Bringing the Body into the Sociology of Youth

By Julia Coffey

Although there has been an increasing interest in ‘the body’ over the last two decades, particularly in sociology (Turner 2008, Shilling 2003, Budgeon 2003) and feminist philosophy (Butler 1993, Grosz 1994, St. Pierre & Pillow 2000, Bray & Colebrook 1998), the approaches which focus on the lived body have not received much attention in the sociology of youth. Foregrounding embodiment and the material body can be notoriously difficult to achieve, particularly when combining a theoretical framework of embodiment with empirical research. The material body is elusive, and can be difficult to locate, seeming to slip somewhere between ‘theorising’ about it and its ‘lived’ actuality (Butler 1993). Developing approaches in which the body and visceral experience is central, rather than marginal, poses both challenges and new opportunities in research with and about young people in the sociology of youth.

The lived body has not received much attention, theoretical or otherwise, in the sociology of youth (though Frost 2005, Farrugia 2011 and Nayak 2003 are among crucial exceptions). The body is present, or implicit, in many studies exploring the gendered subjectivities of young people at school; or in the ways class-based inequalities impact young people’s transitions to employment. It is at the same time absent, however, as ‘the body’ – the ‘vehicle’ by which we engage with other people, ideas and through which we experience the world – is rarely overtly discussed. Inequalities are variously mapped on to the body, for example, in discussions of how sex and gender, race, ethnicity, class, disability mediate a young people’s opportunities and experiences. The way these inequalities are lived and experienced through the body – are embodied – often elude attention. In sociology, feminist studies and cultural studies, this paradox is referred to as the body’s ‘absent presence’ (Witz 2000). This is understood to result from the body’s implication in the mind/body dualism; the body’s separation from the mind, will and reason. This dualism has been implicit in the establishment of many disciplines including sociology, which was founded on a differentiation between the ‘natural’ (including the body) and the social (Blackman 2008). As a result, this dualism is ‘insidious and rather difficult to think against’ (2008: 6, my emphasis). Arguably, through writing about the body, as I am doing now, the body remains an absent presence. It is only when I acknowledge I am writing with a body (my fingers pressing the keys, my eyes blinking, my elbows on the desk as I read back) that my body, ‘appears’. Making the body ‘present’ does not simply mean we should write about our bodies writing*. Instead, and more practically, Blackman (2008: 5) suggests that a good place to start ‘thinking through the body’ is to ‘become aware of the bodily basis of thought…to explore bodies as sites of potentiality, process and practice’.

I saw what the body can do when it put into practice in the unexpected setting of a presentation during a conference. Caitlin Fisher (2013) began her presentation speaking about the ‘body projects’ of professional female footballers in Brazil and the ‘feminine’ modifications to their body they are required to make to be accepted in the masculinised space of the sport (wearing make up for games, tighter uniforms, styling and growing their hair). After a few minutes, she stepped away from the lecturn, music began to play, images and video footage of herself and her teammates were displayed on the screen behind her, and she ‘danced’ her presentation. As she spoke, she also moved her body correspondingly, miming the moves of her game. She explained, ‘I watched a recording of me presenting about my work…I was all neck up and body was rigid, it was not speaking…but I was speaking about body! This was one of my inspirations for expressing the work more through my body.’ This is one potentiality of a conference body; one that will have a lasting impact on the way I ‘think through the body’. While most of us will likely not have the courage nor inclination to ‘dance’ our work to audiences, there are many ways in which we can begin to think through the body in our research and writing in the sociology of youth.

What does embodied work look like in the sociology of youth?
One way to redress the absent presence of the body is to discuss the embodied ‘realities’, or experiences, of the young people in our research. This means trying to understand why being in their specific bodies and experiencing particular things impacts the range of ‘options’ available to them or influences their ‘decisions’. For example, in the research I undertook towards my PhD, it was important to take a theoretical perspective that enabled me to pay attention to the affects, or embodied sensations associated with people’s work on their bodies (Coffey 2012a, 2012b). Focusing on this gave me a way to understand the numerous contradictions that existed between participants and the complexity beyond the traditional (gendered) understandings of men’s and women’s bodies and embodiment. For example, some young men who played professional sport said they felt ‘addicted’ to their training, and that they would continue their rigid and strict regimes regardless of whether they were playing the sport. These men experienced their bodies in a similar way to some women in the study who said that they were compelled to keep up their strict exercise / make up / diet regimes / cosmetic surgery in order to maintain a sense of self that was tolerable (Coffey 2013b). A focus on their embodiment – what if felt like to be them, in which their bodies (through body work practices) were centrally implicated, meant that I could explore and analyse the data in a more complex way. Gender binaries emphasising strength and muscularity as ideal in men, and slenderness and a generally heightened concern about appearance was the feminine ideal and norm for women, were prominent in their descriptions, but the ways their bodies were experienced could not be mapped straightforwardly back on to gender (Coffey 2013b). Exploring the affects and embodiments related to gender and health too, enabled a way of examining the complexities surrounding how participants’ body work was both actively ‘chosen’ but at the same time shaped and limited by gendered physical ‘ideals’ and the cultural conditions in which the body – its appearance – seem to matter more and more to both men and women. Equally, the body is centrally implicated in all experiences of and interactions with society, culture, ‘structures’ and inequalities related to gender, sexuality, race, place, ability, and so on. Others have explored the importance of the body and embodiment in their research with young people. Farrugia (2011), for example, highlights the visceral dimensions of homelessness, and the ways that homelessness is a symbolic burden that is embodied by the young people in his study. Nayak (2003) and Nayak & Kehily (2006) have also explored the ways that gender, class, ethnicity and place are embodied and lived out by young people.

