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Keywords:

  • lower back pain;
  • furniture;
  • social causes;
  • world system

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The aim of this paper is to examine the relationship between the mass production of furniture in modern industrial societies and lower back pain (LBP). The latter has proven to be a major cost to health services and private industry throughout the industrialised world and now represents a global health issue as recent WHO reports on obesity and LBP reveal. Thus far there have been few co-ordinated attempts to deal with the causes of the problem through public policy. Drawing upon a range of sources in anthropology, health studies, politics and economics, the paper argues that this a modern social problem rooted in the contingent conjuncture of natural and social causal mechanisms. The key question it raises is: what are the appropriate mechanisms for addressing this problem? This paper develops an analysis rooted in libertarian social theory and argues that both the state and the capitalist market are flawed mechanisms for resolving this problem. There remains a fundamental dilemma for libertarians, however. Whilst the state and the market may well be flawed mechanisms, they are the dominant ones shaping global political economy. To what extent can libertarians work within these structures and remain committed to libertarian goals?


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The aim of this paper is to examine a global problem, namely: lower back pain (LBP). LBP is defined as pain in the lumbo-sacral region, buttocks and thighs. LBP affects more than 70 per cent of the population in core capitalist states, accounting for 13 per cent of sickness absences in the UK. This is a trend that is increasing. A global estimate says that the costs of LBP are as high as 1.7 per cent of GNP in a core capitalist state. US researchers estimate that 80 per cent of the world's population suffer from LBP at some point in their lives (Speed 2004: 1119, Guzman et al. 2001: 1514, Hills 2006).

LBP has become a major concern for capitalism with a recent UK government report noting that the cost to British business each year from absenteeism due to back pain (by far the biggest single cause of workplace absenteeism) was around £5 billion per annum. Eighty-five per cent of lower back pain in the UK is classified as being ‘non-specific back pain’ meaning that it ‘results from postural and mechanical stresses on spinal and paraspinal structures (Speed 2004: 1120).’ It is this type of LBP that is the primary focus of this paper. There is also some medical opinion that LBP in part reflects an evolutionary weakness in our spines (Nachemson 1994, Cranz 2000: Ch. 1). In short, the spine itself is a bad design. However, whilst there is a tendency for the spine to generate particular health problems, these must be understood as occurring in the context of particular social conditions and practices that structure our work and leisure time. Historically, some social groups have not suffered and still do not suffer from widespread LBP (Cranz 2000: Ch. 1). The task is to locate, understand and explain the social factors that, when combined with the genetic tendencies of the back, have the potential to cause LBP. The importance of this study is that these social causes, unlike the natural vulnerability of the back itself, can be removed.

LBP shares some of the characteristics of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) that emerged as a medical phenomena in the 1980s across all industrial societies (Spillane and Deves 1987, Szabo and King 2000, McCoughlin 2005). The important connection between them is that both conditions reflect the movement towards an increasingly sedentary and repetitive work environment. Although highly controversial at the time, with many commentators describing it as a ‘malingerers’ illness’, RSI was treated seriously by Trade Unions, employers and ergonomic researchers who sought to tackle the upper body aspects of the condition (such as Carpal Tunnel syndrome) by altering the office environment (Richardson and Larsen 1997, Smith 2004, MacEachen 2005). Research suggests that this has had a significant impact upon the condition of upper body RSI. As with LBP, much of the research on RSI has tended to adopt a standard positivist modelling approach as a means of measuring and calculating the condition, and its likely spread amongst the workforce, as opposed to offering explanations of the causal mechanisms that might be generating such outcomes (for example, Silverstein and Keyserling, 1997, Krauss et al. 1997, Hagberg et al. 1997, Nainzadeh et al. 1999, Wainwright and Forbes 2000). For LBP, however, the social and natural causes appear to be more deeply embedded in working and social life, for reasons that I will go on to explain. The root of LBP is in wider structural changes in modern capitalist societies and thus far the types of adjustments made to remedy upper body RSI have had limited impact on LBP. It remains a related but distinct and more problematic condition.

The paper aims to fill a gap in the existing literature which tends to take one of two forms: either positivist-inclined medical analyses that concentrate on the treatment of the physical symptoms but with little to say about its social causes; or governmental responses that tend to concentrate on either general advice about posture and how to pick up objects correctly or health and safety legislation to encourage the use of ergonomic furniture in the office. Whilst much research mentions the changing patterns of work and leisure little has been done to place this in any broader theoretical framework so far. In order to broaden this analysis, I want to begin by considering the ways in which the body can be conceptualised in relation to nature and society.

