Bourdieu and the Hard Embodiment of Culture: Methodological and Theoretical Challenges[1]

Omar Lizardo[2]

University of Notre Dame

Embodiment in Contemporary Social Analysis

Theoretical reflections on “embodiment” are now ubiquitous in the human, social, and cognitive sciences (Csordas 1994; Schilling 2012). In the social sciences, a concern with embodiment has influenced areas as disparate as (inter alia) studies of science and technology, cultural and cognitive sociology, organizational analysis, interactionist theory, ethnography, the sociology of emotions, the sociology of gender, and the sociology of religion. The basic impulse that holds together these seemingly disparate appeals to the notion of embodiment is a rejection of classical, and postclassical (symbolist and structuralist) models of enculturation and action. These models essentially viewed enculturation as enacted via the transmission of explicit linguistic (and sometimes non-linguistic) symbols. Theorists of embodiment, drawing on the “practice” and “pragmatist” turns in recent social theory, point out that this misses much of what makes persons encultured subjects. From this perspective the practical knowledge “carried” by encultured persons is grounded in, fundamentally transformed by, and always deployed via the body in a fundamental sense. Much of this knowledge cannot be easily translated into the format of linguistic symbols.

In spite of the extent to which the notion of embodiment has captured the imagination of recent social and cultural analysis, with the proliferation of the idea across multiple fields of inquiry comes an inevitable cacophony of meaning. In this paper, I first attempt to bring order to the proceedings by differentiating some related (but analytically distinct) meanings of embodiment. I then consider one particular form of embodiment, what has been referred as “hard embodiment,” (which combines at least two variants of the notion) and point to the conceptual and empirical challenges (focusing on contemporary cultural theory in sociology) that come from considering the possibility that what has traditionally been referred to as “culture” may come to be “internalized” by actors in this peculiar way.

Meanings of Embodiment

a) The embodiment of meaning.- Sometimes in reference to embodiment theorists have in mind a particular approach to the analysis of (linguistic) meaning. For instance, in Lakoff and Johnson’s (1980) influential conceptual metaphor theory, the notion of embodiment is brought in to explain the asymmetric dependence of certain metaphors on core domains of experience. For instance, MORE IS UP (“inflation rates have shot to the sky”) or STATES ARE LOCATIONS (“my career has stalled at this stage”). The basic idea is that because the domain of verticality or locomotion in space are fundamental to our experience as embodied beings, this explain why metaphors draw from these source domains  are recruited to conceptualize more abstract realms of experience but not the other way around (asymmetric mappings). Recent attempts (e.g. by the cognitive psychologist Lawrence Barsalou) to move beyond “amodal” theories of meaning (the notion that knowledge is stored in long-term memory in a format that is separate from the sensory modalities) can also be thought as relying on the notion of the embodiment of conceptual meaning. This naturally extends to a consideration of the embodiment of lexical, grammatical, and linguistic meaning more generally as is characteristic of modern Cognitive Linguistics.

b) Philosophical accounts of embodiment.- Here the notion of embodiment is used as a platform with which to move beyond certain long-standing aporias in the analysis of mind, reason, and subjectivity that come from the Western rationalist (Platonic and Descartian) and critical-rationalist (Kantian/Hegelian) traditions. The basic idea here (particularly powerful in contemporary feminist philosophy) is that the notion of a disembodied subject independent of bodily sensations, experience, perspective, and emotion is a fiction. Embodiment provides an escape from the “view from nowhere” conception of subjectivity, providing instead a platform from which to theorize the subject as an inherently perspectival phenomenon. Following the lead of such thinkers as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, persons are conceived fundamentally embodied subjects endowed with the rootedness, particularity, and finitude that such a condition entails. Philosophical accounts of embodiment are sometimes brought into dialogue with classical sources in social theory (e.g. Marx, Weber, Durkheim) in order to either point to the drawbacks that come from the inheritance of pernicious philosophical postulates by the Classical theorists (Schilling 2012), or to point to their prescient attempts to escapes from those postulates.

