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'The body is a mirror of society'. Discuss.

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'The body is a mirror of society'. Discuss. The assertion of this essay's title could have easily been made by Durkheim, eager to expand sociology's territory to include areas traditionally belonging to other disciplines. It was his loyal nephew, Mauss, who first classified the miscellaneous examples of the social conditioning of the body as 'body techniques'. The concept of body techniques shows that the ways in which the individual uses his body are not determined by nature, but are the product of "all his education by the whole society to which he belongs." Body techniques are so powerful because after constant repetition they become a kind of 'habitus', forming a general state of physical being. Culturally learned phenomena thus feel instinctive and 'natural'. The social conditioning of the body places it within a broader moral universe. Following Durkheim, Hertz states that the main feature of religion is the distinction it draws between the sacred and the profane. ...read more.


As with left and right hands, the physical differences between men and women are emphasised by society rather than merely accepted. In fact, women are often associated with the left side, and their subordination is therefore naturalised. Another social hierarchy that the body reflects is the caste system in India. Physical contact with an 'Untouchable' is traditionally thought to be polluting for members of higher castes, and the sense that the spiritual inferiority of the lower castes is physically manifest is justification for caste segregation. Parry also suggests that the Hindu notion of the instability of bodily margins creates an anxiety about disintegration and chaos which reinforces caste boundaries. We have seen how the body can act as a mirror of society, reflecting the tension between the collective and the individual, and revealing social distinctions. However, it would be a mistake to see the body as a mere blank slate for society. In some respects, society itself is a mirror of the body. ...read more.


The Zionists mark their opposition to 'sekgoa' or 'white ways' by subverting neo-colonial fashions by mixing them with 'traditional' Tshidi styles. The Zionist healing rituals merge the individual persons into a community of participants by coordinating their dress, the cries that they emit, and the clockwise dancing of their bodies. Body techniques and adornments can homogenise social groups and distinguish them from others. The case of the Zionists serves to remind us that the social authority that governs peoples' use of their bodies is not immutable, and nor are the seemingly 'natural' techniques we have learnt. We may therefore conclude that although the body does act as a mirror of society, social control over the body is not fixed, and dissident groups can contest authority by reclaiming control over their own bodies. Paradoxically, it is because the body appears to be the sovereign domain of the individual that it can be such a powerful marker of membership and position in society. When society imprints itself on the body, its members identify strongly with their social selves. ...read more.

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