the human body simultaneously as a social and biological entity, as unfinished and interdependent with its social and physical environment

Are historical processes, cultural practices or ideas more important in the social construction of bodies?

The stories of each society are different and are expressed through the body in variant ways, dependent on their environment. Cultural practices are the essential, fundamental lining of a body in society and the most active part in being able to bring it to life. Both historical processes as well as ideas (defined in the more symbolic sense that represents the abstract social system) are part of structuring these cultural practices, but neither factors are active enough to be the biggest contributors to the social construction of bodies. This deems cultural practices to be more important in ensuring this, as historical processes and ideas cannot exist by themselves. This will be discussed through direct comparisons with cultural practices, first with historical processes, and then with ideas which will be followed by the fundamental importance of these cultural practices. 


Historical processes help structure the cultural practices that consequently become the most important part in the social construction of bodies. For example, there is a culture to how we ‘do’ something such as sleep, which historical processes have built. It is ironic to talk about sleep etiquette because it is “the most radical form of withdrawal from the social world” (Williams 2007, 313) although, the how, when, where we sleep and who we sleep with are all culturally and historically variable. Through historical practices, sleep has changed according to the culture of the time. “For the middle class [in the nineteenth century], sexuality was governed by codes of privacy, heterosexuality and modesty” (Howson 2013, 89) and this reference to sex and bedroom intimacy emphasises how sleep and the practices that surrounded it were strict and reflective of traditional cultural norms. A woman could not undress or go to bed in the presence of any other person unless she was married, for instance. However today, sleep and the bedroom are much less governed and we use it very differently. Sleep is now often used as a social resource; avoiding social chores because you are ‘tired’ or yawning to express boredom. Historical processes help us see these transition points in the bodies social construction, but all in light of suiting the cultural practices relevant for each society. The resistance of tattooing practices in contemporary Japan is another historical example that works to reflect the structuring of history into cultural practices. Tattoos are marks of self-expression, however Japan holds quite a negative view and “the sign, ‘no tattooed people allowed’, is overtly displayed in public places… due to historical and sociocultural conditions, tattoos were often associated with criminal activities” (Yamada 2009, 319). As a result of traditional sociocultural situations, the nature of contemporary tattooing practices has been influenced to carry a stigmatisation, which changes its cultural practices. Tattoos were traditionally distinctive in representing certain social positions, on one hand the ‘Kishobori’ was a vow tattoo between lovers in the 18th century, but on the other, they were used to distinguish criminals and social outcasts. The contemporary awkwardness of tattoos is inevitably caused by this historical background, which makes history important in telling the realities of bodies in society. These example have worked to demonstrate how history has built cultural practices to be relevant in highlighting key body constructions that work with a given society, which makes history significant but not enough. History is a linear line that tells the story, but culture is the active animation of them. Bodies must be socially constructed to fit the norms that stem historically but are fleshed out with the practice of culture.


German sociologist, Norbert Elias “views the human body simultaneously as a social and biological entity, as unfinished and interdependent with its social and physical environment” (Howson 2013, 86), suggesting that bodies are consistently changing throughout history and this alters how they live in society because they are led by different historical processes. However, what this also says about the body is that although they are ‘unfinished’ due to continuous social evolution and construction, what makes up the ‘social and biological’ entity in the first place is culture. The idea that it is ‘interdependent with its social and physical environment’ implies that cultural practices play a massive role. Cultural practices as seen with how sleep is ‘done’ and the stigmatisation of tattoos represents how bodies have been socially construed to fit cultural criteria. Historical processes help with how cultural practices are going to be systemised but this is essentially the living heartbeat in the social construction of bodies.   

Ideas are also part of the puzzle that builds cultural practices to be the essential piece that socially construct bodies in society. Ideas refer to the symbolic formulation of the social system in a more abstract form. Henri Tajfel, a Polish Jewish prisoner of war in the Holocaust coined the ‘self-organisation theory’ as he wanted to understand causes of prejudices and stereotypes. His “approach distinguishes between ‘personal’ and ‘social’ identities… we get a sense of who we are by how we categorise ourselves” (Hearn 2012, 192), which translates to ideas. Bodies become the social constructions designed for society through categorisations such as class, race, political ideology, religion, sexuality and such. How we categorise ourselves becomes large parts of our identities because we are so inter-webbed into a certain culture based on the set of social guidelines it provides. Ideas are what these social guidelines live between, but cultural practices is the active force that translates these ideas into the lived experience of socially constructed bodies. This notion also applies to Elias and the ‘civilising process’ as “the kinds of beliefs which societies hold about the body reveal something about what is deemed important in that society” (Howson 2013, 95). The beliefs of a society are the ideas that guide and highlight what is ‘important’ because it is a visual representation of their values. Ideas are the backbone to society, they provide structure, however as a concept alone they are not greatly powerful. Ideas are significant but are abstract and it is not effective enough for a body to be merely constructed on the ideas of a society. The body will always reflect cultural practices because that is the live part of the ideas and they can be active on their own. The stories of the people lay in the cultural practices, which is why bodies that do not fit social standards are seen so distinctly as ‘outsiders’ as they are not conforming to social ideas and are viewed as physically dangerous bodies. Ideas have helped in this process of building society to exist in a certain way and cultural practices put this theory into effect. To further this, the etiquette of sleep ideology is also helpful as in sleep,  “we are never of course entirely ‘cut off’ … to the world” (Williams 2007, 319), and a mother may still be ‘returned’ even by the slightest cry of her baby. A mother in this case has been instilled through the social ideas of her society that a crying baby needs attention and her social role as a mother is expected to provide this. This describes how deeply engrained ideas have been implemented into our heads even in the unconscious realm. However, the distinguishing factor is that ideas are only established ideologies and cannot exist as factors on their own as they are not active enough in socially constructing a body. These ideas help stimulate the fundamentals for cultural practices that are the active piece in the construction.


