The Social Body, Trento 1-2 Dec 2011

The Social Body: Negotiations of Religion and Gender in the Public Realm

Fondazione Bruno Kessler, Trento/IT, 1-2 Dec 2013

Download the program for the “Social Body” Seminar


The body is not only the material form of existence of the individual, but it has also a social dimension in various senses: through the body, the individual relates to other persons; the individual body is the object of social regulations that help to stabilise and organise a social entity; the body functions as an abstract metaphor for social communities (states, nations, religions etc.). These levels are both distinct from each other and interrelated. The social functions of the body have already been studied by Foucault and others under the heading of biopolitics and biopower, but often with an idea of the individual body as passive and only acted-upon, and not acting – maybe subversively, or affirmatively, and without attention to the interrelation between the body as a social metaphor and as an individual part of a social group.

While it appears to be obvious that an individual body can communicate a person’s religious, cultural or gender identity, the incorporation of this expression in public discourses of the social body and collective identity remains to be discussed with a view to the body as active in these discourses, not only the passive material of regulatory religious norms or state politics. The body is therefore the medium which shapes the message, to recall McLuhan’s much quoted statement, but it is at the same time the message itself, the code through which it is communicated, and not least the speaker, be it an individual or a collective. On all these levels, it is characterised by its extreme polyvalence and versatility.

Also in religions, the body plays an important role in individual religious experience, for self-expression, in the process of identity formation, and with regard to the social presence of a religious group, its internal cohesion and organisation, and its external representation. The Muslim veil is only one example for how the individual body is also a social and political entity through which questions of gender and of religion are negotiated, and the heated public debates around it prove the point: the way a Muslim woman dresses is not a matter of personal choice, but of social relevance, with both religious, gender and political dimensions. Other examples are the male bodies that make up the social body of the celebrants in a Catholic eucaristic service, the gender-segregated bodies during prayer at the Western Wall (wich is often intended not just as personal prayer but as political statement in a zone of conflict), statues of Mary or Jesus Christ (or other saints) in public and political spaces in cities in the west, the religious symbolics hidden behind political campaigns for ‘family values’, the bodies circling around the Ka’ba at Mecca, making up the ‘body’ of the Islamic community etc. All of these (and many more examples) show that the religious, the political and the social are interrelated through the body, both individual and social.

As an individual body with a social dimension, the category of gender and/or its overcoming play an important role: social bodies are usually represented as an idealised, anonymous female body (for example nations: Germania, Europa; religions: Ecclesia, Synagoga), while the concrete, real body involved in the practice of a religion or its leadership tends to be, at least in news coverage of religious events, a male body (male Chassidim dancing around the Torah, male Muslims kneeling in neat lines during prayer, male Catholics assembled for a pontificial mass). Although the gender aspect is obvious, it usually is not made a topic in thinking about the social body, or the individual body in its social relevance, but adds its own bias implicitly.

This seminar poses the question how the individual and social body, religious regulations and social cohesion play out on the gendered body, and how the gendered body plays with them. Some of the issues to be discussed include: In which ways are these dynamics influenced by gender, on the individual, social, symbolic level? How do cultural and religious contexts (theories of state and of God) change the interrelation of body, society, religion and gender? Is the understanding of the body as a medium through which these various levels of discourse and expression are enounced and communicated a helpful method to disentangle their intricate network? Which understanding(s) of ‘medium’ need to be applied in these cases? In how far is religion at all involved in the public discourses of so-called secular societies about the body/expressed through the body? Are there differences (and which) between the social body imagined as male/female? How are the images of the individual body as a metaphor for a group (e.g. the body of a veiled woman or of a man with a clerical collar), and of multiple bodies making up a unit/body (e.g. in a public procession, a mass or a pilgrimage) interact and interrelate?

In order to delimit this large and multi-facetted field somewhat, the seminar will focus on western societies and the monotheistic religions that shape them and their bodies/bodily imaginaries predominantly.


The seminar, the eleventh of a series of seminars on the impact of gender studies on theology and religious studies, organised by the Fondazione B. Kessler, Centre for Religious Studies (FBK-sr), is situated in the context of the international research project “Commun(icat)ing Bodies: The Body as a Medium in Religious Symbol Systems” (Universities of Zurich and Graz, Fondazione B. Kessler), and represents a part of the project on the body as a locus of public theology of FBK-sr.


The seminar aims at bringing together scholars from various disciplines, and thus a variety of approaches to the questions mentioned above (and others): historical, philosophical, political, theological perspectives, the perspective of religious, cultural or media studies etc., specific case studies as well as more general or theoretical takes on the issue.


The seminar papers have been published in the journal Verifiche XLII (1-3)