Sigrid Schmitz & Nina Degele | The concept of embodying: a dynamic approach to sex/gender and nature/culture


The question of sex differences  in the human body has been controversially discussed since the 17th century and retains its discursive power today, both in the scientific debate as well as in popular science literature. One reason for this ongoing debate is the aim not only to detect distinct differences between female and male bodies (including brains), but also to explain how these biological structures and physiological processes determine thinking, behaviour or attitudes about the world.
In this context, the sex/gender distinction is of particular importance in order to challenge the view that individual cognitive behaviour and interaction can be fully explained by biological sex determination (concerning genes, hormones, the brain structures and functions). In contrast, the concept of gender, challenged from the 1970s onwards in a socio-cultural context involves not only influences on the individual’s behaviour and identity, but also influences of gendered learning and socialisation on the formation of physiological processes and bodily development.
Based on Evelyn Fox Keller’s analytical approaches of science of gender and gender in science, gender researchers focus on the empirical inquiry within scientific research and critically reflect the relations between theories, methods, findings and their interpretations. Furthermore, they examine how socio-cultural gender aspects are incorporated in the epistemological and methodological framework of bio-medical research.
Amongst others, Anne Fausto-Sterling stresses the body is not only attributed gender significations, but is formed in its materiality by gender-affected experiences. In turn, the perception of one’s own body and the body itself reciprocally influences thinking and action. With this concept of embodiment, she tries to connect socio-cultural constructions and the constitutions of corpo-realities of gender without making tendentious deductions regarding cause and effect.
From another perspective, such as the growing field of body sociology, researchers also use the term embodiment to develop new approaches for analysing the importance of bodily aspects within social interactions and processes. Referring to Bourdieu’s concept of habitus and/or Foucault’s concept of gouvernementality, the implementation of technologies of power and the market economy into technologies of the self can be questioned along the line of body optimizations for self positioning in modern meritocracy. The approach of feminist materialism currently combines these discussions with discourses on bodily performativity (widening Judith Bulters approach to the body). Additionally, the potentials and challenges of cyborgian hybrids of nature-culture-technology for transgressing gendered boundaries, as Donna Haraway or Karen Barad have conceptualized, merge into the debate of embodiment.
Thus, we may state, that the cultures of the sciences, humanities and socio-cultural disciplines respectively, meet in the embodiment discourses, bearing the potential for new ways of knowing. However, embodiment definitions differ profoundly in different disciplinary and interdisciplinary encounters. Even more challenging, current concepts of embodiment mostly refer to entities, structures or fixed statuses of the body, neglecting the dynamics of body and culture, sex and gender which influence each other in a network of constant, reciprocal changes. Against this background, we systematize the disciplinary and interdisciplinary differentiations in definitions of embodiment along four boundary lines: outside-inside, determined-constructed, passive-active and static-dynamic. We aim to assess possibilities and limitations for a concept we call embodying, which, instead of being static, takes into account temporal dynamics, intersections and intra-actions of bodycultures. Our approach is based on the rigorous transdisciplinary perspective of a feminist sociologist and a gender & STS researcher.