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I-RITE Statement Archive
About I-RITE

How Do You Get Your Body?

Hans Melkersson
School of Education
Uppsala University
June 2002


How do you get your body? This is the question I am trying to answer by doing what I call "ethno-practical" studies in different social contexts; in this case with boxers, climbers, bikers and programmers. By performing in-depth, participatory studies in these fields, I am trying to create an analysis of the formation of the body as being the resident of a variety of dispositions, not only the skills of the trade but ethical and normative traits as well. Performing ethno-practical studies means to become as close to being a member of the actual group as possible, without losing your scientific agenda. In trying to answer the general question: "How do we become the way we are?" you have to start with the body. It is through your body that you experience the world and the world experiences you.

When I began my ethno-practical study in a boxing gym, I introduced myself as a student of education who wanted to be a student of boxing. After some time in the gym, the boxers got used to me and I could concentrate on learning the skills of a boxer alongside the others. When a young man steps into a gym and his career as a boxer begins, it not only serves as a starting point to a physical change, but the mind alters as well. The endless repetition of bodily movements, as well as the endlessly repeated language that is a part of the trade, transcends into incorporated dispositions constantly accessible, not only in the ring, but in other social situations as well. To become a boxer is not only to learn and master a trade, it's about modeling the body and getting prepared for the challenges ahead. This set of dispositions in the boxer's body elaborates under the strong influence of the coach. A distinctive trait of the relationship between the coach, as the master, and the boxer, as the disciple, is the lack of distance-bodily as well as spiritually.

In the case of a climber, the body is a progress that dwells in the shadow of a merciless companion: gravity. To become a climber, you must mold your body in ways which avoid the dangers of gravity by developing specific skills avoiding the dangers associated with rock climbing. Whenever you are more than 20 feet off the ground, there is a mortal threat to your life. There is a saying among climbers that stresses what they are seeking to avoid, "Oh, it's not the fall that kills you, it's the sudden stop..." The skills in climbing are often conveyed from the more skilled climber to a less experienced climber. In spite of this unequal relationship, the two climbers are dependent upon each other for safety from the very beginning by the rope that protects the climbers from "the sudden stop." This rope is a lifeline, an assurance for survival, but it is also a navel-string between the two climbers, in a pedagogical as well as physical sense. There is often a special bond developed between two climbers who frequently climb together, as they constantly put their life in the hands of their partner.

When looking at bikers, it is clear that it demands a special skill to master a motorcycle, and even more skills to master all the demands on different dispositions to become a member of a specific group of bikers. The trade of a biker is associated with hazardous practices; the biker is practically unprotected on his bike, he/she is less visible than other vehicles traveling at this speed, and the fact that a motorcycle evidently turns over if not running demands an active driver. In motorcycling, the skills are molded into the biker's body not only by the interaction between man and machine but often through riding together with more experienced bikers.

Another example is the body of a computer programmer, which is not virtual but is still flesh and blood even though you can represent your body in the virtual world in a variety of forms. Some of the programmers I've met really have forgotten that and they recurrently feed their bodies with junk food, don't sleep enough, almost never work out or do any sports, and are constantly in need of more time. The fast and dynamic growth of the digital field, catapulted by the development of the Internet, has created a need for instant knowledge; specific skills for problem solving and a creative mind founded on logic and practice. Much of these skills needed for doing serious programming, etc., are developed man-to-man but via the Internet; you could say that the Internet has taken over a communicative role from the pedagogical relationship between the master and the disciple. There is simply no master to be found with all the skills needed to satisfy the programmer's need for instant educational nourishment.

My research task in these sociological studies on the formation of the body is to uncover the underlying structure of logic inherent in these groups. By participating in a special context, the body is constructed in a special way by the rules and practices of the group. Important themes in my studies are the concept of learning, the distribution of material resources, the notion of values, and systems of classification that emanates from conduct, thoughts, feelings and judgments of social agents. My studies will hopefully shed some light on classical questions in the science of society, with the main emphasis on learning.