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2 - Thinking about health and the body

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 June 2012

Antonia C. Lyons
Massey University, Auckland
Kerry Chamberlain
Massey University, Auckland
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Health is becoming a normative super-category, with multiple meanings and a multi-dimensional field of action: health is in everything, and everything is in health. It has been said that health is one of the new synonyms for happiness.

(Herzlich, 1995, p. 169)

Talking about health is tantamount to talking about life.

(Pierret, 1995, p. 183)

Learning objectives

This chapter outlines ideas about health and the body, and how people think about these constructs. It will set notions of health and the body within social and cultural contexts. By the end of this chapter, you should be able to:

  • describe different definitions of health;

  • explain the interrelationship between health and illness;

  • compare and contrast ‘lay’ and ‘expert’ understandings of health;

  • describe how notions of health and the body vary across social categories;

  • define embodiment and outline its importance for understanding health;

  • discuss the relevance of the body for health psychology;

  • consider the ways in which knowledge about health and the body is socially and historically constructed.

What does it mean to you to be healthy? Are you healthy right now? Why or why not? How would you define health? Is your definition likely to be the same as your friends' definitions? What about your grandmother's or father's definitions? Are your ideas about illness related to your definition of health? Are ideas about health important? Before we study health as a topic, we need to be clear about what it means.

Health Psychology
A Critical Introduction
, pp. 40 - 69
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2006

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Lawler, J. (ed.) (1997). The body in nursing. Melbourne: Churchill Livingstone. This book examines the matter of the body and embodiment from the perspective of nursing, and relates to many of the issues raised in this chapter about the body. It highlights how nurses continually deal with people's bodies in their work, and attempts to provide some thoughts on how patients' bodies (and nurses' bodies) can be thought about, theorised and studied. It covers a wide variety of material (from the body in health, illness and pain through to technology and the body) and is a somewhat diverse but thoughtful collection of chapters.Google Scholar
Lupton, D. (1998). The body, medicine and society. In , J. Germov (ed.), Second opinion: an introduction to health sociology (2nd edn) (pp. 121–35). Oxford: Oxford University Press. In this chapter Lupton provides a concise but informative account of how the human body can be viewed as a sociocultural (rather than a biological) phenomenon. It is a very useful introduction and a good starting point for further reading in this area.Google Scholar
MacLachlan, M. (2004). Embodiment: clinical, critical and cultural perspectives on health and illness. Berkshire, UK: Open University Press. This book provides an excellent introduction to ideas about embodiment and their relevance to health, illness and disability from a psychological perspective. It explores the notion of embodiment across a range of health psychology (and clinical psychology) contexts, drawing on both critical and cultural perspectives. It is an ideal starting point for further reading on embodiment.Google Scholar
Pierret, J. (1995). The social meanings of health: Paris, the Essonne, the Herault. In , M. Augé & , C. Herzlich (eds.), The meaning of illness: anthropology, history and sociology (pp. 175–206). Paris: Harwood Academic Publishers. In this multidisciplinary book. Pierret provides an insightful chapter outlining a brief history of how health has been conceptualised in medicine, and how it developed to play a prominent role in its own right. The chapter also examines the ways in which health is talked about and employed in everyday life; thus, it situates health squarely in the social realm. The concepts and issues are engagingly discussed by drawing on research data as examples.Google Scholar
Stam, H. J. (ed.) (1998). The body and psychology. London: Sage. In this edited book a number of contributors from psychology discuss the body in terms of embodiment. The chapters are structured around the topics of social and psychological bodies, sexed and gendered bodies, and sick and healing bodies. This was one of the first books in psychology to draw on social and cultural theory to examine the body (rather than drawing on biological accounts).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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