What are some methodologies conducive to embodied work? (What of the researchers’ body?)
Pairing an approach which ‘thinks through the body’ with methodology means we must continue to find ways of positioning ourselves and our bodies in the research. Nayak (2003: 29) has used ethnographic observation and ‘thick’ description to give an ‘embodied account of young people coming-of-age in industrial times’. Sandelowski (2002) and Blumenthal (1999) argue that qualitative methods such as interviews must make room for the multiplicity and variation within and across identities, and factor in that the ‘self’ of the researcher is also multiple and divided. Attending to the affects and relations between the participants in the interview encounter is one way forward. Others working with these similar frameworks in empirical research (Fox & Ward 2008; St. Pierre 2002; Sandelowski 2002) suggest that a focus on non-verbal aspects of the interviews, such as body signals and other sensory elements can open up the research beyond the confines of traditional methodology. From this perspective, the method of interviewing can itself be explored as a process of relations between the interviewer and participant. This means that the researcher’s own embodiment is as central to the research as the participants’, since both contribute to the meanings and knowledges produced in the interview encounter.

The researcher’s body and experience of embodiment is present and a part of all stages of the research project, in the planning, the interviewing, the analysis and writing. My own presence was as much a part of the research and the ‘data’ as the participants’ bodies were. Because I did not discuss my own body in interviews, I had to find a way of making my body visible in the research to avoid positioning myself as the privileged, disembodied researcher. I did this through writing about my own positioning within the dynamics of gender and health I had written about in the analysis of participants. I have found writing my embodiment into publications difficult, as others have (Throsby & Gimlin 2010: 114, Young 2011). However, in research with a corporeal focus, it is important to makes bodies visible or present, rather than absent.

The body is still mainly implicit, not overt or explicit, in the sociology of youth. For example, in studies of how young people negotiate transitions from school to work, or are implicated in class or gender relations, the bodies of young people are obviously present, but the ways these relations are experienced by young people and are embodied are usually not foregrounded. The non-rational aspects of experience or individuality are often latent, or are not the key focus of analysis. Corporeal theories aim to place the body – and embodied experience – at the forefront of analysis to highlight the active relations between bodies and the world. This focus on the body’s potential and lived experience can correct or work against previous approaches in which the body is invisible or rendered inferior to the mind in a binary logic. More than this, beginning to ‘think through the body’ can open up a way of exploring the ways the body is implicated in the complexities and tensions in young people’s lives. Approaching young people’s bodies as well as our own bodies as sites of potentiality, process and practice, will facilitate the conceptual development of the body and embodiment in the sociology of youth, and will add important dimensions to practice and research with young people.

* For an example of how ‘writing your body’ can be done well, see Quinn (2012).

Blackman, L. (2008) The Body: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg.
Blumenthal, D. (1999) ‘Representing the Divided Self’. Qualitative Inquiry, 5(1), 377-392.
Budgeon, S. (2003) ‘Identity as an Embodied Event’. Body and Society, 9(1), 35-55.
Butler, J. (1993) Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits Of “Sex”. London: Routledge.
Bray, A., & Colebrook, C. (1998) ‘The Haunted Flesh: Corporeal Feminism and the Politics of (Dis)Em bodiment’. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society,24(1), 35.
Coffey, J. (2012a) ‘Exploring Body Work Practices: Bodies, Affect and Becoming’, PhD Thesis, University of Melbourne.
Coffey, J. (2012b) ‘Bodies, Health and Gender: Exploring Body Work Practices with Deleuze’, Research Re port 34, Youth Research Centre, University of Melbourne.
Coffey, J. (2013a) ‘Bodies, body work and gender: exploring a Deleuzian approach’, Journal of Gender Studies, 22(1), 3-16.
Coffey, J. (2013b) ‘’Body pressure’: negotiating gender through body work practices’, Youth Studies Australia, 32(2), 39-48.
Farrugia, D. (2011) ‘The symbolic burden of homelessness: Towards a theory of youth homelessness as em bodied subjectivity’. Journal of Sociology 47(1): 71-87.
Fisher, C. (2013) ‘Body Projects: Making, Remaking and Inhabiting the Female Football Body in Brazil’, paper presented at Talking Bodies: An international, interdisciplinary conference on identity, sexuality and representation, March 26th-28th 2013, University of Chester, UK.
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Nayak, A. & Kehily, M.J. (2006) Gender, youth and culture : young masculinities and femininities, Basingstoke, Hants: Palgrave Macmillan.
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St. Pierre, E. (2002) ‘Circling the Text: Nomadic Writing Practices’ In: N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (eds.), Qualitative Inquiry Reader, Thousand Oaks, USA: SAGE Publications, Inc.
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Throsby, K., & Gimlin, D. (2010) ‘Critiquing Thinness and Wanting to Be Thin’ In: R. Ryan-Flood & R. Gill (eds.), Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections, London; New York: Routledge. pp. 105-116.
Turner, B. (2008) The Body and Society (3rd ed), London: Sage.
Witz, A. (2000) ‘Whose Body Matters? Feminist Sociology and the Corporeal Turn in Sociology and Feminism’. Body and Society, 6(2), 1-24.
Young, J. E. (2011) Weighing in on YouTube: Two Women’s Experiences of Weight Loss Surgery. Masters Thesis: University of Otago, Dunedin.

Julia Coffey

Research Fellow, Youth Research Centre,

University of Melbourne.


About tasayouth

Blog of the Australian Sociological Association's Youth Thematic Group
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One Response to Bringing the Body into the Sociology of Youth

  1. newtonss says:

    Extremely thought provoking and interesting, opens up a whole new way of viewing myself and my students. Thank you and I look forward to reading and hearing more about the body.

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