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Body Culture

Body Cultures: encyclopardic keywords

Revised version of an article in: International Journal of Eastern Sports &
Physical Education
, Suwon,
8, 2:  11 ff. See also:



Body cultures –
encyclopaedic keywords


1. Body culture studies


Eichberg, University of Southern Denmark



culture studies describe and compare bodily practice in the larger context of
culture and society, i.e. in the tradition of anthropology, history and
sociology. As body culture studies analyze culture and society from out people’s
bodily practice as basis, they are sometimes understood as a sort of
materialist phenomenology.

The significance of the body and of body culture
(in German Körperkultur, in Danish kropskultur) was discovered since the early
twentieth century by several historians and sociologists. During the 1980s, a particular
school of Body Culture Studies spread, in connection with – and critically
related to – sport studies. Body Culture Studies were especially established at
Danish universities and academies and cooperated with Nordic, European and East
Asian research networks.

Body culture studies include studies of dance,
play and game, outdoor activities, festivities and other forms of movement
culture. The field of body culture studies is floating towards studies of
medical cultures, of working habits, of gender and sexual cultures, of fashion
and body decoration, of popular festivity and more generally towards popular
culture studies.


Earlier studies in body and culture

Since early
th century, sociologists and philosophers had discovered the significance of the body, especially Norbert Elias,
the Frankfurt School, and some phenomenologists. Later, Michel Foucault, Pierre
Bourdieu and the Stuttgart Historical Behaviour Studies delivered important
inspirations for the new body culture studies.

The sociologist Norbert Elias (1939) wrote the
first sociology, which placed the body and bodily practice in its centre,
describing the change of
table manners,
shame and violence from the Middle Ages to Early Modern court society as a
process of civilisation. Later,
Elias (1989) studied the culture of duel in Wilhelminian Prussia, throwing
light on particular traits of the German sonderweg. Elias’
figurational sociology of the body became productive especially in the
field of sport studies (Elias/Dunning 1986; Dunning et al. 2004). His concept
of the process of civilisation received, however, also critique from the side
of comparative anthropology of bodily practices (Duerr 1988/2005).

The Frankfurt School of Critical Theory turned towards
the body with Marxist and Freudian perspectives.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno (1947) described the Western “dialectics
of enlightenment” as including an underground history of the body.
Body history lead from the living body to the dead
body becoming a commodity under capitalism. A younger generation of the Frankfurt
School launched the Neo-Marxist sports critique (Rigauer 1969) and developed alternative
approaches to movement studies and movement culture (Lippe 1974; Moegling 1988).
Historical studies about the body in industrial work (Rabinbach 1992), in
transportation (Schivelbusch 1977), and in Fascist aesthetics (Theweleit 1977) as
well as in the philosophy of space (
Sloterdijk 1998/2004) had their
roots in this critical approach.

Philosophical phenomenology paid attention to the body, too. Helmuth Plessner (1941) studied laughter
and weeping as fundamental human expressions. Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1945) placed
the body in the centre of human existence, as a way of experiencing the world,
challenging the traditional body-mind dualism of René Descartes. Gaston
Bachelard (1938) approached bodily existence via a phenomenology of the
elements and of space, starting by “psychoanalysis of fire”.

Based on phenomenological traditions, Michel
Foucault (1975) studied the configurations of knowledge in the post-1800
society, launching the concept of modern panoptical control. The body appeared
as object
of military discipline and of the
panopticon as a mechanism of “the biopolitics of power”. Foucault’s approach
became especially influential for studies in sport, space, and architecture
(Vertinsky/Bale 2004) as well as for studies in the discipline of gymnastic and
sport (Vigarello 1978; Barreau/Morne 1984; Vertinsky/McKay 2004).

While Foucault’s studies focused on top-down
strategies of power, Pierre Bourdieu directed his attention more towards
bottom-up processes of social-bodily practice. For analyzing the class aspect
of the body, Bourdieu (1966/67) developed the influential concept of
habitus as an
incorporated pattern becoming social practice by diverse
forms of taste, distinction and display of the body. Some of Bourdieu’s
disciples applied these concepts to the study of sports and gymnastics
(Defrance 1987).