The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The body has been a major site of theoretical debate in social theory over the past two decades, with arguments largely dominated by interpretive approaches to social theory. The prevalence of interpretive or social constructionist approaches to the subject can be viewed in part as a reaction to the traditionally dominant positivist medical view of the body as an asocial physical object (Pilgrim and Bentall 1999). As Turner and Wainwright (2003) note, these debates have tended to move in one of two directions: those influenced by a positivist medical model of the body and those drawing upon social constructionist approaches. These are not mutually exclusive positions but, for the sake of heuristic clarity here, I will distinguish them as follows: post-modern social theory views the body as an object made real through discourses that inscribe themselves upon the malleable and unformed self (Newton 2003: 21–2). Writers such as Judith Butler (1993), for example, have taken this radical indeterminacy of the body to mean that there can be no such thing as a human essence or nature, as such a concept imposes a universal and deterministic understanding of what it means to be human upon the body. Taken to its logical conclusion such an idea tells us that the body is a product of human discourse and that concepts associated with it, such as pain, are similarly social constructions, a point shared with Actor Network Theory (ANT).

ANT has proven to be the most influential social theory regarding an understanding of science, nature and the body in contemporary social theory. ANT posits the view that the distinction between the human and non-human needs to be abandoned (Latour 1993), an argument that has potentially disturbing political implications, as Fuller notes (2000: 20–1). In keeping with much post-modern social theory, ANT has sought to overturn what it sees as the limitations of modernist thought and its concern with dualisms such as structure/agency, mind/body, social/natural (Law 1994). Instead, ANT presents an ontology of networks constructed by knowing or conscious agents who continually act to make and remake the world around them.

There is not space in an article of this kind to enter into these debates in any significant way, but suffice it to say, I find the assumptions underpinning interpretive approaches to the body to be problematic and unsatisfactory. Instead, I argue that realism provides the most satisfactory way of addressing these issues and I will set out here briefly why this is so. In order to make sense of and explain the rise of LBP in the world system it is necessary to utilise a social theory that is able to explain both the natural properties of the body and the ways in which the form of the body is socially mediated in practice. As with other approaches to social theory, realism is a complex body of social thought that I can do little more than sketch here. As a consequence, I will concentrate on what a realist approach tells us about how we should conceptualise an understanding of the body, nature and society. Realists view positivist and interpretivist approaches to these issues as flawed for the following reasons. Positivists tend not to take into account that the body is both a biological entity and also one that is socially and historically mediated (Wainwright and Forbes 2000: 264). Thus, positivist approaches tend to reify accounts of the body, separating it from its social context (see for example, Johanning 2000). Interpretivist approaches to medical knowledge (often Foucauldian inspired) have rejected such a view of the de-socialised body and instead have emphasised the way in which bodies are constructed through practice and discourses. In so doing, they have highlighted the failures of positivist approaches to recognise the indeterminacy and transformatory nature of the body (Williams 1997).

Realists reject both these views and see them as sharing contrasting but related weaknesses. The positivist view tends to reduce the body to its biological, chemical and physical aspects, failing to pay heed to the stratified nature of the body in nature and in society. By contrast interpretivists tend to reduce the body to discourse, ignoring the relationship between structures and agents in the construction of society. Realists reject this in favour of a social ontology that draws out the stratified and complex nature of structures, agents, relations and causal mechanisms in the natural and social world. Following Fairclough and colleagues (2002), there are, for realists, three key domains.

  • • 
    The Real – refers to objects, their structures or natures and the causal powers they possess;
  • • 
    The Actual – refers to what happens when these powers are exercised and produce changes;
  • • 
    The Empirical – a subset of the real and the actual that is experienced by actors.

These causal mechanisms and structures move from individuals to their social-relational and biophysical environments and cannot be reduced to any single level as part of an adequate explanation of social phenomena such as LBP (Benton 1991). As a consequence, explanations have to be expansive, not reductive. Thus, it is the relationship between the physical properties of the spine and the surrounding tissues, muscles and ligaments that have to be situated within the individual, institutional and social structures that help to generate social relations and practices. Reid and Reynold (1990) make this point in their critique of positivist medical approaches to RSI which reduce the condition to its physical manifestation without addressing the social conditions under which it will emerge. Realists view the natural and social world as open systems where complex causal mechanisms operate and therefore they do not expect to see invariant regularities of behaviour. On the contrary, the complexity of the systems and the generative mechanisms that operate within them means that this would be most unlikely. With regard to LBP, a realist would not expect to see all people affected in the same ways by the interaction of natural and social mechanisms. Causal mechanisms do not operate in a deductive manner to produce linear causal chains and bodily patterns, as is the conception of causality that dominates in Anglo-American legal traditions (Helliwell and Taylor 2004: 439, Byrne 2002). Understanding causation is about understanding what produces change (in this case, LBP) not about describing a regular conjunction of cause-and-effect events. From this view point, causes can be both material and ideational. Reasons can cause us to change our ways of living or organising the home or workplace.

