In order to try and understand a different culture I feel it is of paramount importance to first consider the smallest human unit of that culture. How people relate to that individual unit, facilitates understanding of collectives such as the family and the society itself. As Comaroff suggests, (1985:6-7), “the body mediates all action upon the world and simultaneously constitutes the self and the universe of social and natural relations of which it is a part.
It is through this mediation that a body becomes a person.” Therefore, without the fundamental understanding of the values and significance different cultures place on the object ‘the body’, and how that transpires into how cultures classify basic notions of personhood, gender and membership of families, there can be no real understanding of more specific ideas e.g. the need for genitalic manipulation in Somalia and literal divides of communities along the lines of sex within the Hua community. This essay will look into different ways in which an understanding of the body tells us something about a culture; its importance as an object of anthropological study.
One culture where the body is used to categorise people and therefore define how society is made up, is the Sa’dan Troja. Their society is split into two people, the true people and slaves; it is what their body is said to be made up of that determines which category they fall into. True people and slaves are seen as having different qualities as they were originally formed in different ways, slaves for example were created using mud by the Puang Mata, whereas nobles were made using gold.
Their origin and the value of the substance their bodies are made up of is seen as significant as “every act of proper procreation is a continuum of the original cosmogenic practice, an imitation of the initial process of engenderment,”i. Their body type, and social category then, is used as a guide for that person’s right and duties. “The body gives the ability to live and also tells how one should live, it is inscribed and inherited through body-social roles.”ii Although people can act as individuals then, their actions are predetermined by their bodily inheritance. For the Sad’ dam Troja, society is both determined and understood through the physical body.
Although the body is a physical unit unto itself, it is not always thought of as such. In our culture the body is a personal thing, its outer layer can be used to reflect what we are like ‘inside’ for example, large tattoos suggest rebellion. However the body as a reflection of an individual’s soul isn’t used across all cultures. The Gahuka-Ghana of New Guinea are a patrilineal society, bloodlines dictate moral codes, one is thought of in relation to their family and their social roles, the self doesn’t end at the body. Just like the person extends into the wider view of their family, the concept of the body extends also as a reflection of more than ones self.
To the Ghaku-Ghama, all people are of ‘one skin’; you are the sum total of yourself and your associated bodies. Their perception of the boundaries of body explains their tight community. Similarly, understanding that the body’s boundaries vary cross-culturally makes it possible to comprehend why like the Sa’dan Troja, death is interpreted differently. We see the failing of the entire body system as death, but for the Sa’dan Troja death doesn’t occur until the end of certain rituals. In cultures where personhood is seen as a progression of, not just the having of a body, then death can’t be seen as simply a reflection of a state of the body either. Because body parts are seen to have been inherited from your family, death doesn’t mean you have completely ended as these body parts are passed on through your offspring. This is sort of along the line of genetics, but these body substances don’t determine particular characteristics, they provide you with them. People aren’t dead until there has been social involvement event, a ritual. Interpretations of the body then also affect the fundamental issue of what it is to be alive. Read a history of tattoos and piercings
Like the Ghaku-Ghama, the Somalians are also a patrilineal society and see body as unnatural and in need of change for their society to work. Infibulation is standard practice to transform girls into real women as gender is only casually dependent upon sex, and also into respectful, pure people who deserve to be part of their family and start their own. The procedure isn’t a matter of choice; without it to the Somalis you are impure and of lesser moral worth. If we don’t study the body anthropologically how would we be able to comprehend just how important family membership is to some cultures? The bodily shape in this circumstance links the person to society.