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Research briefs

Voicing the Body

Theodore D. Kemper

St. John's University

The body, with its imperative demands for food, sleep, sex, etc., is ineluctably there. But it has very little standing in current social psychology. Perhaps this is because the body is so ... biological, a circumstance that social psychology is dedicated to side-stepping in its theories of human conduct based on the social. After all, if biology is the explanation of a given behavior, what role is there for social psychology?

In fact, social psychology has imperialistically invaded the body. For example, food preferences are largely social; sleep times are socially determined; and sex can be said to be overly-determined by social regulation. These examples speak to how the social orders the mere biology of the body. But the body, I maintain, is socially present in a manner not previously examined.

The argument here is that the body speaks and speaks in the same language and with the same syntax as all other social influences on the individual. With respect to the latter, there are the well-known categories: parents, friends, teachers, bosses and colleagues, spouse, children, and so on. Add public figures and institutional influences such as law, religion and the media and we have a plentiful set of others who argue their respective briefs when we contemplate doing X, Y or Z. The process of deciding is often straightforward and we simply do what the most powerful of these influencing others demands. For occasions of greater complexity, G. H. Mead provides a useful model of how individuals engage in mental dialogues with and among the salient sources of influence in order to determine what course to follow in the given situation.

But, let us say we are talking about a sexual urge, or the extreme stringencies of a hunger strike or torture or with the cravings of addition. The body is very centrally involved in these. How does it convey its position--"I want to have sex," "I want to eat," etc.--in the Meadian dialogue? I propose that when the body's interests are at stake it has a voice. And that the voice is ordinarily that of an early caretaker, in most cases, the mother. In those instances where the body needs to speak, it is that voice that joins the dialogue--"My precious is hungry (thirsty, sleepy, etc.) and needs food (water, the pillow, etc.). You'll feel so much better after you eat (drink, sleep, etc.)." The body ordinarily announces and rationalizes its needs in the voice and language of the person who first put those needs into words.

But not all biological needs are omnipresent. Libido in its adult form is activated at puberty and we can conjecture about the difference in behavior depending on who speaks for the body at that point: the original mothering one, the father, age-mates, artistic and/or counter-cultural collectivities and so forth. Sexual style--restraint or assertiveness--is at stake here in the matter of who voices the body's urge, that is who speaks for the body in the satisfaction of biological interests in the conduct we call sex.

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