Embodiment in Anthropology | Sickness, Healing, and How We View the Body


When we think about “the mind” and “the
body,” we usually talk about them as two different entities. This ontology has influenced biomedicine,
psychology and psychiatry, and other disciplines that seem to separate the mind and the body. If your doctor asks you how you feel, it’ll
be a question about a certain part of your body. Do your joints hurt? Does your stomach hurt? On the other hand, when a psychologist asks
you how you feel, that’s said to be more subjective. It will reference your emotions and mental
health, not your physical health. Are you sad? How are you coping with life circumstances? In both cases, it would “feel” inappropriate
to give any answer besides those that are expected. One based in the body, and the other in the
mind (or brain, specifically). You don’t go to a medical doctor to deal
with “psychological” illnesses. This mind-body dualism is said to have come
from Rene Descartes. We call it Cartesian Dualism. But there is a difference between how the
mind and body have been theorized versus how they are enacted in everyday life. We intuitively know they’re linked together,
messy, and overlapping; but the way we use them practically to deal with problems is
usually in this rigid, purified form; like what we see with biomedicine and mental health. Yet, in reality, Descartes was much more ambiguous
about how the mind and body related with one another. Philosopher Desmond Clarke argued that because
he was limited by the tools available to him during his lifetime, Descartes decided to
develop a natural philosophy of the mind. Here, Descartes operationalizes human thought
and action through the use of the mind and body as two distinct realms, but he never
truly thought that they were separable or incapable of co-existing in the same space. In many ways, Descartes proposed both a subjective
experience, such as ‘I see the color red,’ and that which causes my perception of the
color red, which we might call objective reality—or the fact that the color red actually exists. He argued for “a body in the mind,” but
we were left with “a mind and a body” as two distinct parts. Descartes left this world pondering “How
can the body possibly influence the mind?” Desmond Clarke argued that Descartes had reached
his limits for explaining how mind and body may have been constituted together. How Can Mental Properties Be Caused By Physical
Ones? Theories of embodiment upend this dualism,
but how “embodiment” is defined and used varies by discipline and theoretical perspective. There are as many as 5 definitions of embodiment,
but I really think there are about 3. One person who attempted to bridge the gap
and explain how the physical can influence the mental is Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu takes a more sociocultural perspective
and is famous for presenting really complicated concepts that have been tough to pin down. One such concept is habitus. In simplest terms, Habitus is a historically
originating feedback loop. It produced the history that produces it. We each have some habits, skills, and ways
of being in the world that we gained through life experience. Many of these are gained implicitly—we develop
a “feel for the game.” Our interests, dispositions, and even our
own bodies behave in certain ways based on this habitus. So… If you came from a culture that sits on floor
mats and eats with chopsticks, this would produce a different habitus from one that
has you sitting at tables, learning to use three different forks for each part of your
meal. So, habitus is cultural. But it’s also influenced by class. If you grew up in an affluent neighborhood,
where you learned to use three different forks, versus a low income neighborhood with low
employment rates and an unkept infrastructure, you likely developed a different cultural
understanding about the world that shaped your habitus. And this habitus influences the way you occupy
space, and how you interact with other people, in the world. Here, bodily hexis is really where the tire
meets the road. Hexis is our motor function, our postures. It’s where our history, our habitus, is
ingrained and replicated every day. For example, we each have a way of walking,
talking, behaving, and even thinking that has been shaped by our upbringing and other
past experiences. This is most apparent if you have an accent,
or a little swagger when you walk. But for Bourdieu, it’s much more significant
than this. Culture and history literally enter the body,
changing it in very fundamental ways. If you’re a man in the US, chances are you
were brought up to walk standing straight, with your shoulders back, while making eye
contact as you enter a room. I know I was. This kind of prescription is significant not
only because of what it tells your body to do, but also because it metaphorically describes
how a man ought to embody manhood. It means, unapologetically occupy the world
and take up space, walk in with your head held up high and with confidence, and be aware
of your surroundings and be prepared. This could imply seeing men as protectors
