NOTES ON: Shilling, C.  (2010) Exploring the society – body –school nexus: theoretical and methodological issues in the study of body pedagogics.  Sport, Education and Society 15 (2): 151-67.


[Partly an attempt to develop a framework to link together all the contributions to this special edition]

Academic interest in the body has grown for several reasons: the body as a visual form of distinction; changing demands for an effective or healthy body; policies and curricula directed towards bodies in modern education (as in the campaign against obesity and its connection with sporting success).  We might examine this through Durkheim and the notion of the social fact, and also through his argument that social trends are internalized corporeally.  Mauss also argued that body techniques are crucial to the development of the habitus [I thought that was Bourdieu!] There are general pedagogies expressed in consumer culture for example, and specific pedagogies developed in schools.

Consumer culture increasingly circulates images of desirable bodies, and this coincides with an increasing interest in weight loss and healthy eating.  Together with various forms of body modification, including fitness and cosmetic surgery, the desirable body has become ‘a signifier of morality and an advertisement for a peculiarly modern form of “religious” devotion’ (152).  There has long been a connection, for example in Hollywood, between physical appearance and physical health.  However, consumer culture now is much more specific, critical and demanding—demand for size zero models has led to increasingly invasive and demanding techniques to transform bodies.

Demands of increased in the work place too for acceptable bodies, now a contractual obligation in some service Industries, including teaching.  This has been associated with ‘emotion work’ relating to customers.  The norms have spread to the private sphere as well, with increasing interest in home workouts, giving up smoking and drinking, and increasing anxiety about body deterioration and aging.

Governments have also increasingly intervened in matters of health, with increased ‘medicalized surveillance’ (154).  This has been phrased and justified in the language of risk reduction, and accompanied by increasing campaigns of health and safety at work.  The health professionals see themselves as preventing illness and maximizing productive capacity, but this also places responsibility on the individual.  The task to maximize productive capacity has become ever more intrusive, and lies behind the campaign on obesity for example: ‘the health role equates obesity and infirmity with moral culpability’ (154).

These movements converge on the idea of the body as increasingly instrumental, and as increasingly the responsibility of the individual, as in responsible consumerism.  There is increasing external monitoring and control, and even penalties as insurance companies evaluate the risks.

 In sociological terms, this means an increase in the importance of ‘physical capital’ (155) as increasing numbers of people realize the importance of maintaining their bodies in order to gain employment and recognition [for Bourdieu, it used affect only particular sections of the middle class].  The body is also increasingly seen as a matter for internal standards, and for profane concerns, the subject of routine every day activities, with the religious functions stripped away, (the body used to be ‘the target and vehicle of religious practices’ (155)).

The question remains whether this increasing transformation of the body has an effect on subjective perceptions and thoughts.  Can people reject these cultural and political pressures?  Secondly, how do these general pressures get translated into specific institutions like schools? Durkheim and Mauss might be used to address the first question, since they have stressed the interaction between individual bodies and social milieu, avoiding reductionism.  Evans guides work on the second question.

Social facts for Durkheim were external and coercive, but also had to be manifested in individuals, their bodily feelings appearance and habits.  Durkheim also saw the collectivity as embodied.  The natural body could also create and generate social facts.  Social facts must be incorporated into bodies if the cultural trends discussed above are to be effective [excessive embodiment here surely, this is just a matter of socialization?] However, bodies vary in their capacity to be affected.  The tensions are seen in the work on education, where teaching is supposed to have an emotional, arousing, committing effect, but individuals also have opposing egoistic drives [homo duplex].  Further, past social facts tend to linger as current constraints.  Mauss developed a particular corporeal angle by examining how cultural imperatives affected bodily postures and uses.  Even the most basic bodily operations such as breathing have to be learned.  The social facts can vary between different societies.  Body techniques have to be useful over time, and this also implies some functional relationship to the environment.  Thus while reproduction is more common than change, there is no simple causal relationship.

We might use this approach to examine body pedagogics that the general level, the institutional means by which body techniques are turned into social facts and transmitted, and outcomes managed.  In particular, there is a need for an internal focus that examines how external facts become an habitus, a ‘socially structured body disposition and associated body techniques’ (158).  The habitus organizes senses into a hierarchy, predisposes and orientates people.  However this is by no means automatic, but generally, it is essential for social reproduction.  This adds an important dimension of subjective experience to Mauss’s work, and it is based on ‘corporeal realist underpinnings’ (159).  This form of realism does not accept any form of determination between social relations and individual subjectivities, but sees as ontologically real experiences and embodied outcomes, such as practical rituals, institutions and belief systems. 

The examples are the ones about maintaining the acceptable body above, and the feelings people have when engaging in these activities.  It has already been argued that they often accompany emotional works to control the self, emotions and drives.  This involves seeing the body as an object to be managed.  Not everyone will achieve this self control or experience it is pleasurable.  If all goes well, the body will become ‘a standing reserve for efficient performances’ (160).  It is also important to notice sub cultural and personal resistance to this notion of the body, in favour of a more hedonistic lifestyle [and class dimensions as in Bourdieu?]. Although these consequences are real they can still be subject to change.  There can be critical self reflection or social conflict [and some notion of the need to constantly adjust to social changes].

Given the definition of corporeal realism above, it is possible to start research from embodied experiences or from the present habitus.  There is no need to prioritize one level, unlike structuralism or phenomenology.

For the institutional level, schools do not just reflect the wider society, and nor is the wider society always free of contradictory social facts.  Once mediated in institutions, social facts can develop their own momentum [via means – ends displacement].  Evans uses Bernstein [on the pedagogic device?] to examine how the body appears in schools specifically.  At the general level, there seems to be a bodily ‘perfection code’ (161), a vision of the ideal body, to be made explicit and discussed in school: corporeal excellence accompanies academic excellence.  This is supplemented with the notion of physical performance, which parallels academic performance.  These codes are often expressed in various school based health initiatives—the educational benefits of healthy eating and exercise, the demonization of the obese;  increasing interventions to structure play.  Curriculum packages, and even video games, are now marketed with exercise in mind, to extend physical education into those who don’t like it.

We still cannot read off experiences from these disciplinary regimes, as Foucault does, but there is a consensus, in this journal at least, that these programmes are now too intrusive and too well supported by outside forces, and prevent much in the way of alternative thinking about bodies, despite some resistance.  Thus an Australian study shows that, despite the dangers of eating disorders, the slim feminine body is very much the ideal; [others show that]  that children do pick up the moralistic messages about health; that they do realize that this is connected with accumulating physical capital both inside and outside school; that are making them part of official school criteria legitimates them and this can increase the anxiety among pupils.  Teachers are also likely to adopt the ideal.  Most of the papers agree that there can be threats to wellbeing by perpetuating ideal bodies.  Teachers also face the loss of legitimacy and some deskilling in the face of technical solutions to issues of health.

However, there are still theoretical differences in the field, including among the contributors to this journal.  There is a split between Foucaldian and phenomenological approaches, for example, reflecting a certain causal determinacy on the one hand and an insistence on the primacy of experience on the other.  The answer is to pursue the compromise suggested above and to recognize that bodies are complex in their properties, capacities and limitations. Bodies both receive discourses externally, and act from internal impulses.  The effects of various disciplinary regimes cannot be assumed but must be investigated.  The contributors also differ about the relationship between the general and the specific body pedagogies, and the precise mechanisms that are the most effective in schools.

What the discussion indicates is that there are new curricular packages and pedagogies based on the body.  Schools have always transmitted academic knowledge and some social ideals, but the new body regimes are even more intrusive, and this carries risks.

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