In Germany, influences of phenomenology induced body
culture studies in the historical field. The Stuttgart school of Historical
Behaviour Studies focused from 1971 on gestures and laughter, martial arts, sport
and dance to analyze changes of society and differences between European and
non-European cultures (Nitschke 1975, 1981, 1987, 1989, 2009; Eichberg 1978).

These approaches met with tendencies of the late
1970s and 1980s, when humanities and sociology developed a new and broader
interest in the body. Sociologists, historians, philosophers and
anthropologists, scholars from sport studies and from medical studies met in
talking about “the return of the body” or its “reappearance” (Kamper/Wulf
1982). The new interest towards the body was soon followed up by the term “body
culture” itself.


The word and concept of “body culture” –
alternative practice

The word
“body culture” appeared for first time around 1900, but at that time signifying
a certain form of physical practice. The so-called “life reform” (German Lebensreform) aimed at the reform of
clothing and of nurture and favoured new bodily activities, which constituted a
new sector side by side with established gymnastics and sport. The main fields of
this third sector of movement culture were nudism, rhythmic-expressive
gymnastics, yoga and body building (Wedemeyer-Kolwe 2004) as well as a new type
of youth wandering. Though highly diverse, they found a comprehensive term in
the German word Körperkultur, in
English physical culture, in French culture physique, and in Danish kropskultur. Inspirations from the
movement of body culture gave birth to early studies in the history of bodily
positions and movements (Gaulhofer 1930; Mauss 1934).

In German Socialist workers’ sport, the concept
of Körperkultur had a prominent place.
The concept also entered into Russian Socialism where fiskultura became an alternative to bourgeois sport, uniting the
revolutionary fractions of more aesthetical Proletkult and more health-oriented
hygienism (Riordan 1977). Later, Stalinism forced the contradictory terms under
the formula “sport and body culture”. This continued in the Soviet bloc after

When the 1968 student movement revived Marxism, the concept
of body culture – Körperkultur in
West Germany, “somatic culture” in America – re-entered into the
sports-critical discourse, but received new analytical dimensions. Quel
(Which body?) was the
title of a critical review of sports, edited by the French Marxist educationalist
Jean-Marie Brohm in 1975-1997. In Germany, a series of books under the title Sport: Kultur, Veränderung (Sport:
culture, change) marked the body cultural turn from 1981, with works of
Rigauer, Elias, Eichberg and others.


Body culture studies – a new critical school

In Denmark,
a particular school of Body Culture Studies – kropskultur – developed since around 1980 in connection with the
critique of sport (Korsgaard 1982; Eichberg 1998; Vestergård 2003; Nielsen 1993
and 2005). It had its background in Danish
popular gymnastics and in alternative movement practices – outdoor activities,
play and game, dance, meditation. In Finland, the concept ruumiinkulttuuri found a similar attention
(Sironen 1995; Sparkes/Silvennoinen 1999).

In international cooperation, “body
anthropology” became the keyword for French, Danish and German philosophers,
sociologists and educationalists who founded the Institut International d’Anthropologie Corporelle (IIAC) in 1987. They
undertook case studies
in traditional games as well as in “scenes” of new urban body cultures
(Barreau/Morne 1984; Barreau/Jaouen 1998; Dietrich 2001 and 2002).

culture studies found a particular interest in East Asian countries. In Japan,
the sociologist Satoshi Shimizu from the University of Tsukuba established in
2002 a Centre for the Study of Body
, publishing the review
Sports Hyôron

(Contemporary Sport Critique, in Japanese, since 1999)
. In Taiwan, Hsu Yi-hsiung from the National
Taiwan Normal University founded in 2003 the Taiwan Body Culture Society (Taiwan shenti wenhua xiehui),
publishing the review Sport Studies
(in Chinese). And in Korea, Jong Young Lee from the University of Suwon
published since 2004 the International
Journal of Eastern Sport & Physical Education
, focusing on body culture
and traditional games.