who are gaining environmental awareness while living in the world in a way that demands
respect. On the other hand, it could mean being a bully,
terrorizing the people around you. And no doubt people will enact manhood in
whatever way they see fit, often based on their habitus. So, if you were bullied by a parent as a child,
and ‘bullying’ became your way of dealing with social situations, in your mind, that
behavior could get reinforced. Maybe you believe it helped save you from
bad situations? If so, that may be how your behavior manifests
itself. But if you had an attentive parent that treated
you with respect, while also instilling confidence in you, then your presence in the world may
reflect that instead. Yet, for others, these expectations and prescriptions
of manhood may be significant for other reasons. Maybe not having the ideal “body language
of a man” whatever that means, lets people know that you lack confidence or are experiencing
depression—or maybe you act out confidence on the outside, but really you’re overcompensating
because you don’t want people to know how you might really be feeling. In either case, we have this cultural awareness
of “correct posture” as an ideal. How that determines our interactions with
people is less clear. But as you can imagine, these are the mind,
the body, and the social all interacting with one another. Through our interactions, culture changes
the way we perceive the world. It changes our bodies. And culture changes the way we experience
our world through our bodies. In simplest terms, our bodies are how we interact
with the world. On the other side of the spectrum, we have
biological and medical anthropologists who use “embodiment” differently, talking
more about biological pathways being influenced by our environment. Scholars like Clarence Gravlee, Alan Goodman,
and Nancy Krieger, talking about racial health inequalities, have used embodiment to explore
“how we literally incorporate, biologically, the material and social world in which we
live, from conception to death.” By studying human health through the life
course, we can answer some interesting questions, such as, why do infants born to African American
women experience low birth weight at such higher rates than those infants born to US-born
White women? Research (David and Collins (1997) has shown
that in their first generation of being in the US, African-born Black women actually
had infants whose birth weights matched American-born White women. So, foreign-born Black women and American-born
White women really have similar health. But after the first generation, the next generation’s
children had infant birth weights that matched African American women. What this means is that after one generation,
infants born to foreign-born Black women end up having really high rates of low birth weight. Clearly, this isn’t as simple as just genetics. What is it about the social or economic environment
that changes the biology of these women, and places African American women at such high
risk? Is it stress, discrimination, or some other
process we haven’t yet understood? Research is still figuring this out. But for these scholars, embodiment is how
we biologically integrate our environment to produce bad health outcomes. And similar research is being done on nutritional
deficiency as well as obesity and diabetes, which all seem to be passed on intergenerationally. These phenomena have sparked theories into
developmental programming, which shows how a fetus can be influenced by the mother’s
environment; and even potentially epigenetic research, which says that these experiences
can indirectly influence our genetics by determining whether or not certain genes get expressed. In either case, the line we imagine between
nature and nurture becomes blurred. Rebecca Seligman bridges these different concepts
of embodiment by examining how new experiences, performances, and understandings of oneself
are associated with becoming different, and changing how we see ourselves. This change in self-perception contributes
to shifts in bodily states. In other words, embodied learning results
in changes to individual subjectivity, or how we see ourselves in the world, which then
also contributes to embodied ways of being. Again, the body and mind are linked together. Seligman uses the term “bio-looping” in
her own research in Brazil. As an example, Seligman argues that a Muslim
American who has been repeatedly singled out and detained at an airport, especially after
9/11, will become physiologically entrained to stress every time he steps in an airport. Considering the reality of his experience,
developing a stress response to the airport is natural, and in many ways expected—there’s
a legitimate cause for concern that he will be severely inconvenienced, to say the least. But also, the stress response that results
is also due to the perception that the airport is a threatening place. What Seligman proposes is that in her research,
through profound religious experience, she was able to witness people breaking these
patterns of stress, leading to self-transformation and reorienting themselves in ways that created
