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Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment

Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment

by Chris Gilleard, Paul Higgs

‘Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment’ outlines and develops an argument about the emergence of a ‘new ageing’ during the second half of the twentieth century and its realisation through the processes of ‘embodiment’. The authors argue that ageing as a unitary social process and agedness as a distinct social location have lost


‘Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment’ outlines and develops an argument about the emergence of a ‘new ageing’ during the second half of the twentieth century and its realisation through the processes of ‘embodiment’. The authors argue that ageing as a unitary social process and agedness as a distinct social location have lost much of their purchase on the social imagination. Instead, this work asserts that later life has become as much a field for ‘not becoming old’ as of ‘old age’. The volume locates the origins of this transformation in the cultural ferment of the 1960s, when new forms of embodiment concerned with identity and the care of the self arose as mass phenomena. Over time, these new forms of embodiment have been extended, changing the traditional relationship between body, age and society by making struggles over the care of the self central to the cultures of later life. 

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

‘Gilleard and Higgs challenge conventional thinking about aging bodies in exciting ways, especially the dated notion that aging is a time of “structured dependency,” or the fading belief that the “third age” is one where agency and effort are paramount to success. The authors expertly weave together theoretical writings, empirical research, and cultural analysis in the rapidly emerging field of the sociology of the body with classic and contemporary writings in gerontology. […] Highly recommended.’ —D. S. Carr, ‘Choice’

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Anthem Press
Publication date:
Key Issues in Modern Sociology Series
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment

By Chris Gilleard, Paul Higgs

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2013 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85728-339-9



This first chapter is concerned with the contemporary positioning of the body within the social sciences and the implications of the 'somatic turn' for constructing a new, culturally informed approach to ageing (Gergen and Gergen 2000; Gilleard and Higgs 2000). Most conventional accounts of ageing locate it within the body, where it is expressed as a universal, intrinsic, non-reversible and ultimately deleterious process of decline (Strehler 1962). Because bodily ageing is formulated as a more or less unmediated process of corporeal decline, psychosocial attempts to present ageing in a more positive light have focused on its less 'corporeal' aspects, through concepts such as 'seniority', 'integrity', 'wisdom' or 'longevity'. These attempts, which suffuse modern social gerontology, draw upon a much older tradition, dating back at least to Cicero's essay on old age, whereby (mostly men's) ageing and old age are valued because they reflect or 'embody' the accumulation of cultural or symbolic capital in the form of wisdom, maturity or experience. With the coming of Christianity, ageing acquired an additional meaning when it was represented as the gradual 'spiritual' liberation of the individual from the concerns and constraints of his once youthful erring body.

Such positive, 'de-corporealised' views of old age may still be found in modern gerontology, whether in its espousal of a 'good' or 'successful' old age (Havighurst 1961; Schonfield 1967; Rowe and Kahn 1987) or through ideas of gero-transcendence (Tornstam 1996). Where gerontology has engaged with the ageing body, it has either reified the corporeality of ageing, for example by developing indices of functional capacity, transformed it into a chronological marker of individual or collective achievement, in the form of mortality or longevity statistics, dissolved it within a matrix of 'inter -generational relationships' or unproblematically re-inserted it within a bio-medical or social care narrative, where aged outcomes are judged in terms of relative health or disability statuses. It is time for ageing studies to consider other ways of thinking about the body that neither ignore, mask or reify the corporeality of later life but seek to adequately embody it within the social. To do so requires ageing studies to engage more comprehensively with what Bryan Turner has called the 'somatic turn' in the social sciences (Turner 1984). In order to provide a theoretical context for such an engagement, our aim in this chapter is first to outline some of the principal ways that sociological thinking about the body has developed over the last quarter century and then to map its potential significance for a renewed sociology of ageing and its embodiment.

This brings us to the constant theme that will run through this book, namely the impact of the 1960s, both in fostering new developments in the sociology of the body and in creating the conditions for the 'new ageing'. The topics of 'identity' and 'agency', whether at the political or personal level, have acquired a new importance in sociological thinking as the social sciences have oriented themselves toward the concerns of the more differentiated and individualised society that has emerged from this period of cultural ferment. The renewed interest in the representation and oppression of women provided a particularly powerful motivation toward this re-appraisal. Issues of sex and gender rose to prominence as important lines of fracture, as women were identified as suffering from a similar kind of cultural domination, denial of rights and social exclusion that non-white individuals had experienced in the predominantly white societies of the developed Western world.