Despite this complexity, however, realists do not accept the interpretivist premise that the body is an endlessly malleable expression of discourses alone. There is a material-corporeal aspect to the biological body that cannot be reduced to the level of discourse in the manner that Arksey (1998) suggests, for example, when she argues that pain is a discursive social construction. Illness is not simply a product of the knowledge that we construct in order to explain it (Wainwright and Forbes 2000: 268, Turner and Wainwright 2003: 278). Realists accept the idea that people construct their understanding of the world through their language, values, beliefs and ideas but they do so in response to a physical reality that is beyond the level of discourse. The concept of pain has to be socially constructed but the actual experience, the thing itself, is beyond discourse. Thus LBP is a concept that has been constructed through medical and lay discourse but it refers to a physical-biological condition that is beyond this discourse. The body and the meanings we associate with it are historically and socially constructed but they are not limitless. Biological properties of the body help to constrain and shape the discourses constructed to explain illnesses (Wainwright and Forbes 2000: 272). More formally, realists would describe social reality and the body as follows: social ontology can be characterised as comprising the following:

  • • 
    Intransitive entities – these exist independently of our knowledge of them and our ability to construct scientific knowledge presupposes their existence. Thus the biological body has intransitive properties that cannot be reduced to discourse.
  • • 
    Transfactuality of mechanisms – mechanisms have relatively enduring properties and powers that persist over time and space. Agents and structures are ontologically distinct but act to produce, reproduce and potentially transform themselves over time and space. The body possesses natural properties and powers that emerge and develop within a given social and historical context. The body has the capacity to develop in various but not limitless ways. Biological factors both enable and constrain the development of the body in specific socio-historical contexts.
  • • 
    Stratification of an open system – the natural and social worlds are an open and stratified system and as such no science can rely on experience of surface or sensory data alone to explain the nature of reality. There is an ontological depth to the world that a researcher needs to give an account of in any explanation of a particular phenomenon. Thus, LBP cannot be understood and explained simply through the observation and measurement of bodily mechanisms (muscle strength, tissue damage and so on), but to be explained it has to be situated within the context of the social, historical and structural conditions in which people live and which generate it (Kumar 2001, Williams 1999).

Realism directs researchers to locate, analyse and explain the array of causal mechanisms that generate the particular events which interest them. This is a concern with both the concepts that are used in everyday life (the discursive level) and the material conditions that help to generate these outcomes. In this study, it is an attempt to situate the emergence of LBP as a global phenomenon in the world system. In explaining the rise of LBP I will examine three major social causes of the condition. Each of these causes is related to the expansion of the modern world system and the projection of European political, economic and cultural power (Wallerstein 2004). It is the relationship between them and the natural tendencies of the spine to generate health problems that has to be drawn out in a meaningful explanation of LBP:

  • 1
    The symbolic power of the chair.
  • 2
    The impact of state regulation, industrialisation and standardisation.
  • 3
    Capitalism as a system for the production, distribution and consumption of furniture.

Social policy and the good society

Solutions to health problems raise important questions about the good society and how people want to live. The key question here is: what are the best means for transforming the design, production and use of furniture? Answers to questions of social policy can be placed at either a more libertarian or a more authoritarian end of the political spectrum (Guerin 1970). In traditional Western political theory there are, as follows, two main answers to the above question, both of which claim as their goal the enhancement of human freedom:

Through the state regulation of production.

Through the power of consumer choice in the capitalist market place.

For libertarians neither the state nor the capitalist market are satisfactory mechanisms for resolving these problems as they rest upon authoritarian social relations. Nonetheless, they are the dominant social forms that shape the world system, and it is therefore necessary to consider the extent to which they can be amenable to libertarian means and ends. For those committed to a more libertarian society this is an uncomfortable question to consider, as both the state and the capitalist market present partial views as to the meaning of human freedom. The libertarian tradition in social and political theory has its modern roots in classical liberal writers such as Paine, Von Humboldt and Smith, all of whom emphasised the natural desire for freedom as a fundamental part of human nature (Edgley 2000, Rocker 2004). This theme was taken up by radical social movements organised in trade unions and socialist movements, and according to Guerin (1970), they find their deepest expression in 19th century and 20th century anarchist social thought with its defence of individual liberty, social solidarity and an opposition to all authoritarian institutions. Categorising social and political thought as tending towards either more libertarian or authoritarian directions allows for complexity within different traditions. Many socialists, for example, have viewed the state as the key to constructing a good society whilst others have assumed radically anti-statist positions.

