Wacquant, L. (1995) 'Pugs at Work: Bodily Capital and Bodily Labour Among Professional Boxers', in Body and Society, Vol 1, No. 1: 65 - 93.
Although there is much work on the sociology of the body, little of it is devoted to concrete practices whereby social structures get embodied. This article involves an ethnographic inquiry of professional boxers in America, especially how they use their body as a form of capital. It draws on a participant observation study [Wacquant was an apprentice boxer!], including interviews with boxers and their managers and others, and the analysis of various boxing publications.
Boxing is clearly 'a body centred universe' (66). The boxer's body is his asset, the instrument and object of work. As with Bourdieu, capital is seen as accumulated labour, hence boxers both possess and are 'entrepreneurs in bodily capital' (66). The gym can be seen as a machine to convert bodily capital into specific 'pugilistic capital' (66) and it is this that produces value in the form of recognition, titles and so on.
The boxer's body is developed from bodily labour and management, and fighters need to understand their bodies and how to develop them. There are inherent limitations, including a fixed life expectancy, and so fighters have to carefully manage their investments over time, manage their career, stay in shape, but avoid injury or burn-out. The body requires constant attention. Its characteristics can be broken into classic measurements and ratings [weight, reach etc]. This inheritance must be taken into account when developing a style and strategy -- hence the difference between fighters and boxers. However, anatomy is not destiny, and physiological processes can be influenced and developed through training in the gym.
Bodily volume and shape can be altered following particular diet and exercise regimes. Particular 'muscular armour' can be developed by drills and exercises and the standard regime of 'running, shadow-boxing, punching an assortment of bags... skipping rope, calisthenics and sparring' (71). Weightlifting is less useful since it can impede resilience and agility. Fighting itself is a successful form of training, for example when the body learns to recover from being hit. Working on the body is a pleasure for fighters. Acquiring the necessary bodily characteristics is 'an imperceptible embodiment of the mental and corporeal schemata immanent in pugilistic practice that admits of no discursive meditation or systematisation' (72). This is partly because it requires such constant, prolonged and specialist physical development [management advice in a continuous stream is offered to trainees, and there is an extensive example on page 72]. Emotional and cognitive states also have to be developed implicitly in an overall thoroughgoing 'practical labur... the exercise of an intelligence that comes into its own in communication with the concrete and actual realities of its natural setting and object' (Wacquant page 73 quoting Bittner).
The opponent's body can also be read, since bodies bear the visible traces of a pugilistic career, and musculature gives clues towards possible weaknesses, as do poorly healed cuts. The crucial 'pressure points' are learned, where damage can be maximised. Finally, boxers use their body to do impression management as in Goffman, 'to instil apprehension and doubt in their adversary or to capture the media's attention and the public's fancy' (75). This can include shaving heads, adopting stage costumes, padding robes to look big, and so on.
Sacrifice is the key notion in the boxer's professional ideology. It 'anchors the entire moral economy of the specific universe' (75), and is the principle behind the punishing daily routine and the stewardship of the body -- thus 'secular bodily asceticism', just as in the Protestant Ethic, is required (76). Abstinence is particularly required in food, social life and sex. Discipline is often aimed particularly at meeting the weight limits, hence the constant struggle with diet reported by the boxers themselves. A limited diet and excessive training can be particularly painful. Often, excessive dehydration is required to make the weight limit. Sacrifice has to extend well into every detail of daily life, so that the family is neglected, late nights are avoided, and sometimes total seclusion is required. Avoiding sexuality is particularly difficult given the centrality of the body [again the interview data suggest this is recognised as such by the boxers themselves]. This avoidance is supported by a curious 'profane physiology' (79) that fears bodily weakness or moral laxity [or irrationality, so note 11 tells us] arising from sex. The huge sacrifices involved often lead to an anxiety to get the fight over with so they can resume a normal life, or even to binge.
