To appreciate the fact that although medical practitioners regard the human body as a biological entity, it is also the locus of social and cultural definitions and modifications;
To appreciate how some cultures reconstruct the human body and the reasons for this;
To understand the health implications of some of the social and cultural modifications to the body.
HISTORICIZING THE BODY
When one studies how modern medical practice deals with the human body one easily appreciates the fact that medicine regards the human body as a purely biological entity with its own dynamics.
This mode of thinking is however, fairly recent.
During the medieval period (circa 1400 AD) the human body was regarded as the property of God and therefore should not be tampered with.
“What God has closed within the body should not be opened for secular purposes by surgeons”
It was the French philosopher, René Descartes (1596-1650) who overturned the biological strictures of the middle ages.
He argued that the human body was separated from the soul and the mind (mind-body dualism) and that the body could be studied scientifically. This paved the way for the physical examination of the human body.
Anatomy lessons began in Europe in the 16th century and they were held in amphitheatres and were open to the public as a form of mass entertainment. They also testified to the skill and knowledge of the surgeon.
In addition, anatomical dissection was seen as an act of defilement and vengeance against the dead, most of whom were criminals.
Today, dissection manifests the highest watershed in medical practice; it is meant to correct diseased internal organs or to determine the cause of death.
SOCIOLOGY OF THE BODY
In spite of the medical view that the human body is a purely biological organism, the sociologist as usual sees it as a bio-cultural object. WHY?
In all cultures, society assigns tasks to individuals based on their biological property of sex. In other words, sex is gendered by society.
Again in today’s world, the body is often treated in such a way as to attract maximum commercial value ( e.g. athletes, models, commercial advertisements, etc).
Of equal interest to medical sociologists is how individuals and cultures perceive the body and re-construct it to conform to individual and societal needs.
Medical anthropologists use the term BODY IMAGE to describe all the ways people conceptualize and experience their bodies. This concept is relevant for understanding the health seeking behaviour of people.
The concept BI may be appreciated from 3 perspectives:
Belief about the optimal size and shape of the body including decorations on its surface;
Belief about the inner workings of the body;
The linguistic reference to the body and its parts
RECONSTRUCTION OF THE BODY
In all cultures, some artificial changes are effected on the shape, size and surface of the body. Inherent in most of these are culturally defined notions of beauty and what the body SHOULD look like- what is ‘normal’. (Ref. Mirror Doctor)
in parts of Peru, the skulls of infants are deformed;
In Ashanti royal clans there is a similar practice;
Our mothers/grandmothers massage the buttocks of female babies to give them ampleness.
Among some ethnic groups in northern Kenya, the incisors are filed to give them a W-shape
Among the Masai of East Africa, women carry several notches on their ears;
Circumcision for male and female is a form of body reconstruction. Let us focus a bit on female circumcision since we shall encounter this phenomenon again when we discuss maternal mortality.
In Western societies, various forms of body-reconstruction are undertaken to conform to culturally defined standards of beauty.
These include the use of orthodontics to straighten the incisors, breast prosthesis (silicon in-plant) to give ampleness to the breast;
Also important are eye, ears, nose, navel piercing and false eye lashes and finger nails.
In some cases these reconstructions are seen as a protest against societal codes people find repugnant. Some examples will do:
INNERWORKINGS OF THE BODY
In many societies, the internal organs and their functions are hardly known. However, commonly known are the heart, blood and saliva/mucus.
In our traditional societies the heart is said to be the ‘power house’ of the body; it is the source of most diseases and it is also susceptible to the machinations of witchcraft. Problems relating to the heart are therefore taken very seriously. Next to the heart is the blood. In the West African region, there is the common belief that a person’s blood can go BAD. This is reflected in the colour and volume of blood or in case of infertility. Mucus is responsible for several diseases including waist pains, ‘kookoo’, etc. and so people use a great deal of mucolytic agents
LINGUISTIC REFERENCES TO THE BODY
In all societies, the human body also features strongly in the language of the people. How the body and its parts are featured indicate to a large extent the way the body is perceived.
In all societies there is a distinction between young and old bodies and their appropriate behaviours. Wrinkles, loss of teeth etc are associated with old age. The youth and women especially avoid such situation by resort to medications that address these problems.
In our context a wicked person is said to have a ‘hard head’;
A miser is said to have a short or hard hand;
A witch is said to have red eyes or she has ‘something’ under her eyes;
Among the Mamprusi, a good person is said to have a ‘white heart’
An angry person’s heart is said to be hot;
When we are happy it is said that our eyes are happy or our hearts are at rest;
In the case of a mad person, it is said that he has lost his head or the cord in his head has snapped.
Given these linguistic references people use all manner of medications to address situations they consider pathogenic
While it is acknowledged that the human body is a biological entity, in sociological terms, it is also appreciated that it is a cultural product. Indeed, as personal properties, they are conceived of and treated in ways prescribed by the society or in ways suitable to the owner. Consequently, the way we conceive and use our bodies may promote or constrain health.