These initiatives were connected with each
other both by contents and by personal networks. In the English and American
world, Allen Guttmann (1978, 1996, 2004), John Hoberman (1984), John Bale
(1996, 2002, 2004), Susan Brownell (1995, 2008) and Patricia Vertinsky (2004) contributed
by opening the history, sociology and geography of sports towards body culture

While the concept of body culture earlier had
denoted an alternative practice and was used in singular, it became now an
analytical category describing body cultures in plural. The terms of physical
culture (or physical education) and body culture separated – the first
describing a practice, the second a subject of theoretical analysis.


culture and wider understanding of humanities

Culture Studies have shown useful by making the study of sport enter into
broader historical and sociological discussion – from the level of subjectivity
to civil society, state and market.


Questioning the “individual” body

Studies in
body culture have shown that bodily existence is more than just “the body” as being
an individual skin bag under control of an individual mind. Bodily practice
happens between the different bodies.
This questions current types of thinking “the individual”: the epistemological
individualism and the thesis of ‘late-modern individualization’.

The methodological habit of counter-posing “the
individual” and “the society” is largely disseminated in sociology. It was
fundamentally criticized by Norbert Elias who underlined that there was no
meaning in the separation between the individual as a sort of core of human
existence and the society as a secondary environment around this core. Society
was inside the human body. In contrast, the epistemological solipsism treated
human existence as if the human being was alone in the world – and was only in
a secondary process “socialized” (Sloterdijk 1998 vol. 1).

Another current assumption is the historical-sociological
individualism. Sociologists as Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens have postulated that
individualization during “high” or “late modernity” had replaced all earlier
traditions – religion, nation, class – and left “the individual” alone with its
body. The body, thus, got a central position as the only fix-point of
“self-identity” left after the dissolution of the traditional norms. The
individual chooses and makes its own body as a sort of “gesamtkunstwerk Ego”.

Body-cultural studies have challenged this
assumption (Eichberg 2010: 58-79). They throw light on inter-bodily relations,
within which the human individuality has a much more complex position.


Social time

important aspect of body culture is temporal. Modern society is characterized
by the significance of speed and acceleration. Sport, giving priority to
competitive running and racing, is central among the phenomena illustrating the
specifically modern velocity (Eichberg 1978, Bale 2004). The historical change
from the circulating stroll in aristocratic and early bourgeois culture to modern
jogging as well as the changes from coach traffic via the railway (
Schivelbusch 1977) to the sport race of automobiles (Sachs 1984)
produced new body-cultural configurations of social time.

On the basis of transportation and urbanism,
blitzkrieg and sports, the French architect and cultural theorist Paul Virilio
(1977) launched the terms of “dromology” (i.e. science
of racing) and “dromocracy”
(power or dominance of velocity) to describe the knowledge and the
politics of modern social acceleration
But the concept of social time embraces many more differentiations, which can
be explored by comparing time-dynamic movements of different ethnic cultures
(Hall 1984).


Social space

Another important aspect of body culture is spatial. Bodily
display and movement always create space – physical space as socio-psychical
space and vice versa. Bodily activities have during history changed between
indoor or outdoor milieus, between non-specialized environment, specialized
facilities and bodily opposition against existing standardized facilities or
what was called “sportscape”. In movement, straight lines and the culture of
the streamline were confronted by mazes and labyrinthine structures, by
patterns of fractal geometry.
All these patterns are not just spatial-practical arrangements, but
they play together with societal orientations. Under this aspect, one has
described the history of panoptical control (Foucault 1975;
Vertinsky/Bale 2004), the parcellation of the sportive space, and the
hygienic purification of spaces (Augestad 2003).
Proxemics (Hall 1966), the study of distance and
space, has become a special field of body culture studies.