Teamwork is required to impose this orderly regulation, involving trainers, managers, peers and also family. Families in particular are required to support, not raise demands, manage tension and generally perform the classically female 'stroking function' (80). Together, this forms 'a quasi-panoptical apparatus... [featuring]... constant surveillance fit to permit the maximal accumulation of bodily capital for the bout' (81). Many boxers have grown up with this kind of self denial, 'an all-too familiar experience of deprivation rooted in racial and class exclusion' (81). There are also similarities with Elias and civilisation of the body. Overall, training and abstinence can be tougher than actual boxing, the fight itself is 'a true liberation from self-imposed imprisonment' (82).
Boxing is highly risky and serious injury can result. Boxers are entrepreneurs who take risks and invest their capital and occupational success. The paradox is that boxers build up their bodies in order to destroy those of their opponents, and must know that they risk the same happening to themselves. Physical decline is an acceptable price to pay, and the effects can be minimised through training and care. There are also 'richly textured "vocabularies of motives", or "acceptance frames"' (Wacquant page 83 citing Burke). This helps boxers rationalise their awareness of risk and punishment. Death in the ring is a possibility and has to be managed [some examples of how boxers deal with this possibility by bravado are supplied on page 83]. A range of injuries are commonly experienced, including fractures and brain damage, cuts and bruised internal organs. Less well known to the public but more common are damage to the hands, and some boxers save their hands by delivering full punches only occasionally.
The 'pragmatics of the fight itself' preclude any constant awareness of or reflection on injury (85), since once the fight has started there is no time to worry about possible damage. Boxers themselves rate risks and injuries according to the 'ordinary functioning of the pugilistic field... a relatively autonomous space of material and symbolic exchanges aimed at the (re)production of its specific form of capital' (85). It is this rather than any 'rational' calculation that informs boxers' views: there is a collective collusion in the myth that injury happens to others, or to those were not properly prepared. Again the social origins of the fighter help here in providing a fatalistic world-view, and the [supposed and often reported] calculation that boxing is probably not so dangerous as living on the street. Others can rationalise using comparative statistics about injuries in other sports. There is also great investment in body repair techniques, ranging from defensive moves to special oils for the skin. Specialists such as the 'cutman' minimise injury in the ring. The training routine itself helps to avoid physical damage -- one of its functions is to deal with dread and anxiety [some participants report being able to use fear to increase motivation for training].
Overall though it is the very embodiment of the activity that prevents conscious thought about injury. It is akin to drug addiction: 'the same fundamental schemata govern both the boxer's body-mind complex and the operation of the pugilistic field itself, structuring... perception, appreciation, and action' (88). Boxers therefore embody the 'unstated presuppositions... specific doxa' of pugilism, leading to a 'willing embrace and submission -- for it is both -- of the boxer to the calling of the manly art' (88). It is not misrecognition of dangers, nor a calculation of the rewards, nor compliance to some dominant norms but the 'unconscious fit between his (pugilistic) habitus and the very field which has produced it' (88) [classic Bourdieu on the fit between individual preferences and structures of taste].
Boxers persist because of this close fit, a 'doxic acceptance' [participants use terms like 'it is in my blood'] (88). This explains the sense in which boxing possesses boxers: when you master a sport, it can also master you and make it impossible to give up. In this sense, boxers commonly report that they never actually retire.
[Some of the notes are interesting too. For example the classic work on the sociology of the body by Turner and others is dismissed as 'emblematic of the discursivist and theoreticist bias... which has [produced] yet another object of abstract exegesis, thereby projecting... many of the false dualisms inherited from Cartesian ontology... [This work represents]... the hegemonic logocentric approach' (89). Note two suggests that the same criticisms can apply to the work on hegemonic masculinity, which also lacks concrete and specific analysis of the mechanisms at work. Note five admits that the gender issue is insufficiently discussed in this piece, but argues that bodily labour also produces 'a definite form of masculinity: plebeian, heterosexual, and heroic' (90). Other notes contain details of the unpleasant techniques that punchers use to weaken bodies of their opponents, and so on.]
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