The most libertarian way of dealing with this problem is through the self-management of the workplace and society (Edgley 2000, Rocker 2004). Such a system would enable the needs of producers (workers) and consumers to be met in ways that would most fully realise the libertarian goal of a free, democratic and humane society. Unfortunately, this is also the most difficult solution to implement as it would require a fundamental transformation in existing social relations. The appropriate response for libertarians concerned with this issue is to find a variety of ways to work towards this goal, whilst dealing with the institutional and structural factors that cause these and other social problems. This may be an unsatisfactory answer for libertarians but it leaves open the possibility of promoting a variety of solutions at the local, national, regional and ultimately global level.

A design for life? Naturally bad backs

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

LBPs are rife in the world system, particularly in those areas where work and leisure have moved from being largely active practices to sedentary ones. Seventy-five per cent of all workers in industrialised societies now have sedentary jobs, and this figure is increasing in many countries (Reinecke and Hazard 1994: 157). This is a trend synonymous with the spread of industrial and consumer societies over the course of the 20th century and has been linked with a number of other social and health problems such as obesity. Recent work by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has shown that physical activity has been in sharp decline in many parts of the world system, a significant cause of increasing levels of obesity and LBP. According to the WHO there are now more than one billion overweight adults worldwide, with at least 300 million obese people. This is spread throughout the world system and is not just a problem of the rich core states. Indeed, it is developing more quickly in the periphery and the semi-periphery where newly affordable fast food carries a high social status value equating to affluence (WHO 2003, Sklair 1991: Ch. 5).

What happens to the back that causes LBP to occur? Biomechanics as the study of the mechanics of a living body, especially of the forces exerted by muscles and gravity on the skeletal structure, says that in physiological terms the injuries are due to the deterioration of the core muscles and ligaments around the lower back, pelvis and stomach that are weakened by both a sedentary lifestyle and the structure of modern furniture (Kroemer 1994: 181, Pheasant 1996: 59, Norris 2001: 4). Bodies are biomechanically designed for moving around, not for sitting still or standing still for long periods. As Speed (2001) notes, ‘muscles, particularly those of the abdomen (the obliques, transversus, and recti) provide dynamic stability and fine control to the spine’ (2001: 1120). So a weakening of these muscles tends to create the conditions for LBP. In particular Christopher Norris (2000) targets the multifidus muscles as the key to LBP and core back stability (2000: 51). A lifetime spent using chairs and back supports leads to the erosion of these muscles and ligaments, and attempts to remedy this through, for example, sit-ups and other standard exercises, can actually make the situation worse, as these exercises do not reach the internal (core) muscles of the pelvis and the torso. The latter can only be exercised through natural activity such as sitting in an autonomous way (Clark 2002). It is, then, the combination of natural and social mechanisms that tends to generate the widespread problem of LBP. Again, given the complex and contingent array of natural and social causal mechanisms operating in an open system, research should not expect to find invariant patterns of LBP (Dickens 2001). Whilst there is a tendency for LBP to be generated under such conditions, the extent to which it affects particular people will vary in accord with many factors such as: age, diet, exercise, lifestyle, gender and class. As Newton (2003) says, echoing Elias, there is no mechanistic relationship between power relations and health, between the biological and the social, in a complex, open social system (2003: 25).

The root of the problem in universal office furniture design is described by Dainoff (1994) as the ‘90° posture problem’. The widespread introduction of computer technology into the workplace in the 1970s led to an epidemic of health problems, largely caused by the belief that the best posture when sitting at a desk was one where people sat with major joint angles at 90°. This is exacerbated by the need for workers to lean over flat-top tables, forcing their spines into an unnatural c-shape rather than preserving the natural s-shaped posture (Arnold, Gillerman and Zimmerer 2006). The consequence of this is that muscles, discs and ligaments around the lower abdomen and back are not used to maintain a proper posture and are increasingly weakened over time (Dainoff 1994: 37–8). This is as true of furniture in the home as it is of furniture at work (Norris 2001: 4). It also means that people sit in a manner that places continual stress on the seat bones.