c) Phenomenological Accounts of Embodiment.- Alternatively, analysts may use the notion of embodiment as a sensitizing concept that is brought to the field in order to enrich situated descriptions of concrete empirical settings. This may happen in various forms, from recent symbolic interactionist attempts to link long-standing concerns with the development of meaning via significant symbols with the concrete challenges and opportunities that come from considering the role of the lived body in this process (Waskul and Vanini 2006), to more recent attempts (exemplified in Loic Wacquant’s (2004b) call to “follow Bourdieu to the field”) in order to enrich analytical ethnography with first-person accounts of the acquisition of practical dispositions (both “cognitive” and “motor”). Both of these traditions (among others) concentrate on using a perspective of embodiment to provide richer accounts of lived experience in the field (which may involve dramatic cognitive, emotive, and physical transformations).

d) Externalized embodiment.- This perspective is more common in social scientific studies of science and technology including the study of interactions between persons, artifacts, and lived environments. The basic idea here is that  in addition to being “embodied” in the (lived) physical body of persons, knowledge and experience also comes to be embodied in a variety of extra-personal sites. Here a concern with embodiment links to a sensitivity to materiality as an important dimension of social and cultural life (Cheville 2006). Here embodiment is used as a catch all phrase to denote most forms of the cognitive externalization of meaning and action, as well as the problem of interfacing physical bodies with externalized aids to knowledge, perception, and experience (prototypically scientific instruments).

e) Embodiment as the Cognitive Unconscious.- This sense of embodiment, more common in the cognitive than in the social sciences (see for instance, Lakoff and Johnson’s (1999) work on embodiment in philosophical discourse) has come to acquire more relevance in social and cultural analysis via the influence of practice theory and  especially the work of Pierre Bourdieu (1990). Here, the body (and embodiment) is the site of the “internalization of exteriority” so that environmental conditionings are transformed into active dispositions pre-adapted to the world and operating in an implicit state. Embodiment plays a key role here because what is from another perspective seen as rooted in representational abstractions (e.g. values, beliefs) are conceived here as rooted in fundamental comportments of the body. Enculturation, then resolves itself in the conditioning of the body to generate the type of subjective attitudes that are required in each situation. This sense of embodiment provides a rare avenue of dialogue between cultural analysts in anthropology and sociology, and cognitive scientific work concerned with theorizing implicit and unconscious phenomena. This may range from cognitive-emotive appreciative, moral, and cognitive dispositions (as in the recent work of  Steve Vaisey), or “procedural” competences embodied in the form of know-how, and skill (as in Palsson’s (1994) classic work on the embodiment of “sea legs” among Norwegian sailors).

Making sense of embodiment

This necessarily brief (and certainly not exhaustive) consideration of the various usages of the notion of embodiment in the contemporary social and cultural sciences provides us with a platform to differentiate between different analytical deployments of the notion. I will take as my key consideration the question of what consequences (if any) do these different conceptions of embodiment have for the way in which we understand the process via which persons become “encultured” (the domain of old-fashioned socialization theory). In essence, my argument is that business as usual in contemporary cultural analysis faces a bigger challenge depending on which (combination) of the senses of embodiment we adopt. The difference in emphasis across these conceptions are important because they in part determine both the sort of phenomena that we can conceive as being operative in a given empirical setting and thus the sort of phenomena that we as analysts (as well as our methods) will be sensitive to.  For instance, a theorist who does not see linguistic meaning as fundamentally embodied will miss the plethora of conceptual metaphors whose source domain is embodied even when her subjects express them overtly. In the very same way, an analyst blind to the embodiment of culture in the cognitive unconscious will perforce overestimate the influence of explicit (e.g. linguistic) factors.

For the most part, while “philosophical” conceptions of embodiment have had a salutary role in reorienting cultural analysis, they have not changed the basic parameters of contemporary research in the social and cultural sciences a fundamental way. The problem is that in taking “embodiment” as a constitutive category rather than as an empirically specifiable phenomenon, philosophically oriented embodiment theories err on the side of over-generalization and over-inclusiveness (the work of Judith Butler is a great example of this). Both embodiment of meaning and phenomenological accounts have fared better precisely because they stick closer to the their respective empirical settings (see e.g. Uhlmann 2000). Lakoff and Johnson’s work on conceptual metaphor has launched a veritable revolution in the contemporary study of language and meaning; the embodied-phenomenology turn in ethnography on the other hand has revitalized qualitative fieldwork across a variety of areas, moving the analyst from mere participant observation to “observant participation” (see for instance, the work of Desmond, Wacquant, Mears, Winchester, and Pagis in the United States). Externalized embodiment accounts (as in the classic work of anthropologist Edwin Hutchins) have also brought the field forward, but are less directly related to the central problem of internalization and enculturation in cultural analysis (see for instance Strauss and Quinn’s 1997 book on cognitive meaning).