The civil rights movements in the USA and elsewhere, the anti-Vietnam war protests and other related anti -imperialist movements reshaped left-wing politics around issues of identity and self-determination, creating what Nancy Fraser has described as a new politics of recognition (Fraser 1995). But, while sharing a generalised desire to establish identity as a well-spring for an emancipatory politics, the achievement of a popular front of 'difference' espoused by the new social movements proved as difficult as had been the case for earlier class-based movements. The attempts to create an overarching unity of the different excluded groups based upon their shared experience of the oppressions of bodily difference under-played or failed to emphasise the material solidity of the structures by which such diversity was framed. Faced with these difficulties, they opted increasingly for a politics of recognition at the expense of the earlier politics of redistribution (Fraser 1995). For much the same reasons, the theoretical writing developed within these various social movements each produced a particular version or framing of identity — as a woman, as a gay, lesbian or transsexual person, as a black person/person of colour — that has since been viewed as providing a somewhat limited 'sectional' or even 'reductionist' understanding of difference, neglecting considerations of the intersections between class position and the variously oppressed positions of these variously 'embodied' identities. Moreover, while destabilising the hierarchical orderings of the body, they failed adequately to challenge the very dualities through which oppression had been realised.

Several common themes run through the various discourses around the embodiment of identity and agency. As sex has been transformed into gender, race into ethnicity, sexual orientation into sexuality and impairment into disability, each development in thinking about 'difference' has led to what might be called a 'postmodern' problematisation of the relationship between individuals as bounded, corporeal agents and the structures and institutions of society that bind these individual bodies together. Within the academy, feminism and gender studies, black studies and critical race theory, LGBT studies, disability studies and queer theory have all struggled with the contradictions that arise from rejecting the biological essentialism that dominated the categorical thinking of classical modernity, while seeming to replace it with an equally unsustainable cultural essentialism that treats the body's corporeality as a source for unreal yet highly referential signs and signifiers.

Developments in theorising the relationship between people as individually distinct bodies and people as collectively organised members of society form a central theme in this introductory chapter. We concentrate here upon the generic theory that has developed within the sociology of the body and pay rather less attention to the theoretical contributions made by cultural studies. This differential emphasis is not because we feel these latter are less important or less illuminating, but because we shall employ them more extensively in subsequent chapters of the book, particularly those dealing with the embodied identities of gender, race, disability and sexuality and their relevance for the 'new' ageing. Toward the end of this chapter, we consider the potential applications of these general theoretical approaches to understanding the place of the body within the paradigms of the new ageing.

Corporeality and Human Nature: The New Sociology of the Body

Discussions of the relationship between the corporeality of human existence and the society in which this corporeality is embodied have long roots in sociology. Commentators such as Turner (1984) and Shilling (1993), have argued that embryonic ideas about the relationship between the body and society can be found in the works of the 'founding fathers' of sociology long before there was a separate 'sociology of the body'. They have noted, for example, that in nineteenth-century France Auguste Comte was regarded as a key theorist of biology as well as of sociology. Similar concerns with the link between body and society can be found in Émile Durkheim's concept of 'homo duplex' while Max Weber's notion of 'necessary body discipline' has a strong link with his identification of the 'protestant work ethic' as an ideology driving modern industrial capitalism (Weber 1976). Karl Marx's contribution to early classical sociology was not confined to his discussion of the influences on human nature but was also evident in the ways that he saw the exploitation of labour as both a physiological as well as an economic process (Shilling 1993, 27). Despite such recognition, as Shilling points out, 'the overall orientation of the sociological project they (sociology's founding fathers) established mitigated against locating the embodied human as a central area of investigation' (Shilling 1993, 28).

