Perceiving the Social Body

A Phenomenological Perspective on Ethical Practice in Buddhist Thailand



This essay develops the concept of the “social body” as a metaphorical representation of hierarchical relationships in Thailand, as well as the physical embodiment of social, religious, and political structures. To do so, I trace the symbolic coordinates of groups that correspond to conceptions of individual bodies, along with the habituated means of perceiving as part of a collective. I argue that conventional Thai social interactions involve active attention to and care of the “social body,” in which differential roles are necessary for group functioning. Ethnographic descriptions of social interactions in public and semi-private arenas depict the spontaneous and embodied root of moral action in these contexts. The values thus enacted, however, challenge normative ideals of distributive justice and open up questions about “care” for a social body that validates unequal power and resource distribution.