Anthropology Embodied/Virtual Environments
Kara Miller
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 July 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0251


This article by no means serves to account for theories on virtual technologies or virtual design but, rather, offers a distinct exploration on the role of the body in virtual experiences and spaces. Selected works account for embodiment literature and emergent considerations of the body in what may be considered a post-body, or post-human, era of technology, connectivity, and communications. This list includes work that researches, discusses, or questions notions of virtual with regard to landscapes of experience and that looks to discourses on the role of the body in human perception. With implications for larger questions regarding the human mind, and apart from dualistic conversations on mind-body connections, embodiment theories view the body as a tool for participation in lifeworlds. Embodiment is inherently a social concept, and one that rests on foundational understandings of human evolution and adaptation as well as human sociability and socialization, sometimes explored as ecosocial phenomena. Conjuring many inquiries in biology, cognition, psychology, ethics, philosophy, religion, and ecology, this collection is composed mostly of work in the humanities and social sciences and is skewed by traditions in anthropology. It is generally well accepted that cultural perspectives inform human knowledge, but theories in embodiment ask how social and cultural conditions inform not only perspectives, but also experiences or felt senses (or both). Questions of materiality give way to attention on the physical, earthly environment to which humans have evolved and with which humans have coadapted. Scholars have referred to this era as the Anthropocene, which ultimately points to human dilemma, since human behavior is defined by progressively more destructive behavior that yields an earth on which humans cannot rely for resources. Simultaneously, media, entertainment, and design technology have moved into virtual reality and augmented experiences that either transcend, mimic, or escape earthly realms or physical limitations. Simulated or virtual experiences make use of what we know about human perception to create new forms of reality. Theories of being and knowing, inherent to the anthropological canon, pose examination of bodily knowledge and bring about inquiry in medicine, disability studies, cognition, and health, to name a few. Mediated and augmented experiences have all manner of applications and implications, including overriding biology and genetics, posing questions for the future of the human condition. This article includes new work from science journals and popular media to illustrate how new human adaptations, ecologies, and virtual perceptions interface with embodiment.

General Overviews

There are not a large number of texts that provide a distinct overview of embodied/virtual environments, since these are emerging frameworks that meet at an intersection of a number of disciplines and scholarly traditions. Kerschbaumer 2016 provides a succinct anthropology of virtual worlds, which is a great place to start in that regard. There are differing yet related understandings of embodiment theory among different sciences and fields, and readers are encouraged to research these interdisciplinary considerations for what is ultimately a multidisciplinary concept. Mascia-Lees 2011 and Johnson 2017 are among the most essential treatments in embodiment, providing a slew of cultural case studies and asking the question of how bodies inform understanding, respectively. Through insightful dialogue on the essence of experience, Csordas 1990 invites anthropologists to explore culture and society by way of embodiment. Work on embodiment within the anthropological canon largely stems from research on the body, such as Farquhar and Lock 2007 as well as Halliburton 2002, which invites cross-cultural comparisons in order to recalibrate assumptions about human relationships with bodies. Such scholarship is bolstered and informed by classic work such as Merleau-Ponty 1945, which accounts for phenomenological theory and discusses the role of human perception in experience; Todd 1937, an early work on bodily memory and connectivity between physiology and emotional state through the lens of dance, gesture, and movement; and Richardson 1974, which includes deeper anthropological conversations on materiality and human awareness. These should inform a broad approach to unpacking the depth of embodiment theory, while Kiverstein 2012 provides foundations for embodied cognition and serves as an overview of how cognitive sciences embrace theories of embodiment, including how sciences have grappled with differing conceptualizations of embodiment and how philosophers and other theorists approach the notion. Varela, et al. 1991 attends to specific implications for embodiment theory by way of cognitive sciences.

  • Csordas, Thomas. 1990. Embodiment as a paradigm for anthropology. Ethos 18.1: 5–47.