Indeed, upon closer examination, these roots seem neither very deep nor particularly extensive. Issues of gender and the body were mostly reified or ignored. Sydie (2004) has argued that Durkheim, Simmel and Weber saw social structures as essentially 'male', while they considered women a part of a nature that stood in contrast to society. Witz and Marshall (2004) have pointed out that Durkheim's conceptualisation of man is 'both embodied and social [...] while women are denied that liberation from the senses which would truly make them "persons"' (Witz and Marshall 2004, 23–4). While the body's 'absent presence' in sociology is not necessarily a complete reading of the 'classical' sociological canon, what is evident is less the complete absence of the body per se but rather the absence of attention to the role that the bodily distinctions of gender, race and disability had in structuring modern society. It is this masculine, heterosexual and white nature of society and its institutions that is explicitly, or implicitly, conveyed by these writers as is their preoccupation with man as the critical social agent. Much of the renewed interest in issues of embodiment has been ignited by sociology's engagement with feminism, and it is this particular engagement that has helped highlight the limited and often reified approach to the body that led to the underplaying of gendered relationships and their role in organising society. As Turner argues, 'greater sensitivity towards gender/sexuality/biology on the part of social theorists' (Turner 1991, 20) has been an important consequence of the encounters between the social sciences and the new social movements in the aftermath of the 1960s.

Yet despite this re-orientation towards the body and growing awareness of the significance of the body as a source of social identity and fracture there has been, with a few notable exceptions, a signal failure to engage seriously with the ageing body. The absence of a viable social movement promoting the interests of older people might be one reason for this failure. However, it more likely stems from the location of the new social movements within postwar youth culture, the impact of the 'campus' cultures of the 1960s, and their rejection of all that was old (Gilleard and Higgs 2009). Whatever the reasons, most key theorists of the sociology of the body have either ignored the issue of age or have subsumed it under issues of 'vulnerability' or 'death' (Higgs and Jones 2009, viii). Given the potential of many of the themes in the new sociology of the body to illuminate ageing as an 'embodied' process, one aim of this book is to address this gap by relating 'embodiment' to age and ageing, and thereby exploring the difficulties that this creates for their developing and sustaining an engagement with ageing itself.

As an inherently dynamic process, ageing threatens to destabilise whatever settlement might be negotiated between the particular embodied identities represented by gender, race and disability and the institutional practices and cultural narratives of operating in society. Just as the classical canon of sociology had difficulties in acknowledging the embodiment of impairment, gender and race, the tendency in the new sociological writing on the body has been to avoid, ignore, or minimise the social and cultural significance of ageing as itself an unsettling influence. In a similar fashion to the earlier 'absence' of the body in sociology, the absence of ageing exposes a critical lacuna within these new academic sub -disciplines. Just as the turn to the body has had a galvanising influence on new ways of thinking about society and social identity, an engagement with age and ageing can provide new challenges to the new sociological thinking about the body. Indeed such an engagement offers mutual challenges — to the 'new' ageing studies and to the 'new' sociology of the body. Some of these challenges will be opened out at the end of this chapter before being revisited more fully when we outline issues of embodiment and corporeality associated with the 'new' ageing paradigm in the next chapter.

Foucault and the Cultural Ferment of the 1960s

The cultural ferment that projected issues of identity into sociology in the latter half of the twentieth century was reflected in the work of a number of key writers who were beginning to question the assumptions of classical social science. Prominent among them was Michel Foucault. In a series of books beginning with Madness and Civilisation (1970), The Birth of the Clinic (1975) and Discipline and Punish (1979) Foucault examined how knowledge about the body provided the 'site' of various forms of power relations within society.