Those working in this area who want to challenge the problems generated by bad design have long recognised that solutions have to be practicable and achievable, moving from the small and local through potentially to the global (Ward 1996 and 2000). In a capitalist world system this inevitably raises the question of costs and the question of who would be expected to pay for the re-organisation of workplace environments, transport and the home. For example, Jacobs and Golmohammadi (2003) carried out a review of the existing literature on the cost of LBP in 2003, and all of the work they studied viewed the concept in monetary terms only, rather than quality of life. To illustrate the far-reaching scale of this problem, the most persuasive design response to the problem of LBP is to emphasise that the best furniture for people is that which enables them to maintain an S-shaped posture for their spines. Thus, office furniture and the organisation of office space for workers might have to be re-designed to allow people to work in a variety of reclining or horizontal positions, meaning fundamental changes to the ways in which people write, type, read, and organise assembly lines (Kroemer 1994: 181). In addition and alternately, the reorganisation of offices and the workplace might learn something useful from the 19th century and early 20th century practices (Lueder 1986: Introduction). In this period, offices were often organised in a more active manner with people working at raised and tilted desks and moving around rather than having to sit continuously in the fixed sedentary c-shape of modern design (Mandal 1985: 10). Research in this area suggests that there is no particular advantage to carrying out mental tasks while sitting at a desk; they can be performed just as, or more, successfully whilst standing up. Again, the idea that thinking and sitting are connected is simply a powerful cultural convention but no more than that (Vercruyssen and Simonton 1994: 119–22).

This is ultimately a structural and institutional problem, not one caused by malign intent on the part of furniture manufacturers, but is instead a problem that has emerged due to the convergence of three major social causes: the cultural significance of the chair and popular taste, the impact of industrialisation and standardisation and the dynamics of capitalist markets.

Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The symbolic importance of the chair has been a recurring theme in European cultures, linked to representations of power, authority and status (Mandal 1985: 1–8). In the pre-modern era ownership and use of furniture was unusual outside of the realm of social élites. Lueder and Noro (1994) note that it took some time for the upper classes to begin to use seats in the West as they were primarily the preserve of royalty and religious bodies (1994). For example, the enthronement of monarchs usually culminated with the figure taking their place in an ornate and over-sized chair that symbolised their importance and power. Chairs and benches held a similar symbolic importance for the church with the plain and functional (not to say uncomfortable) pews for the congregation and elaborate seats of stature and grandeur for the religious figures (Sember 1994: 222). On one level, then, the meaning of the chair for various cultures has been to help characterise social rank, hierarchy and power; the recognition of certain legitimate forms of divine and secular authority. It is the expansion of European power in the 16th century and the construction of the modern world system that sees the chair take on the symbolic form of representing an important feature of a generalised, civilised, modern life. In a number of Asian countries the tradition of the right-angle seat has had a limited history and there tends to be lower incidences of LBP (Clark 2002).

With the profound social revolution ushered in by the Enlightenment in Europe in the 18th century and the breakdown of traditional forms of authority, furniture and the chair in particular began to assume quite different meanings. This is seen in the the UK, where a newly emerging bourgeois class and aspirant working class began to pursue different social aspirations. The desire for comfort and luxury took root in all social classes in this period and was seen as a realistic material goal in a capitalist society where goods were being produced in abundance. This desire for comfort included the desire for furniture in all its forms and was reflected in the spreading of ownership of furniture over the course of the 19th century in the UK. For the working classes the aspiration to obtain the material goods needed to live a decent life was to be realised through class struggle and confrontation with both the state and the owners of capital (Thompson 1991). It was in the early to mid 19th century that the mass production of furniture took off and although there were subsequent reactions against it by romantically inclined designers such as the British ‘Arts and Crafts Movement’ it was this period that saw the innovations in design that have become standardised today (Lucie-Smith 1979).

The changing meaning and use of furniture in this period was part of the wider social changes taking place in European society where new political, economic and cultural practices were emerging. It was the desire for social status that saw the construction of new meanings to explain the use and symbolic importance of social goods, including furniture (Weber 2001). This was intimately bound up with new patterns of family life centred on the household and away from more communal or shared patterns of living. As feminist writers have noted, the family unit that emerges over this period becomes a new site of power as to the meaning and role of gender (Oakley 1981). The household unit becomes centred on new rituals such as the family meal and watching the television, most usually with the father figure at the centre of the seating arrangements. The rise of mass produced furniture was part of this general social reorganisation and the embedding of new cultural practices and tastes shaped by gender and class. To enjoy these new experiences you had to believe that you were sitting comfortably. It is not, then, the imposition of bad design and bad taste upon docile populations but the ways in which people actively come to desire and identify with the very things that, in this instance, unknowingly cause them harm.