Because they rely on externalized, materially manifested meaning, externalization theorists do not have to worry about the hard problem of enculturation and internalization. In many respects, the traditional observational tools of the social science (observational ethnography and the in depth interview) have always been more calibrated to capture processes of meaning externalization than they have the more covert process of “internalization” and enculturation. In essence, the more we move away from embodiment as an acknowledgment of the broad experiential limits and potentialities opened up by our status as embodied subjects (sense b, c, and d), and more towards embodiment as the bodily substate of meaning and experience (senses a, and e) the more problematic is a consideration of meaning as fundamentally rooted in bodily experience and the body as the repository of the cognitive unconscious from standard accounts of the link between culture and action in social theory.

The Cultural Fragmentation Model of Enculturation

What exactly is this “standard account” that I keep referring to? Speaking mostly of theoretical currents dominant in American Cultural Sociology, the dominant model is one that can be characterized as a “cultural fragmentation” model of enculturation. This perspective, built up over the last three decades mostly as a reaction to the remnants of classical socialization models in the functionalist vein. Across a wide range of areas of inquiry in contemporary social science, from cultural and cognitive sociology to organizational studies, analysts point to the context-dependent, fragmented, temporally unstable, and ultimately malleable nature of cultural understandings. In this way, a view of culture as “fragmented,” “contradictory,” “weakly bounded,” and “contested” has become the de facto standard in contemporary discussions in cultural sociology (in particular in the work of Swidler), cultural history (see in particular the work of William Sewell), cognitive sociology, “post-cultural” anthropology, and culture and inequality studies. One postulate that unites these analysts is the idea that culture does not exercise causal effects on action via the “psychological modification” of actors: “[c]ulture does not influence how groups organize action via enduring psychological proclivities implanted in individuals by their socialization.” Instead, she argues that “publicly available meanings facilitate certain patterns of action, making them readily available, while discouraging others” (Swidler 1986: 283, my italics).

The Hard Embodiment of Culture

There is now a systematic body of evidence across the social and cognitive sciences showing that (a) persons come to embody (via direct experience) forms of “personal culture” (b) that this stock of personal culture can be systematically activated, retrieved and used in context, (c) that once activated personal culture can have a powerful influence on subsequent cognition, emotion, judgment, and action across settings, and (d) most importantly, the activation of this culture happens not via linguistic or symbolic elicitation or interpretation mechanisms but via direct manipulation (e.g. changes in posture) of states of the body. I refer (following the psychologists Dov Cohen and Angela Yeung (2009)) to this type of culture as having been subjected to “hard embodiment.” This account of embodiment challenges extant conceptualizations of culture as fragmented, weakly bounded, and unmoored from deep psychological predispositions.

The notion of the hard embodiment of culture originates from the now well-established sensitivity of what previously were thought to be high-level cognitive and affective processes to seemingly irrelevant states of the body (Prinz 2005). These states carry a form of “analog” meaning that may serve to elicit semantically compatible (or interfere with semantically incompatible) cognitions and emotions. Thus, persons forced to nod while attempting to process a persuasive message under time pressure are more likely to agree with the speaker; persons forced to hold a pen between their teeth (eliciting a forced smile) report a more positive mood afterward; persons who are forced to puff their chest and open their arms are more likely to report feelings of exaltation and pride,  and so on.