The fundamental importance of cultural practices in the social construction bodies can be seen in how it is able to exist on its own as the dominant factor. As explained above, both historical processes as well as ideas are not active enough as individual concepts. Cultural practices however, is that driving force and the most important in the social construction of bodies. This can be analysed through the private versus public dichotomy implemented by Goffman and Habermas respectively. Goffman describes the body in two ways; the offstage (private) body as ‘real’, but the front stage (public) body in social settings as ‘on guard’. Goffman believes that people are performers and the way that they behave in different social situations is not authentic because they are playing a role that they understand to be true, but at the core is not who they really are. He believes that “no account of modern society will ever be adequate unless it allows room for private spaces in which individuals can simply be themselves”  (Wolfe 1989, 183), however what is difficult about this ideology is that we do not only ever live in our private lives. He implies that people are ‘fake’ in society, however authenticity is inevitably going to be socially fuelled because humans are social beings and it will be impossible not be impacted by the social environment that you live, “city life offers too much stimulation, it becomes more and more difficult to respond spontaneously” (Howson 2013, 94). There is a sense of truth in what Goffman believes because people do behave differently according to circumstance and situation, but in spite of this, it is ‘difficult to respond spontaneously’ because we become socialised to understand how to behave. It cannot be denied that bodies will naturally always be created by their social environment and the cultural practices that hold value in their society. There is too much value in the public space as the way we communicate and create our personalities has too many social and cultural stems. Habermas offers a counter thought to Goffman in saying that “with the rise of ‘organised capitalism’ and modern mass society, the private or intimate, spheres of society lose their authentic character” (Wolfe 1989, 184), and this enforces how bodies are socially constructed as they grew up and now permanently reside in the public sphere instilled with all of its own cultural practices. This is the place where “rational communication and critical discourse can take place” (Wolfe 1989, 185) and that is so significant because the public social space is where cultural practices are activated. Habermas has a stronger standing in this case is because we are referring to social construction, which implies massively that bodies are built on predominantly social aspects. Our ‘public’ life is essentially key to who we are because identities are so much characterised by our novel cultural practices. Fundamentally, this public and private debate serves to demonstrate how cultural practices exist in the public lives of bodies and how we are built socially is the core of who we are. Our social existence with regard to other people follows a set of cultural practices that have been learnt and are the most important effectual factor in the becoming of bodies into social constructions. 


“Value change is not the substitution of new values for old ones, but a change in the emphasis of various values” (Möhwald, 2000 cited in Yamada, 2009), and this notion of values has massive cultural weighting because that is what society deems important. Culture is active because it is valued in society. Cultural practices are evolutions of each other and are not replaced, but are evolved and grow to be relevant for its changing social environment. Without a ‘change in the emphasis of various values’, society would not progress because it would be difficult to live in a society that does not hold significant values. It is the practice of cultural values that provide the supplement to a functioning society. 



Cultural practices are the most important in the social construction of bodies because it is fundamentally more active and represents the true nature of social bodies. Historical processes and ideas have helped structure some practices of culture, but are not active enough on their own. The social construction of bodies would not be possible without cultural practices.  

Works Cited 


Hacking, I. (1999) 'Why ask what?' pp 1-35 in The Social Construction of What?
Cambridge, MA: Harvard university press.


Hearn, Jonathan (2012) ‘Identity and Personhood’, (ch 10), Theorizing Power, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 190-208.


Howson, A (2013) pp 85-108 of ‘The civilized body’ in The Body in Society: An Introduction. Cambridge: Polity.


Williams, S. J. (2007) The social etiquette of sleep: some sociological reflections and observations. Sociology 41(2): 313-328. 


Wolfe, Alan (1989) ‘Public and Private in Theory and Practice: Some Implications of an Uncertain Boundary’ (ch 7) IN J. Weintraub and K. Kumar (eds), Public and Private in Thought and Practice: Perspectives on a Grand Dichotomy, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Pp. 182-203. 


Yamada, M. (2009) ‘Westernization and cultural resistance in tattooing practices in contemporary Japan’ International Journal of Cultural Studies 12(4): 319-338.