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date: 18 September 2020

(p. 161) Body Politics

Seemingly personal issues associated with the body—such as rape, contraception, hair and clothing styles, pregnancy, or sexual harassment—were not traditionally seen as “political” and thus were seen as outside the provenance of political science. But bodies are at the core of the political order as markers of status and power. Contemporary societies tend to segregate not only access to political power but also work, religious life, domestic work, and intimate relationships according to the sex and race of the bodies they organize. Our social, economic, and political worlds are organized to reflect these habitual and legal patterns. The corridors of power are structured to accommodate the associated characteristics of male, heterosexual bodies of dominant racial and ethnic groups. Advancement requires assimilation to the norms associated with powerful bodies: women must dress like men and warehouse their babies far from the breasts at which they feed; the schedules upon which they work are not accommodative of parental responsibilities; African American women and men straighten, cut, or otherwise downplay their distinctive hair; family laws assume and restrict relations of intimacy and the structure of families according to the sex, race, and religion of bodies. In many countries female bodies may not be warriors, those perpetrators of violence, but are marked as vulnerable to violence, as women are the disproportionate victims of rape and intimate violence. Violence polices the boundaries of approved sexual relations, as deviations from normative heterosexuality, racial hierarchies, and approved modes of (p. 162) masculinity and femininity are punished with harassment, bullying, battering, and sexual assault. Bodies are powerful symbols and sources of social power and privilege on one hand and subordination and oppression on the other.

Bodies are sources as well as subjects of knowledge production; for example, researchers increasingly recognize that survey researchers and interviewers will get different answers from their interlocutors depending on their race, sex, sexuality, and the like in many contexts. More importantly, our bodies shape the questions we ask and the realities against which we measure the answers (sometimes called standpoint epistemology). The National Academy of Sciences, for example, has concluded that a more diverse professoriate produces more robust, objective science. More generally, some bodies are associated with authoritative knowledge and enjoy more deference and presumptions of reasonableness while “other” bodies (mostly female, racialized, classed bodies) are dismissed as overly emotional or otherwise inappropriate for serious pursuit of knowledge. As Judith Butler (1993) suggests, the hierarchy of bodies shapes and is shaped by our processes of knowledge production.

We start our discussion of gender and politics by examining body politics to emphasize how bodies are at the core of our families, economies, and social and political institutions more generally, shaping states, civil society, and citizenship. The four chapters in this section collectively illustrate how a focus on the body can transform both what we study and how we study it in political science.

Mainstream political science has tended to treat bodies as an unproblematic category stemming largely from a presumption that bodies are part of nature, hence “natural” and, furthermore, apolitical and unchanging. We now know, though, that bodies are not determined by or determinative of “human nature”: there is evidence for the fluidity of sexual and racial categories, and we increasingly learn that physical features of bodies (such as brain structures) are shaped by the social context, further blurring the nature–nurture dichotomy. Ironically, popular discussions of science have continued to emphasize or even amplify the nature–culture dichotomy, pushing the category of “women” closer to the nature, equating women to their bodies, and painting them as less rational and autonomous than men. This in turn has served to justify the continued exclusion of women from the public sphere of politics.

While the chapters in this section represent different approaches and topics in relation to body politics, they share a focus on intersectionality: the way that gender intersects with race and ethnicity, sexuality, disability, age, class, religion, and other categories or axes of difference to illustrate that bodies are at intersections of different identity markers and powers. Such approaches widen the scope of what is studied in politics even further. The chapters talk about the role that contemporary debates surrounding abortion, AIDS, contraception, population control, gender-appropriate norms, and sexual rights play in politics and how bodies that are targeted by related policies are shaped. Body politics is also closely tied together with broader processes of sovereignty, empire building, citizenship regimes, Westernization, globalization, and neoliberalization.

(p. 163) Diana Coole’s chapter on “The Body and Politics” starts the section by analyzing the history and development of feminist thought in relation to bodies. The chapter points to the diversity within feminist thought in relation to bodies by covering phenomenological, materialist, and poststructural approaches to bodies, among others. At the same time, it effectively illustrates that bodies have been and continue to be a difficult topic for feminists due to the antipathy that women’s close association to bodies created. When mapping out the most recent developments, Coole shows how theories about bodies have experienced a postmodern turn to language and then back again to theorizing materiality and embodiment.

Amy Lind’s chapter, “Heteronormativity and Sexuality,” interrogates the concept of sexuality as a category of political analysis and a form of power. Sexuality is of course closely related to the questions about the body: it is a seemingly private—even apolitical—matter but in reality is fiercely regulated by state practices and discourses. These, in turn, serve to uphold the dominance of heterosexuality. Lind’s chapter illustrates how sexuality continues to be an even more a difficult topic for mainstream political science than the body. Yet feminist research in the field points to the amount of power that it takes to uphold the heterosexual matrix and its attendant assumptions, for example, about sexual citizenship and the family. The chapter also makes visible the multitude of ways sexuality shapes the workings of institutions and informs the ways people organize.

Veronique Mottier’s chapter on “Reproductive Rights” discusses yet more political battlegrounds that relate to gendered bodies and norms. Like the issue of violence, reproductive rights and control have been central tools for states and international actors in governing and gendering bodies and upholding norms about appropriate femininities and masculinities. Mottier’s chapter covers a wide range of topics from eugenics, forced sterilization, and abortion to new reproductive technologies. The deeply gendered eugenic policy making in Western Europe and the United States shows how the categories of gender, class, race, and ethnicity intersect to subordinate some women in the name of states reproducing nations and protecting welfare services. Political mobilization around abortion rights and forced sterilization, in turn, illustrates how different women and feminists approach the issue from deeply diverging perspectives. Feminist thinking and theory around the topic has also transformed significantly as demonstrated by the issue new reproductive technologies.

As noted, violence polices the social organization of bodies, and R. Amy Elman’s chapter focuses on the ways that violence, as well as laws and policies on violence, reflect and shape women’s subordination and mobilization against that subordination. Political action on violence preceded the study of violence in the field of political science, demonstrating the way that the focus on traditional subject matter has occluded our understanding of state action. The chapter shows how research on gender violence within the field of political (p. 164) science generates insights about responsiveness of states to women’s movement demands, about patterns of women’s political organizing around the topic and how these are shaped by processes of globalization and neoliberalization, and the role that transnational actors, such as the European Union and the United Nation, play in national contexts and vice versa. Such research both explains national variation in state policies on gender violence and also points to the role that gender violence plays in constructing nations and conducting wars.