Essentially the notion of hard embodiment extends this embodied elicitation mechanism towards the more complex elements usually studied under symbolic and representationalist approaches to culture: namely, belief and value systems. The basic idea, is that rather than being acquired via the internalization of elaborate symbolic representations, belief and value systems are inculcated via the routine enactments of bodily comportments, as Bourdieu (1990) argued in interpreting his ethnographic data from the Kabyle in Logic of Practice (and as first codified in Mauss’ classic essay on “techniques of the body”). Routine enactments include specific ways of “sitting, standing, walking, eating, praying, gazing, hugging, relaxing, washing, and so on” (Cohen and Leung 209: 1279).

The body here functions as a “memory pad” (as noted by Bourdieu); the substrate of the cognitive unconscious where culture is embodied (in the sense e above). The basic idea is that there is a systematic non-arbitrary link between the meaning (encoded in “analog” or “iconic” form) in the bodily posture and the abstract high-level meaning (or emotional quality) elicited by that posture (e.g. the link between power and the above/below axis in “vertical classification” discussed in Schwartz (1981)). The elicitation of hard-embodied culture may be expanded and made even more complex by embedding routine enactments in externalized forms of embodiment (sense d above), thus recruiting artifacts (with their specific affordances) and constructing (and modifying) specific material environments that predispose persons towards particular cognitive and emotional states consistent with abstract belief and value systems (e.g. as in Bourdieu’s [1991] example of how holding the skeptron elicits feelings of authority).

  In this way, the notion of hard-embodiment links to the sense (a) above related to  the embodiment of cultural meaning. Postures (standing tall versus slouching), ways of doing things (energetically or lethargically, with sweeping or fine-grained movements) and position in physical space (standing above or below; sitting at the “head” of the table) carry experiential, primary, embodied meaning. These meanings then feed into those encoded in more complex ideological systems. The direction of meaning construction is asymmetric, in the sense that relatively disembodied realms of meaning (e.g. abstract philosophical principles) must recruit this type of hard-embodied culture for purposes of semantic specification (via conceptual metaphors and analogies) and not the other way around (Lakoff and Johnson 1980).

As already noted, when culture is subjected to hard embodiment, complex cognitive-emotive orientations can be elicited via the habitual incitement to adopt specific bodily postures during the performance of typical everyday routines on the part of socialization agents (Cohen and Leung 2009: 1279). In this way, routine enactments prepare the ground for the activation, retrieval, and access of more complex cognitive emotive complexes, including beliefs, ideologies, worldviews, and cosmologies. These may include gender-based ideologies (Uhlmann and Uhlmann 2005), or more complex “value” complexes.

This is more than idle theoretical speculation. A now exponentially growing body of research finds that many “complex sentiments may be embodied, in the sense that the physical movements of our body promote or predispose us to adhere to certain mindsets, and these mindsets can be associated with relatively complex and nuanced judgments about the world and moral behavior” (ibid).

For instance, researchers have shown that a classic cultural pattern in the functionalist tradition, namely the universalism-particularism distinction, can be shown to be hard-embodied in the above-sense .[3] In a study designed to tap how the availability of these different cultural schemas depended on certain patterns of embodiment researchers asked both Anglo-American and Asian-American participants to respond to a series of ethical dilemmas that involved accessing either universalistic and particularistic cultural patterns.[4] Researchers found that when participants were asked to embody a physical posture of rectitude (holding your chin above a string placed at the required height) while answering the questionnaire both Anglo and Asian American participants were more likely to provide answers consistent with universalism. However, when asked to provide answers embodying a more “relational” posture (e.g. hugging a pillow) Asian-Americans but not Anglo-Americans were more likely to provide answers consistent with particularism (Cohen and Leung 2009: 1283).

The group-specificity of this result suggests, as argued above, that embodiment can only evoke pre-existing moral codes rather than drawing on disorganized bits of culture. Anglos have access to predominantly universalistic patterns, while Asian Americans have access to both particularistic and universalistic criteria as equally legitimate platforms for moral reasoning. Similar culture-specific evocations of complex moral attitudes via routine embodiments have been obtained for such cultural complexes as ideas of honor and masculinity, and notions of moral purity and impurity (Cohen and Leung 2009: 11281-1282, 283-1285) The evocation of complex cultural codes and moral sentiments via embodiment manipulations stands in unequivocal contradiction to the claim that culture does not influence action via the generation of psychological (dispositional) proclivities (Swidler 1986: 283).

