For the purpose of this essay, I have decided to start with a quotation from Thomas Hylland Eriksen, in Small Places, Large Issues (2001): “[… ] anthropology is about how different people can be, but it also tries to find out in what sense it can be said that all humans have something in common”. This seems relevant to the title question, as cross-culturally the body’s existence is acknowledged; however, there is a difference in the ways in which distinct societies use and perceive their bodies, the ways in which they interpret its function and meaning, as well as the way they define the very concept of a ‘person’, of being human.
The study of the body is important for anthropology, as its role is to examine these differences, and to determine how they have an effect on the way in which this society functions and how they influence people’s beliefs and traditions. Some research, like that of Marcel Mauss, suggests that the differences in people’s habits and bodily ‘actions’ are in fact culturally and/or socially constructed. This introduces the question of whether it is the body and people’s perception of it that has an influence on beliefs and rituals, or if it is the society and its traditions that affect the ways in which people use their bodies.
From the works of Shelly Errington and Thomas Laqueur, it seems that a particularly prominent aspect of the study of the body in anthropology is the issue of gender and sex within different societies, topics that are conceived in completely differing ways cross-culturally. In this essay, we will first discuss the origins of the differences that are apparent cross-culturally with regards to the body, referring mostly to ‘Body techniques’, by M. Mauss (1979), as well as giving some examples of these differences.
We will then consider the link between the body, the Western conception of biology, and culture, looking at how different beliefs and environments lead to contrasting perceptions, and even reactions, of the body. We will conclude this essay by attempting to answer the title question, drawing on points covered throughout the writing. In the chapter entitled ‘Body techniques’, from his book Sociology and Psychology: essays by Marcel Mauss, the author states: “Each society has its own special habits”.
This introduces the idea that within a given society, people tend to have the same gestures, traditions and beliefs, and that these vary from one community to another. He places emphasis on the physical side of this, in accordance with the title of the chapter. He suggests that these similarities and differences of bodily movements from one society to the other are due to an educational, cultural factor. He examines these said “body techniques” referring to activities that most of us take for granted and do not question the nature of.
To cite some examples – giving birth, bringing up children, sleeping and resting, walking and other activities, eating, and so forth. For each of these actions, Mauss illustrates the variations that can be found when looking at different peoples. He also mentions that differences can be found depending on “societies, educations, proprieties and fashions, prestiges”. This is to say that there is not contrast only between distant cultures, but within small communities.