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  All societies see the human body as more than just a physical organism. It is also the focus of a set of beliefs about its psychological and social significance. The culture in which we live determines the manifold ways bodily experience is perceived and interpreted. Current European ideas about the body are largely influenced by a Cartesian dualism in which it is seen as separate from the mind. Emotions are generally located in the body in Euro-American culture, in opposition to the rational mind. Other societies do not make the same distinction. Some may conceive three parts to the person, while others see the body as an integrated whole. A contrast to the mind-body distinction prevalent in Western thought is Michelle Rosaldo\'s study of head-hunting among the Ilongot in the Philippines. This demonstrates how passion and knowledge are inextricably linked in local explanations of the value of head-hunting to the person carrying out the act.

Anthropologists commonly see the body as a statement of identity. The way the body is marked, clothed and adorned often communicates information about an individual\'s position in society—their status, gender, ethnic or religious identity. Many rites of passage mark changes in social status by transforming the body. The widespread practice of body scarification in parts of central Africa is a means of literally marking the individual\'s transition through stages of his or her life cycle. Among the Nuba, for example, women are scarified with specific patterns at the onset of menstruation, at marriage and at the birth of their first child when they are assumed to have reached full maturity.

The body can be seen as a microcosm of society, the rules and taboos surrounding parts of the body mirroring social or cosmological principles. The prevalent notion that the left hand is unclean is an example of this.

The body can serve as a metaphor for society, and physical experience can actually be determined by social categories. The two bodies, the individual and the social, are closely linked to each other. According to the structuralist Mary Douglas, the body also represents the body politic. Rituals that express anxiety about the body and the maintenance of its boundaries through the control of orifices reflect a concern with defending the unity of the group. Good examples of this are Mediterranean and Middle Eastern preoccupations with honour and shame. Male honour (valour) and female shame (modesty) are seen to protect both the identity and integrity of a social group. In the Middle East, the honour of the individual reflects on the entire group. The widespread practice of female circumcision in Africa, to control women as a group, and their individual sexuality, is another example of this dual concern with social and bodily integrity. CL

See also beauty; mind-body problem; symbolism.Further reading M. Douglas, Natural Symbols; , B. Turner, The Body and Society.



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Other Terms : Seismology | Paranoid-Schizoid Position | Symbolism
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