In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Embodiment

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Edited Collections
  • Journals and Blogs

Anthropology Embodiment
Anna Harris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 August 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0151


Embodiment is a concept in constant motion, threading through swaths of literature from anthropology, cultural studies, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and, more recently, neuroscience. Although the concept becomes different things in different places, broadly speaking in anthropology, embodiment is a way of describing porous, visceral, felt, enlivened bodily experiences, in and with inhabited worlds. While anthropology has long had bodily concerns at its heart, issues of embodiment really became a central concept and object of study only in the mid-1980s, in the midst of a more general philosophical trend in the humanities and social sciences. A move was made here from studies of the body to taking the perspective of a bodily being-in-the-world as the starting point. Anthropological engagements with embodiment have several characteristics, which distinguish them from other fields of study. First, theoretical understandings of embodiment are stitched not only from bringing together and critically examining a key set of philosophies (predominantly phenomenology and practice theory), but also doing so in correspondence with insights from ethnographic fieldwork. This theoretical approach has developed largely in opposition to Western dualisms and stagnate bodily categories, emphasizing process and contingency. For many first tackling embodiment head-on, their concern was to address questions of power and oppression through looking at ideologies of sex, gender, and racial difference. Medical anthropologists further developed the concept in their studies of illness. Topics now have now expanded greatly, including new approaches to traditional themes and emerging concerns about the virtual, the (epi)genetic, toxic environments and beyond-human bodies. Anthropology is also characterized by embodied fieldwork, where the researcher’s body is recognized as being deeply entangled in the process of study. The selection of texts in this article, chosen from a vast and growing body of literature, reflects both embodied anthropology and anthropologies of embodiment. It includes works by authors who have contributed to these areas in substantial ways through methodological reflections, ethnographic cases, and/or theoretical developments. The texts highlight not only how arbitrary it is to separate theories from fieldwork and methods from findings, but also nature/culture, mind/body, reason/emotion, inner/outer, self/other, and many other binaries that anthropologists continually seek to problematize, stitch together, and pull apart in their study of the elusive yet captivating questions of embodiment.

General Overviews and Edited Collections

Scholars new to the embodiment literature, as well as those looking for good overviews, will find helpful several anthologies of classic and contemporary texts on key topics related to embodiment, as well as the summaries published in the journal Annual Review of Anthropology (see Journals and Blogs). Csordas 1994 is one of the earlier edited collections marking the rise of embodiment in anthropology. Farquhar and Lock 2007 offers one of the better compendiums of classic and contemporary texts theorizing the body, introducing many of the key themes and historical developments in anthropology. Mascia-Lees 2011 is an edited collection that offers slightly more recent texts on embodiment, which draw predominantly from North American scholars, with many similar themes shared with Farquhar and Lock’s collection. While embodiment scholars will find numerous articles in Annual Review of Anthropology of interest, several overview articles are worth highlighting, including Lock 1993, a historical location of embodiment work prior to the 1990s; van Wolputte 2004, an overview of the ways in which embodiment literature relates to issues of identity and subjectivity; and Desjarlais and Throop 2011, which focuses on phenomenology and embodiment.

  • Csordas, Thomas, ed. 1994. Embodiment and experience: The existential ground of culture and self. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Contributors to this edited volume move beyond body as text and representation to advance a more dynamic, sensate study of the body through chapters on pain, emotion, and violence, for example. This is a classic compendium for students of embodiment.

  • Desjarlais, Robert, and C. Jason Throop. 2011. Phenomenological approaches in anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology 40:87–102.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-092010-153345

    A critical historical and contemporary review of phenomenologically oriented anthropology. Topics covered are vast and include politics and violence, language, emotion, illness, pain, ageing and death, sensory perception, subjectivity, empathy, morality, religion, art, aesthetics, narratives, temporality, and spatiality.

  • Farquhar, Judith, and Margaret Lock, eds. 2007. Beyond the body proper: Reading the anthropology of material life. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    A particularly useful compendium of classic and important texts theorizing the body by leading anthropologists in the field. Terrific source of material for postgraduate teaching as well as reading groups. Issues explored include the commodification of bodies, gender, sex, colonialism, and the biosciences.

  • Lock, Margaret. 1993. Cultivating the body: Anthropology and epistemologies of bodily practice and knowledge. Annual Review of Anthropology 22:133–155.

    DOI: 10.1146/

    Charts the work prior to the early 1990s that engaged with the social, cultural, and historical contexts of the body. Offers great summaries of key literatures while arguing for an open approach toward embodiment, which resists limiting its boundaries and circumscribing its qualities.

  • Mascia-Lees, Frances E., ed. 2011. A companion to the anthropology of the body and embodiment. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

    A collection of twenty-nine essays on themes such as affect, biopower, (trans)gender, genomics, bodily modification, pain, post-socialism, racialization, and transnationalism. Marking out key themes of embodiment in anthropology the volume also offers more recent studies into the production of scientific, technological, and medical expertise in studying bodies and embodiment.

  • van Wolputte, Steven. 2004. Hang on to your self: Of bodies, embodiment, and selves. Annual Review of Anthropology 33:251–269.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.anthro.33.070203.143749

    Another useful overview article, focusing on anthropological debates that challenge the making of selves, identities, and belonging. Calls for an embodied epistemology as “knowledge-in-action” as the basis for social practices.

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