positive social, psychological, and physical health. So, biological process are implicated in back-and-forth,
mutually enforcing relationships with meaning, practice, and experience. Seligman uses this “bio-looping” concept
in reference to her research on the Candomblé religion in Brazil. There, she found that people who were often
suffering from depression and traumatic events were usually called upon to become spirit
mediums. In this process, they went from being vulnerable,
even physically sick individuals, to becoming model religious practitioners who could guide
others through their own spiritual and emotional traumas. For these spirit mediums, their bodies and
concepts of self were transformed, producing a new self-narrative where they no longer
saw themselves as weak and vulnerable, and where they were able to find social, psychological,
and physical healing. Fundamentally, Seligman’s research suggests
that this transformation process resulted in biological changes—she suggests that
differences in bodily stress, and more effective ways of dealing with that stress, could be
measured in her research, really broadening how we should define this transformation. In other words, transformation entails both
a shift in perspective as well as a shift in the state of one’s body and overall health. In these three kinds of embodiment, we see
lots of overlap. And they leave us with a few questions about
how we deal with what we might call “health problems.” It’s worth noting that the World Health
Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being
and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” So health is holistic. In many ways, didn’t medicine arise to address
the question: How can we attend to human suffering? And suffering is a subjective state, yet,
the objects with which we attribute that suffering are physical and physiological. Like a scraped knee, or diabetes. They allow us to look at objects as the objects
that they are. Embodiment looks at the body not only as an
object, but also as a subject. A subject of study, but more importantly a
subject that experiences the world in these complex ways. In ways that we attribute to Rene Descartes,
we disconnect the body from feelings, and suspect this is the right thing to do. But all of these concepts of embodiment propose
that it’s not that simple. What’s clear is that we think of Knowledge,
Behavior, and our Emotions and Feelings as being 3 different, separate things. But you can have all of the knowledge in the
world; you can use that knowledge to help inform your behavior, but sometimes, we ignore
our emotions and feelings, to our detriment. For example, you can know that you need to
diet and exercise, but anxiety over being stared at by other people at the gym, or anxiety
over wanting to look a certain way, and look it as soon as possible, can mean either never
making it to the gym, or being overly restrictive early on. So, we end up burning out in the gym by going
too intense, demotivating us early on in the process. We also get frustrated at our diet because
we decrease the number of calories too fast. We end up eating bland food that will logically
help us get the body we want but is terrible because it’s so unsustainable. In either case, we see the body as something
to be maintained, and we ignore how much more complicated the reality is. We ignore that we feel like we need to change
for all sorts of complicated, and emotional reasons, not only to “be healthy.” Like Bourdieu, we need to consider how our
body is shaped by social, mental, and historical factors, created by and in turn creating a
new habitus. Like biological anthropologists, we need to
understand that these processes have real, measurable impacts on our biology. They can help explain why we attribute the
health problems that we do to certain populations. And like Seligman, we need to consider that
we’re constantly engaged in this process of “becoming”. Our narrative about our self also has real
social, psychological, and physical consequences. In the right context, transformation in one
of these realms can fundamentally change us. With these in mind, we’ll remember that
we’re not composed of separate minds and bodies. As holistic individuals, we can’t buy into
those categories too much. They’re great for scientific analysis, but
they’re not really useful for people trying to make a life worth living. Instead of compartmentalizing ourselves into
having a separate mind and body, we’ll realize that we’re whole, complex individuals, deserving
and capable of profound transformation.

4 thoughts on “Embodiment in Anthropology | Sickness, Healing, and How We View the Body

  • well done, I do think it's interesting the ways in which culture can shape how we interact or understand our own bodies. I was reading a discussion thread the other day on American women who were discussing how women have a much higher tolerance for pain because the shared experience of going to the doctor is to be told you're over reacting or being too emotional and so women often will put up with pain a lot longer than they should because they don't expect doctors to believe them

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