. In fact only social feminism is referred to whereas what matters is feminist intellectual research.
This approach has attracted many critics, like B.Turner, A.Frank or C.Shilling. For Turner, women have a sociological existence because the body is being reintroduced, linking again the sociality of women to their sexual bodies. This goes against feminist sociology which, in the 1980’s, turned women away from corporeality. Frank, in the 1990’s, highlights that it is thanks to feminism that the body has become visible. Witz claims that it is wrong as feminism has always tried to separate female sociology from the biological. Shilling has played a major role in reassessing the body, but Witz is very critical (“sketchy”) because he mentions essentially feminist politics that stressed the oppression of the female body in society, whereas feminist intellectual academic work does not want to refer exclusively to the body. Therefore according to Witz, male academics do not understand the feminist contribution to the debate.
Furthermore, Witz included the new feminist philosophy, which tend to devalue genders by overvaluing the body, which blurs the separation between sociality and corporeality. Feminist sociology has not really examined the “why” of the oppression and has focused on the “how”, thus encouraging this inappropriate use by the male sociologists. The women experience of patriarchy gave more importance to the body as it has locked them between corporeality and sociality. Witz argues that feminist sociologists should consider gender as the main concept in the sociology of the body because it challenges the “natural” status of the body. So the question is how to bridge the gap between gender and embodiment? Witz is strongly opposed to abandon the concept of gender in order to focus on sex (biological) and sexuality (wishes, behaviour) because gender and bodies must be conceptualized separately and together.
In the second part, Witz expanded upon the classical texts of sociology she advanced, such as Durkheim, Weber and Simmel. In the new sociology of the body, women’s and men’s bodies are not being treated the same way. Gender, for example, is not an issue when dealing with the male body whereas it is with women’s bodies. Witz warns of relying too much on “old” sociological representations which focused on a dissociation between the body (female, biological, excluded) and society (male, contemptible body, sociality). Male sociology has developed the idea that the subject matter is the social, opposed to the corporeal, which has been pushed back onto women. Burdening women with the body and excluding them from the social, has allowed men to define themselves in terms of the social. So there is a history of female corporeality whereas the male body appears as male embodiment, mediated by and embodied in action. Witz insists that we cannot move towards a sociology of the body if we do not understand the mechanisms which produced women overwhelmed by corporeality and excluded from sociality, and men only involved in sociality while refusing to appear as bodies.
Durkheim, like many writers of his time, tried to explain what he saw as the inferiority of women. He provides sociological explanations for this phenomenon, but he was still conditioned by a biological and natural principle of his time. In his study of suicide, Durkheim wrote that if women committed suicide less than men after a bereavement or divorce, this was due to a natural difference involved in her more instinctive behavior (Suicide, 1897, p. 306). Women’s corporeality prevents them from being integrated in the social, which allows Durkheim to show men oppositely determined by social forces.
As opposed to Durkheim who refused to consider women as “human” because of their state of nature, Weber is torn between the spirit and the body. But he operates the same process: women are excluded from modernity because they represent desire and eroticism, while men have the responsibility for society.
To Simmel, women are whole (no confrontation between life forces and spirit) whereas men have to live with the duality. He does not express the same anti-female discourse as Durkheim and Weber but his conclusions amount to the same, women have such a sexual dimension that they cannot develop, whereas men are given the possibility to act.
To conclude, we can hope that bodies will be recovered by both social life and returned to their genders. Witz set out to establish some constraints by suggesting that, in the sociological inheritance, there is a story of bodies showing that genders are embodied. The task of the new sociology of the body is not to speak about the body but re-evaluate the way male sociology has hidden the male body while investing men with the responsibility of society. Witz wishes that both bodies, male and female, can be given the possibility to exist in the sociological discourse.
- Durkheim, E. (1970) Suicide. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul
- Shilling, C. (1993) The Body and Social Theory. London: Sage
- Witz, A. (2000) “Whose Body Matters? Feminist Sociology and the Corporeal Turn in Sociology and Feminism”, Body and Society, pp. 1-24. Doi: 1177/1357034X00006002001