The Body and the State: How the State Controls and Protects the Body

Join us as speakers discuss the body as a human rights arena in which many forces, such as religion, science, media, and the market, struggle for control over policies that control our bodies. We hope to illuminate how the often tacit assumptions about the "normal," "healthy," and "acceptable" body lead to policies which are, at their core, unjust.


Struggles over control of our bodies, which have a long history, are as fierce now as they ever have been. For example, this is clearly evident in the heated debates over gay marriage, stem cell research, and the legitimacy of abortions. It is evident in the Islamic world where the law treats men and women differently. It is evident in India where the Dalit—"untouchables"—are discriminated against. Other contested questions include how we are cared for when ill, what in fact is an illness and what is not, how we die, what rights the state has over our bodies, what the relationship is between the individual body and the body politic, and what ways our understanding of gender affects public policy across the globe. A forum in which these issues are discussed is clearly a high priority.

While there are many forces at play in the struggles surrounding policies affecting our bodies, certainly religious institutions, markets, and the sciences are among the principal ones. In fact, the body is a battlefield in which they are the central, though far from the only, actors competing for control. The signs of this struggle are nowhere more evident than in the debates about policies concerning the state's regulation and protection of the body, and the definition of what constitutes the "normal" body (e.g. is a pregnant body a "normal" body? Is a black body a "normal" one? Is a disabled body "normal"?). These forces clash and sometimes join together to define what the normal or healthy body is and what rights, privileges, and obligations are associated with it—a definition that has changed over time and varies among cultures (often differing between male and female) but is always contested. The diverse and changing understandings of what a "normal" body is lie at the heart of almost all the disagreements over how to control and protect our bodies and so is one of the underlying themes of the conference.

These forces also vie to define which behaviors are acceptable and legal and which are not, which aspects of the body are private and therefore not subject to the control of others, and which are not. They are at work in determining the ways in which bodies must be protected, whether by outlawing certain behaviors (like sodomy or smoking) or by mandating behaviors (like vaccination or circumcision) and they are at work when determining which bodies may be punished, tortured, or killed. In these and other ways, these forces, and others as well, attempt to impose their ideas and norms on the rules governing our bodies and even to influence our perceptions of our own bodies and of our rights over them, for example, in the recent debate in the U.S. over who owns our genes. Moreover, because convictions about what is morally acceptable are so salient in matters concerning the body, questions arise about whose moral code will be enacted into public policy.

Therefore, we will ask how the various stakeholders attempt to influence policies so that they are consistent with their own views—whether these are religious groups, pharmaceutical companies, media markets, or political action groups. In short, the proposed conference will focus on the body as a human rights arena in which many forces struggle for control and will explore their range and effectiveness, particularly as they work toward expression in public policy and political actions in the U.S. and in other countries around the world.

This conference is the 23rd in the Social Research conference series, founded by Arien Mack in 1988. Dr. Arien Mack is Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research and editor of Social Research since 1970. Social Research: An International Quarterly is the flagship journal of The New School for Social Research. For a list of over 70 degree programs at The New School, visit degree programs. For a list of other events at The New School, visit the university calendar. For general information about The New School visit the quick facts page. For the history of this conference series, visit the Social Research conference series site.

This conference is made possible by generous support from the Ford Foundation and the Arcus Foundation.

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