    DOI: 10.1525/eth.1990.18.1.02a00010

    Stronghold of embodiment theory in anthropology. Author poses embodiment as a framework and a lens for understanding culture and discusses ways in which anthropology might embrace embodiment both theoretically and by a methodological approach. A must-read for any anthropologists studying embodiment.

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

    Mainstay for discussions of the body in anthropology. Authors suggest that the concept of the body be deconstructed, and suggest a multiplicity of understandings for the body, which they show is a complicated and socially embedded concept. Suitable for entry into the discourse on the body. See especially pp. 1–15.

  • Halliburton, Murphy. 2002. Rethinking anthropological studies of the body: Manas and Bōdham in Kerala. American Anthropologist 104.4: 1123–1134.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.2002.104.4.1123

    Showcasing experiences of psychopathologies and possession in the context of India, the author suggests that anthropologists look for ways in which the body is understood in cross-cultural perspectives. This is a response to the heavy focus on the body in discourses of the time and is a departure from mind-body dualisms. Importantly, this work incorporates ideas of embodiment, posing questions about how some populations have experiences more grounded in their bodies than others.

  • Johnson, Mark. 2017. Embodied mind, meaning, and reason: How our bodies give rise to understanding. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226500393.001.0001

    Among Johnson’s foundational works on how the body informs the mind, this book is a sort of culmination of previous and ongoing ruminations on the concept of embodiment, including cognitive approaches. Johnson is an expect theorist on how bodily perception gives rise to meaning, action, and values. Detailed and comprehensive, includes broader conversations on implications of embodiment, as well as collaborative work with George Lakoff.

  • Kerschbaumer, Lea-Maria. 2016. Anthropology of virtual worlds: History, current debates, and future possibilities. Grafo Working Papers 5:95–110.

    Gives introductory discussion of definitions of virtual, with more considerations of implications, particularly future looking. Considers a distinctly anthropological view, with conversations on ethnographic topics of violence, video games, etc., with considerations of history, ethics, and authenticity.

  • Kiverstein, Julian. 2012. The meaning of embodiment. Topics in Cognitive Science 4.4: 740–758.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01219.x

    Presenting differing views of embodiment from current literature of the time, this piece provides substantial discussion on embodiment and how issues such as logic and language are brought about. Drawing on implications for artificial intelligence and virtual reality, the article provides definitions for some cognitive science and philosophical concepts, such as enactivism.

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

    An unreplaceable “handbook” for embodiment, showing a number of ways that embodiment is studied and experienced; really lays out a spectrum of different embodiment approaches. With short and digestible chapters, this book is highly recommended for all higher-education levels.

  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phenomenology of perception. New York: Routledge.

    Famous piece laying out early theories of phenomenology and posing insightful inquiry about human experience, notably about the self and sensations. Importantly, draws attention to perception and sensation as immediate and distinct from thought. Widely cited, with many editions and translations.

  • Richardson, Miles, ed. 1974. The human mirror: Material and spatial images of man. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Univ. Press.

    Edited volume with selected works that take a biocultural and distinctly anthropological view. Authors consider evolutionary human history and nuanced human physiologies in order to speak on experiences with space and place. Using material culture and archaeology, authors ponder the dialectical elements among humans, bodies, and space.

  • Todd, Mabel. 1937. The thinking body: A study of the balancing forces of dynamic man. New York: P. B. Hoeber.

    Physiology and physical processes are studied here artfully and carefully with regard to dance, movement, and actionability. This work is included for its early, insightful treatment of the body and to acknowledge the role that dance studies has in considerations of embodiment. With discussions of body memory, among other ideas, this work opens the embodiment conversation up to see concepts such as phenomenology from another perspective and includes great drawings and illustrations.

  • Varela, Francisco J., Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. 1991. The embodied mind: Cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    DOI: 10.7551/mitpress/6730.001.0001

    Deep considerations of the human condition. A groundbreaking piece that merges scientific thought and Buddhist thought. Draws in considerations of phenomenology and shows how the embodied mind can be utilized in psychoanalysis or meditative practices, which we now have seen taken root.

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