In his early work, Foucault undertook what he termed an 'archaeology' of the various 'epistemes' that underpinned developments in the history of human knowledge about the body. A key feature of this approach was his focus upon 'discourse' and the acceptance of its relativist nature, coupled with a rejection of any assumption of progress or teleology that could be ascribed to any particular episteme. In his account of the history of madness, for example, he argued against the view that a more humane 'scientific' understanding superseded earlier 'punitive' understandings of mental illness. instead he saw the emergence of psychiatry as an example of the growing role of 'reason' in the increasingly rationalised world of modernity. A similar theme is evident in his The Birth of the Clinic, where he described the emergence in the late eighteenth century of a new form of 'clinical medicine' which was not simply the development of new, improved technologies for identifying and treating illness but was a result of new forms of power/knowledge by which illness and disease were defined — which Foucault termed the 'clinical gaze' (Foucault 1975, 109). At a time of revolutionary political change, Foucault argued, an equally revolutionary transformation took place in medicine. Medicine began to map the 'body' of a disease onto the 'body' of the sick individual, and using instruments such as the stethoscope and procedures such as auscultation, re-framed discourses about health and disease based upon an 'anatomo-clinical' analysis of pathology. This created new forms of power as it established 'the possibility for the individual of being both subject and object of his own knowledge' (Foucault 1975, 197).

The tendency to relate knowledge of the body to power over it was given more attention in Discipline and Punish, Foucault's historical study of punishment (Foucault 1979). In it Foucault outlined the difference between two different modes of power, which he termed 'sovereign' and 'disciplinary' power. Drawing on accounts of public executions in pre-revolutionary France, he posits that sovereign power is exercised through the authority of the body of the monarch. Public displays of this power were crucial to its operation. Disciplinary power, on the other hand, operates through a 'bio- politics' that over time relies more on public surveillance and the capacity of 'capillary power' to reach down to all individuals, influencing their behaviour and actions. In contrast to the public execution, the most arresting image of disciplinary power was the 'panopticon' a form of prison organisation outlined by the utilitarian philosopher, Jeremy Bentham. A key feature of the panopticon was the way in which prison warders occupied a central location from which they could view all inmates but from which they themselves could not be seen. Because prisoners believed themselves to be always under surveillance, the assumption was that they would follow the desired behaviours of the prison regime whether or not they were in fact being observed at any one time or place, leading each individual prisoner to internalise appropriate prescribed behaviours rather than be made to submit to the regime through the use of force.


Excerpted from Ageing, Corporeality and Embodiment by Chris Gilleard, Paul Higgs. Copyright © 2013 Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

‘Chris Gilleard and Paul Higgs are two of our foremost theorists of age. Their work has helped transform how we understand later life. In this fascinating and insightful book, they address the key issue in ageing: embodiment, its meaning and significance. The text is set to become a classic.’ —Julia Twigg, Professor of Social Policy and Sociology, University of Kent

‘The lively writing, exciting critical theories and wide-ranging explorations into fashion, fitness and consumerism in this work by Gilleard and Higgs transforms the cultural field of the “new ageing” into a new form of sociological inquiry. Finally we have a book that exposes how our deep ambivalence about growing older shapes generation, identity, lifestyle, corporeality and embodiment.’ —Stephen Katz, Professor of Sociology, Trent University

‘Gilleard and Higgs break from the prevailing literature on the physicality of ageing and engage the reader in novel perspectives on the social aspects of the ageing body. This is an extraordinarily carefully written – and at times eloquent – narrative that is refreshingly original in its contribution.’ —Scott A. Bass, Provost and Professor of Public Administration and Policy, American University

‘Gilleard and Higgs canvass a breathtaking range of work on embodiment and ageing, reviewing diverse theoretical trajectories and research contexts, and suggesting compelling questions that await investigation. This insightful book is agenda-setting, and will be an indispensable resource for both cultural gerontology and the sociology of the body.’ —Barbara L. Marshall, Professor of Sociology, Trent University

‘Gilleard and Higgs bring their own brand of scholarship and critical reflexions to bear on Third Age corporeality and embodiment. This book confirms that sociology should take old age and ageing seriously, not treat it simply as the back end of the sociology of the body.’ —Emmanuelle Tulle, Reader in Sociology, Glasgow Caledonian University

‘The stubborn, insistent fact of bodily ageing requires that we bring age into the sociology of the body and, likewise, bring the body into ageing studies. Arguing for this mutual enrichment, Gilleard and Higgs review historical and theoretical developments on both sides and analyse key practices of the “new ageing”’. —David J. Ekerdt, Professor of Sociology and Director, Gerontology Center, University of Kansas

Meet the Author

Chris Gilleard is a visiting research fellow at University College London.

Paul Higgs is professor of the sociology of ageing at University College London. 

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