by Sean Carey
Until I found a copy online, it had been some years since I had read Marcel Mauss’s seminal 1934 essay, Les Techniques du Corps. He focused on how membership of a particular society obliges people to use their bodies appropriately in activities like walking, running, sitting, eating, climbing, jumping, swimming, and marching.
I had forgotten a lot of the basic argument. But I did remember a few things. Firstly, Mauss’s observations and analysis of the body – “man’s first and most natural instrument” – reinforced something that I had already learned from cultural anthropology: what is deemed as acceptable and unacceptable customary behavior often varies according to differences in gender, social class, geographical area, and social occasion.
Secondly, I could recall that Mauss’s powerful concept of “prestigious imitation” was literally an eye-opener for a field worker in terms of observing customary use of the body and how it can change. It highlights, for example, the way in which people of a lower status (belonging to subordinate social groups) l tend to imitate the body techniques of those of higher status (belonging to dominant social groups) in order to acquire improve their relative position in the social order.
In the mid-1980s, I was carrying out fieldwork in London’s East End, an area of the U.K. which has served as a reception area for many migrant groups fleeing persecution or famine including Huguenots, Irish, Ashkenazi Jews, and Somalis, as well as those seeking economic betterment. I became aware of the difference between first generation, 1.5 generation, and second and third-generation male Bangladeshis, in terms of how they moved, especially how they walked. (Young Bangladeshi females took a different trajectory in terms of the control and use of their bodies, but I will not that address that topic here.)
My conclusion was that first-generation Bangladeshi male migrants, mostly from the Sylhet region in the northeastern part of the country, who had come to the U.K. as adults, walked in a way that they had always done since childhood. But a significant proportion of generation 1.5, those who had come to the U.K. before or during their teens, quickly learned to walk very much like their indigenous working class counterparts. They took on the cockney walk as well as cockney talk. This recognizable East End jaunty, cocky gait is a badge of hyper-masculinity. It has been brilliantly and affectionately parodied by Whitechapel-born former teacher turned comedian Micky Flanagan.
Although they retained a significant number of elements of a traditional Sylheti culture, especially because of socialization in the home, a significant proportion of male children and young men in generation 1.5, as well as many in subsequent generations, became “cockneys” as they absorbed elements and practices especially from their white and black peers at school and on the streets.
Cockney Bangladeshis were quite different in terms of how they used their bodies from members of the same generation and social class whose parents had settled in other U.K. cities like Birmingham, Bradford, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne. Cockney Bangladeshis also have different movement patterns from middle-class Bangladeshi young people resident in other parts of the capital who attended private schools. Their body techniques replicate those of mainstream white British middle-class youth.
I realized early on in my research in the East End that Mauss was right in his observation about the powerful influence of culture, or the social nature of the habitus, on how we think and use ourselves, especially subconsciously. Note: Mauss was the first social scientist to use the term habitus, long before the concept was popularized through the writings of another French anthropologist and philosopher, Pierre Bourdieu.
There is something else I learned from Mauss. Far from being a mechanical or simple causal process, the way in which children and young people acquire deeply embedded “techniques of the body,” allows for variation in outcomes: not all British Bangladeshi boys ended up with a cockney walk, although almost all ended up with some form of cockney accent.
Nowadays, the pattern in Tower Hamlets has become more segmented and complex than before, as some Bangladeshi Muslim males now walk with a pronounced “religious gait” indicating their scholarly, devout identity. The conclusion? The way in which any particular individual’s body moves, as well as a person’s speech, is a product of complex sociological, cultural, psychological, and biological processes.