The emergence of leisure as a goal for all social classes takes root in this period too (Koshar 2002). Working-class organisation through trade union action won the right to shorter working days and to holiday time. The question then emerged as to what to do with this spare time and with the money that could be set aside for leisure activities? Even here the design of the chair has a profound impact on the shaping of the body. Whether the ambition was to travel in cars, trains or planes, to visit the theatre or the cinema, or to attend sporting events, most of them entailed using seating that served to encourage sedentary activity and bad posture. Increasingly over the course of the 20th century there was a tendency for leisure to move away from active pursuits towards forms of commodified and sedentary practices. This has reached the point where, as I noted earlier, physical activity is in dramatic decline in many parts of the world system. By the 21st century this has become a major structural part of everyday global cultural life for millions of people. From work to leisure, people rely upon the very furniture whose design aggravates the spine's potential for instability and injury. In order to examine this in more detail it is necessary to turn to the spread of industrialisation and standardisation.

State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The second and related major social structural cause of LBP has been the movement towards state regulation, industrialisation and the standardisation of production. Industrialisation saw the introduction of new forms of technology into the workplace for the mass production of consumer goods. With this came the gradual erosion of traditional craft and guild practices, including those rooted in the production of furniture (Mandal 1985: 9–11, Lucie-Smith 1979: 157). So that the mass production of furniture could create national, regional and ultimately global markets, there was also the need for the standardisation of production practices, guaranteeing that certain forms of design would ultimately become universal. The integration of the modern world system from the 16th century onwards brought with it these three processes, all of which facilitated the ascendancy of European economic and cultural practices and power.

The impetus for standardisation comes from two main sources historically: the state and business. For the state the regulation of industry was in part a response to pressure from working-class organisations that were demanding protection from brutal forms of capitalism (Polanyi 1944). It also became a state concern regarding the protection of consumers from companies producing dangerous goods and services. The state has extended its reach over all areas of production at national, regional and global levels to demand that businesses adhere to minimum standards, though for a variety of reasons, this is unevenly applied in practice (Braithwaite and Drahos 2000).

Companies have also pushed for the standardisation of production but for quite different reasons. For businesses, standardisation becomes a mechanism for lowering costs as parts become interchangeable and designs become universal. This is a pattern that can be seen in all areas of industry from the early 19th century convergence of railway track gauge through to Microsoft as the universal standard for computer software. It is equally the case for the design of furniture. The standardisation of furniture design and production has combined with the ambitions of employers to monitor, survey and control their workforces to produce standardised forms of office and factory layout, whether open plan or assembly line (Lueder 1986: Introduction). There are important variations here but the overall tendency is that the need for social control by employers tends to reproduce poor posture in the workforce through the use of badly designed furniture and sedentary working practices. This is a point emphasised by Festervoll (1994) who says of the technology of office furniture design that ‘the evolution of technology [in the construction of the office] has been guided by technocratic thinking rather than attention to our physiological requirements for variation and movement. In addition, the decision-makers who influence this evolution have often not personally experienced the physical problems they engender’ (1994: 414). Technology and furniture in the office serves more as a form of social control, and tends to shape the body to fit design standards rather than producing design standards that fit the needs of the body. This should not, however, be seen as technology simply determining the body. Rather, it is the way in which technology is controlled and used in a capitalist world system that is crucial here. The separation between designers and users that I have stressed in this study as a major factor in the production of poorly designed furniture is reflected in the systemic tendency under capitalism for workers to be alienated from the production process. This point was originally noted by the classic liberal Von Humboldt (Cowan 1963). Worryingly, Mandal (1994) notes that in practice the International Standards of School Furniture (ISO), which is spread throughout the industrialised states of the world system, promotes design standards that are harmful and ought to be changed (1994: 277). It is the need for flexibility in design, however, that goes against the financial advantages of standardisation (Dainoff, Balliet and Goernert 1994: 101–02). Just as workers are unable to control the workplace and what they produce, so they are limited in the degree to which they can control work resources and practices and their impact upon the shaping of their bodies. As libertarians have long argued, it is only through the eradication of these forms of alienation that workers can begin to resolve the structural causes of these social problems.

Capitalism and commodification

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The third social and structural cause to be considered is that of capitalism as a system of social organisation and economic production. Even advocates of capitalism now concede that it is necessary to focus on the ways in which it generates such health problems (Loesser 1999). Although regulation, standardisation and industrialisation are related structural processes, they are not necessarily related to capitalism. Regulation, standardisation and industrialisation can all be features of radically different accounts of the good society. Under capitalism they take on specific forms, in part determined by the type of state they are found in, its place within the capitalist world system and the impact of local culture.

