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There are broadly two distinctive approaches to the human body in the social sciences that are important to understanding the relevance of Michel Foucault to the study of age and aging. The first perspective treats the body as a system of cultural signification that can be read as a representation of the structure of power. We can call this approach, with reservations, ‘structuralist’. The second perspective has focused on understanding the experience of the ‘lived body’, thereby giving emphasis to performance and to the body in the social practices. This second approach, which we can designate, again with reservations, ‘phenomenological’, is more precisely concerned with embodiment than with the body. These two approaches are both scientifically valid, but hey ask different questions, use different methodologies and have different consequences. Foucault in a general sense represents a structuralist approach. By contrast, Maurice Merleau-Ponty was closely associated with a phenomenology of the body, being concerned for example with the philosophical implications of phantom limb experiences. In this chapter, we concentrate however on a contrast between Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Various attempts have been made to achieve some integration of these perspectives. We argue that a seamless analytical integration between the sociology of the body-as-representation of the world and embodiment or body-as-experiences of the world may be difficult, but in research the creative tension between these two approaches may be useful in understanding the paradox of the body as both object and subject, or structure and experience. We argue that this distinction can be best conceptualised as a contrast between ‘the body’ (systems of power and representation) and ‘embodiment’ (forms of experience of bodily practices in the everyday world). This produces a parallel distinction between research on ‘age’ as a social classification and ‘aging’ as a social and biological process. This contrast is evident in existing attempts ‘to bring the body (back) into the sociology of aging’. We can either turn attention to the history of gerontology as a system of knowledge/power that produces a discipline of the elderly body or consider the lived experience of embodiment of elderly people. Foucault is relevant to the first strategy, Bourdieu, to the second.


Institute for Religion, Politics, and Society

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