culture studies have also influenced the understanding of “nature”. In the
period around 1800, the “nature” of body culture – of outdoor life, naturism
and green movements – became a world of liberation and opposition: “Back to
nature!” In the course of modern industrial culture, this “other” nature became
subjected to colonization and simulation, forming a “second nature”. It even became
a virtual world, which is simulating people’s senses as a “third nature”. The
study of body culture contributed to a history of cultural ecology (Eichberg 1988).

cultural studies also contributed to a differentiation between what in everyday
language often is confused as ‘space’ and ‘place’
whose dialectics were shown by the Chinese-American
philosopher Yi Fu Tuan (see Bale 2004)
. Space can be
described by coordinates and by certain choreographies. Spatial structures can
be standardized and transferred from place to place, which is the case with the
standardized facilities of sports.
Place, in contrast, is unique – it is
only here or there. Locality is related to identity. People play in a certain
place – and create the place by play and game. The place plays with the people,
as a co-player.


Civilisation, discipline, modernity

Studies of
body culture enriched the analysis of historical change by conflicting terms. Norbert Elias (1986) studied sport in
order to throw light on the civilizing
. In sports, he saw a line going from original violence to civilized
interlacement and pacification. Though there were undertones of hope, Elias
tried to avoid evolutionism, which since the nineteenth century postulated a ‘progressive’
way from ‘primitive’ to ‘civilized’ patterns.

While the concept of civilization normally had hopeful undertones, discipline had more critical undertones.
Cultures of bodily discipline became visible – following Foucault and the Frankfurt
School – in Baroque dance (Lippe 1974), in aristocratic and bourgeois pedagogy
of the spinal column during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Vigarello
1978), and in hygienic strategies, school sanitation and school gymnastics during
the twentieth century (Augestad 2003). Military exercise in Early Modern times
was the classic field for body cultural discipline (Gaulhofer 1930;
Kleinschmidt 1989).

In the field of sports, a central point of body-cultural
dispute has been the question whether sport had its roots in Ancient Greek competitions
of the Olympic type or whether it was fundamentally linked to modernity. While nineteenth century’s
Neo-Humanism, Classicism and Olympism assumed the ancient roots of sport, body
cultural studies showed that the patterns central to modern sports –
quantification, rationalisation, principle of achievement – could not be dated
before the industrial culture of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries
(Eichberg 1978; Guttmann 1978). What was practiced before, were popular games,
noble exercises, festivities of different character, children’s games and
competitions, but not sport in modern understanding. The emergence of modern
sport was an eruptive innovation rather than a logical prolongation of earlier
practices. As a revolution of body culture, this transformation contributed to
a deeper understanding of the Industrial Revolution. The so-called
Eichberg-Mandell-Guttmann theory about the uniqueness of modern sport became,
however, a matter of controversies and was opposed by other historians (Carter/Krüger

What came out of the controversies between the
concepts of modernity, evolution, civilization, discipline and revolution was
that “modernization” only can be thought as a non-lineal change with nuances
and full of contradictions. This is how the history of sport (Nielsen 1993 and
2005) and of gymnastics (Defrance 1987; Vestergård Madsen 2003) as well as the
history of running (Bale 2004) have been described in body-cultural terms.

One of the visible and at the same time deeper
changes in relation to the modern body concerns the reform of clothing and the
appearance of the naked body, especially in the years between 1900 and the 1920s.
The change from noble pale skin to suntanned skin as a ‘sportive’ distinction
was not only linked to sport, but had a strong impact on society as a whole.
The change of appreciated body colour reversed the social-bodily distinctions
between people and classes fundamentally, and nudism became a radical
expression of this body-cultural change.