The production of furniture has become a global market where profit margins are huge (Barnes 2006). The UK domestic market for school furniture alone is worth £950 m (Design Council 2002). The issue for capitalism is the extent to which it can carry on creating profit while unintentionally producing pain for consumers and workers alike. This is a structural contradiction in capitalism in that it is not the intended outcome of capitalist furniture manufacturers to harm their workforce and consumers. The power of profit is over-riding as are the orthodox patterns of taste that shape furniture production in consumer societies. As I noted earlier, work, leisure and transport are deeply embedded structures of relatively inflexible design and practice throughout the world system. No single capitalist firm can fundamentally change these patterns.

As markets have moved from being national to regional and global in their reach so the spread of bad furniture design has become global. This is supported in turn by a pervasive and powerful advertising industry that seeks to construct ‘cultures of desire’ directed towards particular commodities and social aspirations. As material beings there is nothing ‘unnatural’ about wanting things. The important point here is that capitalism is about presenting us with structured choices in capitalist markets: people can choose from what is offered to them by corporations but they cannot control those choices or the design of these products in a significant manner (Ewen 1990 and 1992). Free choices are always within limits and are subjected to the perpetual bombardment of advertising, branding, marketing and the myriad forms of product placement that are integral to popular culture. Out of this complex combination of social mechanisms emerges a consumer culture that values furniture whose design is harmful to the back. In the home this becomes a process of self-discipline, unlike the employer controlled office and workplace. What conclusions can be drawn, then, from the argument presented here?

Conclusions: from good design to good society

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

The claim of this paper is not that LBP can be eliminated forever. On the contrary, ill health and injury are part of human existence (Speed 2004: 1119). What I am arguing is that it is potentially possible to transform the existing social causes of the problem. The question remains as to how this is to be done. This is a matter of social policy where responses can be moved towards a more libertarian or authoritarian end of the political spectrum. The argument presented here is that libertarian means should be encouraged to achieve this end as they will be more in keeping with a natural desire for free social relations. However, as an abstract principle this does not address the issue of how to pursue such ends, given that existing social, political and economic institutions in the world system tend to promote authoritarian rather than libertarian practices, values and beliefs. In order to assess different strategies it is important to look at existing responses to this problem and I will begin by examining the role that state regulation has played in this.

State regulation

States throughout the world system have assumed a regulatory power over capital and society for a variety of purposes. Through political pressure, working-class movements have been able to force states into regulating capital to introduce health and safety legislation to protect workers and consumers alike. There is a positive aspect to the state's power that has led to the recent transformation of seating for schoolchildren in Denmark, Sweden and Germany in order to combat LBPs (Mandal 1994: Ch. 20). The introduction of tilting desks and forward sloping seating encourages children to adopt correct posture whilst at school and sees the state acting in a socially responsible manner. This has been brought about through the influential work of the Danish physician Mandal who has designed forward tilting furniture and sloping desks to promote good posture. This places the spine in the optimal potion for balance, rotation, flexibility and movement (Mandal 1994: Ch. 13).

Mandal's work is important and challenging, as it directly confronts the technocratic nature of design in capitalist societies where design and aesthetics tend to be determined by professionals divorced from the needs of the consumer who is offered a variety of badly designed finished products from which to choose. The main aim of Mandal's work has been to focus upon the seating arrangements for schoolchildren, working on the premise that if you want to tackle lower back pain it is important to get people into good habits at an early age (Watson et al. 2002). Interestingly Mandal employed the libertarian approach of actually asking children what they thought was a comfortable way to sit and what wasn't (Ward 2000). When this information was integrated with his physiological and biomechanical studies of the back, it enabled him to develop his forward-tilted seating and sloped desks as an appropriate response to the problem. It is quite striking that no one had thought before this of actually asking children what made for good seating in schools, illustrating how deeply engrained authoritarian social structures are in a world largely designed by technocratic professionals (Mandal 1985: 14–20). As Mandal noted, children have to be forced or disciplined into assuming bad posture as they naturally tend towards sitting in positions that are comfortable for the back. This point is confirmed in a report by UK researchers which says that 67 per cent of children rock backwards and forwards on their chairs in order to find the correct balance and posture (Knight and Noyes 1999: 757). Mandal illustrates this with a picture showing how a child seated at a table in a chair angled at 90° will rock on its chair in order to assume a position that provides them with appropriate posture, enabling them to avoid bending their backs into the C-shape. This is the type of practice that will lead to children being reprimanded for not ‘sitting properly’ at the table. The child's natural and unconscious response is one of self-protection against the cultural practice of what are said to constitute good manners (Mandal 1985: 36–42). It is interesting to see this natural response being pitched against cultural practices that are in fact sites of power struggle, in this case within the family, work and school, regarding correct posture. Social conventions such as the need to sit properly (actually unnaturally) at the table became the norm with the spread of industrial capitalist societies in Europe in the 19th century (Elias 1978). However trivial this might seem, the repercussions of such social practices are profound for future health.