In addition, as Bourdieu (2001) proposed in Masculine Domination, gender ideologies may also be subject to hard embodiment. For instance, Uhlmann and Uhlmann (2005: 95) review linguistic evidence regarding word ordering in conventional linguistic constructions involving two adjectives or prepositions (e.g. “up and down,” “front and back,” “good and bad,” “here and there,” etc.). The basic finding is that the first element in the pair is almost always the term associated either with the physical or psychological “egocentric” point of view of the speaker. In locational terms that means that prepositional phrases indicating a point in space (or time) “close” to the subject will tend come first (“today and tomorrow” rather that “tomorrow and today”), and for valued adjectives the positive valued (which has been shown to be associated with the “self” among Westerners) will come first (“good and bad” rather than “bad and good.”). They go to to review corpus data showing the overwhelming prevalence of the same effect when it comes to gendered pairs; thus “boys and girls,” “men and women,” and “husband and wife,” are more conventionally sanctioned than the reverse. This suggests (with the exception of domestic or familial contexts) that the precedence of men over women (e.g. the conceptual construction of men as primary, prototypical persons and women as deviations) is coded not in a complex ideology, but simple patterns of conventionalization in linguistic constructions (the work of sociologist Karen Cerulo provides convergent evidence of the importance of these seemingly innocent sequencing patterns in language).

Uhlmann and Uhlmann (2005) review evidence of how gender-ideology can more directly encoded in bodily posture. In Masculine Domination, for instance Bourdieu notes how a particular form of female subordination is encoded in the angle and direction of the eye gaze that women in MENA societies are expected (and come to habitually) hold (low and towards the ground; never meeting the gaze of other men directly and seldom looking up). This is consistent with Iris Young’s classic analysis of the “ambiguously transcendent” way women relate to their bodies in the act of throwing. Once hard-embodied, gendered culture can affect self-identity because it operates via faster pathways (well-honed habitual comportments) that self-reflection. Thus, persons come to perceive themselves acting in certain patterned ways (e.g. with self-assurance or subordinate tentativeness) rather than acting in particular ways because they are being guided by higher level reflective principles. Proprioceptive feedback and self-perception processes thus ensure that self-identity adjusts to faster hard-embodied patterns (rather than the other way around).


The hard embodiment of culture has important implications for research and theory in social and cultural analysis. First, it becomes clear that it is not enough to say that one is taking an “embodied” or “embodiment” approach. It is important to specify what type of embodied approach one is attempting to deploy. As we have seen, some versions of embodiment imply weaker commitments when taken in isolation (e.g. embodied meaning, externalization); we may term these soft embodiment perspectives. Other approaches (e.g. cognitive unconscious, possibly coupled to phenomenological and embodied-meaning approaches) imply stronger empirical and theoretical commitments. I have labeled these “hard embodiment” approaches.

A key difference concerns the relative usefulness of the traditional battery of analytic methods in social science in the face of these two approaches. When it comes to soft-embodiment perspectives, traditional social scientific methods, ranging from the in-depth interview, to discourse, and text analysis can be sensitized to capture the traces of embodied cognition in the act of meaning construction, especially those left behind in the spoken or written word (Ignatow 2009). It is when researchers attempt to capture traces of hard-embodied culture that things get more problematic. Because culture that is embodied directly requires the researcher to be attuned to the analog meaning of gestures, comportments, and ways of acting, observational strategies that keep the research “close to the action” (such as ethnography) are ideal (Wacquant 2004b). However, ethnography in itself will not be sufficient; researchers need to go to the field already sensitized to nature of the type of culture that they will be looking for, otherwise they will be predictably drawn to the standard linguistically mediated symbols (Wacquant 2011). I close by providing some generative examples of how analysts (properly sensitized) can uncover hard-embodied culture in the field.

One approach is to examine the conceptions of relative novices to the culture. Because culture patterns, in order to become hard-embodied,  require repetition and practice, but this practice is seldom accompanied by overt interpretations or detailed exegesis, we should find that  relative novices in the process of internalizing correspondences between specific bodily comportments and higher-order belief and values, should be particularly transparent about this linkage.