Industrial body and production

Body culture
studies have cast new light on the origins and conditions of the Industrial
Revolution, which in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries transformed people’s
everyday life in a fundamental way. The traditional common-sense explanations of
industrialization by technology and economy as ‘driving forces’ have shown as
insufficient. Economic interests and technological change had their basic
conditions in human social-bodily practice. The history of sport and games in
body cultural perspective showed that this practice was changing one or two
generations, before the Industrial Revolution as a technological and economic
transformation took place. What had been carnival-like festivities, tournaments
and popular games before, became modern
sport by a new focus on results, measuring and
quantifying records (Eichberg 1978; Guttmann 1978). Under the aspect of the principle
of achievement
, there was no
sport in ancient Egypt, in
ancient Greece,
among the Aztecs or Vikings, and in European Middle Ages, though there were
games, competitions and festivities. Sport as a new type of body culture resulted
from societal changes in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries.

The genesis of sport in connection with industrial
productivity called to attention the historical-cultural relativity of
“production” itself. Studies in the history of “the human motor” and the
“mortal engines” of sport showed reification
and technology as lines of historical dynamics
(Rigauer 1969; Vigarello 1988; Rabinbach 1992; Hoberman 1992). Production
became apparent not as a universal concept, but as something historically
specific – and sport was its body-cultural ritual.


Trialectics of body culture

Body culture as a field of contradictions demands a
dialectical approach, but it is not dualistic in character. Body culture
studies have revealed trialectical relations inside the world of sports
(Eichberg 1998, 2010; Bale 1996, 2002 and 2004).

             The hegemonic
model of Western modern body culture is achievement sport, translating
movement into records. Sportive competition follows the logic of productivity

by bodily strain and forms a ranking pyramid with elite sports placed at the
top and the losers at the bottom. Through sportive movement, people display a theatre of production.

             A contrasting model within modern body culture is
delivered by mass sport. In gymnastics and fitness sport, the body is
disciplined by subjecting it to certain rules of “scientific”, social
geometrical or aesthetic order (Roubal 2007). By rhythmic repetition and formal
homogenization, the individual bodies are integrated into a larger whole, which
is recommended in terms of reproduction, as being healthy and educative.
Through fitness sport, people absolve a ritual of reproductive correctness and

             A third model is present in popular festivity, dance and
. In carnival and folk sport, people meet people by festive
movement. This type of gathering may give life to the top-down arrangements of
both productive achievement sport and reproductive fitness sport, too. But the
body experience of popular festivity, dance, play and game is a-productive in
itself – it celebrates relation in movement.

of sport in their diversity and their historical change, thus, clarify inner
contradictions inside social life more generally – among these the
contradictions between state, market and civil society. The trialectics of body
culture throw light on the complexity of societal relations.


Body cultures in plural

“Culture” in singular is an abstraction. The study of
body culture is always a study of body cultures in plural. Body cultures show
human life in variety and differences, assimilation and distinction, conflicts
and contradictions. This demands a comparative approach to otherness, and this
is the way several studies in body culture have gone.

was studied as cultures already by the school of
Cultural Relativism in American anthropology in the 1930s (Ruth Benedict). Postcolonial
studies have taken this pluralistic perspective up again (Bale 1996 and 2004;
Brownell 1995; Azoy 2003; Leseth 2004). The discourse in singular about “the
body in our society” became problematic when confronted with body cultures in
conflict and tension.

plurality and diversity of body cultures is, however, not only a matter of
outward relations. There are also
body cultures in plural inside a given society. The study of different class
habitus, youth cultures, gender cultures etc. opened up for deeper insights
into the differentiation of civil society.


Configurational analysis

Body culture studies try to understand bodily practice
as patterns revealing the inner tensions and contradictions of a given society.
In order to analyze these connections, the study of body culture has turned
attention to the configurations of movement in time and space, the energy of
movement, its interpersonal relations and objectification. Above this basis,
people build a superstructure of institutions and ideas, organising and
reflecting body culture in relation to collective actions and interests
(Eichberg 1978; Dietrich 2001: 10-32; see keyword 2).

elaborating the complex interplay between bodily practice and the
superstructures of ideas and conscience, body cultures studies challenge the
established history and sociology.





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