Publication Details

Matheson, G. (2009). Sizing up culture: the spirit, the flesh and the body mass index. In S. Lockie, D. Bissell, A. Greig, M. Hynes, D. Marsh, L. Saha, J. Sikora & D. Woodman (Eds.), The Australian Sociological Association 2009 Annual Conference: The Future of Sociology (pp. 1-10). Canberra, Australia: The Australian Sociological Association.


As a concept in the human sciences, ‘culture’ is a many-splendored thing. This paper nevertheless argues for a broadening of the significations of the word in sociological and related discourses from the now typical focus on symbols, language, art et cetera to the general idea of cultivation, of directing and guiding processes of life, growth and development on whatever scale. Such usage would be consistent with both the history of the word and its contemporary uses in other disciplinary contexts. These speculations are illustrated with reference to some North American telephone survey data on people’s self-reported heights and weights. Explaining in terms of culture or national cultures or cultural differences why it is that Americans, and American women in particular, report heavier body weights than their Canadian counterparts is a more interesting and potentially useful objective when we go beyond professed beliefs and values to consider the whole range of material and symbolic conditions under which humans are grown in both countries.