The anthropologist Christina Toren (1999) suspected that conceptions of rank and hierarchy and their connection to higher-order belief systems that justify them are built up from routine comportments around ritual occasions, in particular everyday meals and the drinking of kava (beer made from the root vegetable) during special ceremonies. To verify this hypothesis, Toren asked a convenience sample of Fijian children ranging from five to eleven years old to examine a prepared drawing and provide the identity of unlabeled figures sitting around a table during the kava drinking ritual and during meals in the household (in effect eliciting “iconic” representations). She also asked them to provide their own drawings identifying where different persons (mother, father, chief, etc.) would be seated in similar circumstances.

Toren finds that by the age of six, Fijian children are able to reproduce the structural correspondence between gender and rank hierarchy and the above/below spatial axis of seating arrangements (it is a behavioral rule that men sit towards the “top” or head of the table—that is, the side of the table that points towards away from the main entrance to the house—and women and younger children sit toward the “bottom”), with younger children producing less ranking gradations than do older children (Toren 1999: 88-90). Toren concludes from these data that “an understanding of above/below in terms of its polar extremes occurs just before school age” (Toren 1999: 94). For these children the position of mother located below “is the anchor for situations within the household…for prepared drawings of meals, all children chose the figure below to be mother…By contrast, the figure said to be above was either father, father’s elder brother, father’s father, mother’s brother or a ‘guest’.”

Another approach is to expand the range of methodological tools, including the incorporation of video recording for capturing the sort of hard-embodied bodily techniques that could easily be lost to the naked eye of the ethnographer. For instance, anthropologist N. J. Enfield (2005) shows that personal knowledge regarding the central analytic object of structuralist anthropology, namely kinship, is hard-embodied in “analog” motor schemes. Drawing on data obtained from videotaped interviews of residents of Laos, Enfield shows that when prompted by the interviewer to explicitly verbalize the culturally accepted relations between different kinship roles persons use spatial bodily orientation along the right-left and up-down axis as well as gestures designed to indicate positions at locations “drawn” in the space immediately located in the front of the informant’s body to indicate the relative position of occupants of different positions in their kinship system. Thus, rather than being stored as amodal, abstract, categories, the “rules” of kinship exist as directly embodied sets of perceptual and motor skills, expressed as “bodily gymnastics” (Bourdieu 1990).

Finally, Wacquant (2004a) provides an example of the fruitfulness of combining a phenomenological approach to embodiment in the field with a theoretical sensitivity for the body as the substrate of the cognitive unconscious (approaches c and e above). Here we get a rich description of the dynamics via which culture (in this case that of the boxing gym) becomes hard-embodied. This was particularly evident in the pedagogical style of the trainer who refused to believe that boxing could be learned from books or by imitating static “pictures.”  The problem is that “[y]ou don’t get a sense of movement.  Boxin’s movement…In a book everything’s standin’ still.”  (Wacquant 2004a:  101).

The capacity to understand and “grasp” the meaning and telos of action by other agents at an implicit, bodily level, without recourse to an explicit “theory of mind” of other agents, coupled with the capacity to “mirror” the action of others and engage in implicit imitation of the bodily techniques of others, provide a completely different perspective of what it means to be “socialized” into the “culture” of a given collectivity.  Some of these mechanisms were clearly presaged in Bourdieu’s (1990) own theoretical reflections regarding the “implicit pedagogy” that was necessary for full enculturation into a social group.


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[1] Prepared for the thematic session “Bourdieu, Culture, and Empirical Research” held at the 2014  Annual Meeting of the American Sociological in San Francisco.

[2] Direct correspondence to Omar Lizardo, Department of Sociology, University of Notre Dame, 810 Flanner Hall, Notre Dame, IN, 46556.

[3] Universalism, implies the application of impersonal standards to all actors regardless of their relationship to self (mother, father, friend, etc.). Particularism, on the other hand is a cultural pattern that directs the person to take into account our relationship to specific others in both private and public (e.g. formal institutional dealings) contexts.

[4]  For instance, participants may be asked what they would do in the case of a family member (e.g. brother , sister, parent) who has committed a crime of which an innocent person is now accused. Would they lie to protect their relative (particularism)?  Or reveal the truth to the authorities (universalism)?