An important though problematic response to this problem from libertarians should be to push for greater regulation by all states within the EU to transform furniture for children at schools, whilst at the same time attempting to build social movements supportive of workplace democracy. Pressure for progressive social change can be brought to bear at the local, national and regional levels. To this end one of the attractions of Mandal's work is that it combines scientific rigour with practical, tested solutions that are potentially affordable for all schoolchildren within the EU. The key political economy question is: how are such changes to be brought about and paid for?

One example, however, illustrates quite starkly the limitations of state power to act positively on this issue. Shortly after taking office in 2001 President Bush stressed his rhetorical commitment to protecting the health and safety of American workers, stating ‘the safety and health of our nation's workforce is a priority for my administration’. He followed this by signing as his first national bill the repeal of workplace safety regulations that required companies to apply ergonomic principles to the workplace, saying, ‘there's a change in ergonomic regulations that I believe is positive . . . Things are getting done’ (Allen 2001).

The capitalist market

The capitalist market is an historically specific form of market relationship based on the exchange of commodities for profit (capital) and the private ownership of the means of production. This engenders a specific idea about the meaning of ‘value’ that encourages specific practices by companies: the pursuit and maximisation of profit before all other values. The same, of course, is not true of individuals who pursue a variety of goals in their lives and adhere to complex value systems whilst coping with the structural problem of existing in a world system shaped by the authoritarian nature of capitalism and state power.

Stephen Pheasant (1996) has put together a study showing that a number of firms have responded to the need to transform aspects of the working environment to reduce LBP but also notes that many firms are resistant to do this on the grounds that health and safety regulations present an added financial burden to their economic competitiveness. Major corporations have sought to introduce new designs into the workplace as Raymond and Cunliffe (1997) report but a number of problems remain: the continued sedentary existence and fixed position of the body in the workplace; despite some adaptation the persistence in much ergonomic furniture with the 90° right-angle furniture design (Clark 2002). As a result there is a limit to the impact that these designs have had so far in tackling the social causes of LBP (Raymond and Cunliffe 1997).

As with the state, libertarians need to consider whether there is space within capitalist markets for alternative designs to help transform work, transport and leisure. Capitalist libertarians would say yes to this and argue that the capitalist market is the best mechanism for promoting libertarian values, as it gives free choices to individuals and encourages design innovation (Friedman 1989). The weakness in the capitalist libertarian argument is its idealised model of how capitalist markets work. The models are so abstract that they offer no realistic insight into how markets are shaped in practice by issues of power, conflict and co-operation between social groups. Capitalist markets are not simply about free choices for individuals; rather, they provide structured choices for consumers who have little say over how the economy is to be organised other than in this limited interaction (Lazonick 1993). That said, could capitalist markets still provide an alternative design for furniture? There seems little reason to doubt that potentially they could, providing that there is profit to be made from it and costs to be avoided. If the state is prepared to use public money to subsidise the production of this furniture, most obviously in schools as has happened in parts of the EU already, then it would seem to be the most likely short-term solution. In effect the state will guarantee a market for furniture manufacturers, a public subsidy for private profit. An encouraging recent development in the UK has been the emergence of the Q-learn intelligent furniture company that is beginning to make inroads into the school furniture market (http://www.qlearn.co.uk/site/index.php).

At the edges of social policy and capitalist market relations there have been interesting developments around this issue. Both states and corporations have responded to the problem in limited ways. Neither of them propose libertarian solutions but both of them might be used by libertarians as mechanisms to promote progressive social policy.

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information
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Supporting Information

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. The body, nature and the social: mapping LBP in social theory
  5. A design for life? Naturally bad backs
  6. Take a seat: the symbolic power of the chair
  7. State regulation, industrialisation and standardisation: hallmarks of modernity
  8. Capitalism and commodification
  9. Conclusions: from good design to good society
  10. Acknowledgements
  11. References
  12. Supporting Information

Diagram 1. A teenager relaxing

Diagram 2. Abdominal muscles that support and stabilise the back

Diagram 3. The S-shaped spine

Diagram 4. Corbusier’s recliner

Diagram 5. C-shaped posture

Diagram 6. The impact of sitting at 90° (right-angle) on the seat bones at the base of the spine.

Diagram 7. Saddle Chairs.

Diagram 8. Conventional office seating and Mandal’s forward sloped seating and tilting desk

Diagram 9. A woman improvises in order to assume a natural seating posture whilst using badly designed furniture

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