Sensitive Bodies: From Lack of Recognition to Social Distinction

Monday, 16 July 2018
Distributed Paper
Virginie WOLFF, Université de Strasbourg, France
While the sensitive body, or highly sensitive body, was misunderstood and marginalized, non-seen as a suffering body because of its invisible symptoms, a major change is coming to its status through the action and the empowerment attempt of some social agent who describes themselves as sensitives.

Gluten sensitivity, an example of a contested illness, helps to demonstrate that by the visibilization’s mechanism of the sensible body and the progressive legitimation of the body experience, social inequalities have been hidden and became invisible.

Using data from in-depth, semi-structured interviews with gluten-free and gluten-restricted persons in France (Paris, Strasbourg) and in Germany (Berlin), this study aims to show how the category “sensitive body” tends to transform the social mechanisms into natural mechanisms, naturalizing the relations between the ones who “feel” and the others who do not “feel”.

The ability to sense is presented as a difference based on innate properties, as a sixth sense, whereas to describe oneself as “sensitive” implies the acquisition of knowledge and skills. A learning is necessary to understand, decrypt and talk about the symptoms, which are perceived by the gluten sensitives as evidences supposed to guide their everyday food practices. Since, the way to be sensitive depends on the process of socialization and therefore, sensitivity can be considered as part of the habitus.

This categorization, separating the ones more able to sense from the others, less able, can be seen as an attempt to create a new power configuration, which could arise new form of symbolic violence.

Moreover, within the group of sensitive people, different kind of practices take place and let us see that it is an heterogenous group, in which some leaders take advantages and manage to distinguish themselves in diverse social spheres.