Professor Marshall

LESSON 8: Sociobiology and Sociology of the Body

Sociobiology and Sociology of the Body

Introduction

These two ways of interpreting society--SOICIOLOGY OF THE BODY and SOCIOBIOLOGY--are new and developing. Since each is only beginning to emerge as a distinct area of study, we'll tackle each one separately.

It is important to understand that we see "body" as a CONCEPT and not simply as a physical place where we reside. As sociologists are always trying to examine the CONCEPT of something, we continue to do so with the body:

Concept of Body


Sociology of the Body

The basic ideas of this way of thinking about individuals and society:

→THE CONCEPT OF THE "BODY" IS SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED.

→THE CONCEPTS OF SEXUALITY ARE SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTED.

→ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT "NORMAL" CHANGE OVER TIME.

→PHYSICAL EXPERIENCES OF THE BODY ARE IMPORTANT TO SOCIAL LIFE.

→OUR EXPERIENCES ARE THE RESULT OF CULTURAL AND BIOLOGICAL INTERACTIONS.

→WE CANNOT IGNORE WHAT OUR BODIES ARE DOING.

In the End, We All Die

Sociologists who view the body as essential to the study of society agree that, in America today, we are obsessed with how our bodies look and what we can do to change how they look. There is an outlook in America today which says if we don't like how our bodies look and feel, we should change them in an attempt at perfection. We are looked down at if we can't control our bodies, and we seem to be obsessed with how we appear to others (and to ourselves!). The sociology of the body attempts to combine a phenomenological discussion and physical biological facts into a theory about how our bodies are not only a "given," they are also a social construct (Wallace and Wolf 394).

The idea that we can control our physical bodies dependent on the norms of the time is what sociologists call the "socialization of nature." Taking things which are natural (our bodies) and manipulating them based on the social norms of the day helps us to understand the how the body can be both socially constructed and a natural entity. Earrings, tattoos, foot binding, circumcision, liposuction, and breast implants (and MANY more) are all examples of our modern quest to "clean up," beautify and perfect the body.

Michel Foucault

Wallace and Wolf analyze the work of Foucault, who asserts that we should not try to simplify the body and sexuality as we do. He asserts that "humanity is far more complicated" a thing to reduce to a few simple expressions about the body and human sexuality. In his complex work "History of Sexuality" he shows how our concepts of "appropriate" and "inappropriate" sexuality have drastically changed over time:

Sex Over Time

Foucault asserts that our ideas about sex and the sex we're willing and consent to engage in are mediated and formed by the underlying structures of power in society--we are taught what is acceptable "body behavior" and what is not acceptable by the norms, standards and laws of the time. He further says that the ways in which we view our bodies are socially constructed. Bryan Turner, on the other hand, sees the body as a fuction of culture, but is still in agreement with Foucault that bodies are socially constructed. Turner also incorporates the work of Bourdieu into his view of the body by drawing on Bourdieu's concept of "cultural capital." What Turner wants us to see is that our physical bodies are a source of status and power in society.

Foucault and Turner

Sociology of the body tries to show us that our bodies have both Foucault and Turner's attributes and characteristics. Bodies are BOTH physical masses AND social constructions. Bodies are sources of power and status. Thinking about how we view the body in the US today can help us to understand what Foucault and Turner are trying to say. How important are "looks" to us? How many of us see things about our bodies that we think we need to change and what measuring stick are we using by which to compare ourselves? We are bombarded with images of beautiful people every day, and while we must understand that these images are airbrushed and non-representative, how much of an impact do they have on us when we look at ourselves?

We can relate the sociology of the body to a concept that we've already discussed--Weber's concept of the IDEAL TYPE:


Sociobiology

Sociobiology is concerned with the biological bases of behavior: how what we're physically made of may have an effect on how we behave. The idea that our physical body composition impacts the way we behave is a controversial one for sociology in general. This is a new direction for sociology. What exactly are the main components of sociobiological theory?

→The human race is a product of evolution.

→The human race is a product of information passed on via our genes.

→Genes as well as environment play a role in the way we behave.

→NATURE is as important as NURTURE.

So, what is the problem with this kind of thinking? Think about the possible implications of nature playing a primary role in how we behave. If we agree that there is a biological (genetic) component which drives behavior, mainstream sociologists are concerned that this might become a basis for the treatment of certain groups of people. Historically, the "science of the day" has been used to condone horrendous treatments of many groups of people:

Anthropologist Robin Fox argues that we are no different than any other animal, and in that, we are subject to the same evolutionary forces as are other animals. He asserts that our ability to think in a complex way and then act upon our ideas is acting "naturally." He does not see the world in a NATURE or NURTURE type of equation. Rather, he asserts that the two must function together. Fox says that we are simply a different kind of animal, but animal nonetheless (Wallace and Wolf 400).

The Slippery Slope

So, the BIG question then is: DO WE BEHAVE THE WAY WE BEHAVE BECAUSE OF SOME SORT OF "PRE-PROGRAMMED" BIOLOGICAL IMPERATIVE, OR DO WE HAVE CONTROL OVER OUR BEHAVIOR?

The jury is out on this question. As sociologists, I'm sure we'd like to say that we LEARN all behavior (right and wrong) from the socialization process AFTER birth. And, for the first 200 years of sociology, that was a basic foundation of the study of society as far as sociologists were concerned. Today, it is not that simple. There is interesting, current research which at least hints at a biological connection to action and behavior. We must bear in mind however that even IF there is a biological component to behavior, we cannot excuse those who choose to act outside of the norm. The rules, regulations, norms and sanctions we have in society are there to "keep us on the straight and narrow." Using "biology made me do it" as a defense for unacceptable behaviors is not appropriate, nor is it accepted as a justification for behavior which does not conform to the rules which govern social interactions.

The Issue of Trust

Why we trust others has been a common theme among many of our social theorist so far, and sociobiologists point to trust as a common element in all human societies as an example of a biological determinant: if trust was not genetically "coded" into us, why would all observed societies have an element of trust? Expanding this question to include the social elements of trust shows us how both nature and nuture might be working cooperatively.

Conclusion

In the end, the sociobiological point of view would say (just as Robin Fox asserted) that human beings (more specifically, human brains) are different than the brains of other animals. Sociobiologists say that human brains are euqipped with special features which make it possible for us to interact on a different level than other animals: to show trust and altruism to each other like no other species can. Sociologists in the mainstream do not go that far: at best for us, the jury is still out on how much (if any) infleunce human biology has on society.