University of Delaware
I have writing and thinking a lot about what I call perceptual construction, the role of sensory perception in the creation and maintenance of taken-for-granted categories of bodies and in the social construction of reality more generally.
In the media and the popular imagination, the body’s biology is still too frequently deployed to ‘ground’ contested social categories such as gender and race. (See examples here, here, here, and see the comments here). The materiality of the body has been conceived as the archetypal example of structure and constraint. This static conception of the body has changed significantly within the growing literature on the sociology of the body and embodiment. My suggestion is that the sociology of perception can add a new lens to this conversation.
The sociology of sensory perception is an emerging sociological sub-field that examines, among other things, the unexplored sensory dimensions of the social construction of reality. This includes research that illustrates the sociological importance of senses that have been relatively neglected, such as scent (Waskul and Vannini 2008), as well as studies that defamiliarize visual realities that are typically taken for granted (e.g., Daipha 2010; Obasogie 2010, 2013). The latter are especially powerful, given the unique role of sight in social interaction and its cultural elevation above the other senses – what Martin Jay (1994: 48-19) refers to as “ocularcentrism.”
Research that problematizes assumptions about visual perception is particularly useful since it complements and extends thinking on the social construction of race, gender, and other social/visual/bodily distinctions. As macro-level critical perspectives, the social construction of race and gender have mostly examined how and why social distinctions and inequalities get mapped onto visual differences among bodies. The existence of phenotypic differences is assumed, in other words, and only the meanings that are attached to these visible differences are problematized. Micro-level empirical analyses of sensory perception complement this macro-level work by asking how the relevant biological distinctions come to seem self-evident and even perceptible in the first place. Highlighting this contribution in the context of race, for example, Obasogie argues that attention to these microprocesses of socialization through which we learn how to see race add important depth to our understanding of the social construction of race by examining how race and color come to stand out as visually significant phenomena – what Obasogie calls the “constitutive question” of the social construction of race (2013: 4, 18, 37).
The observations I present below are based on interviews with over 50 blind people about their rarely-foregrounded non-visual experiences of human bodies. Blind people are uniquely capable of discussing the social practices that make race and sex seem visually self-evident (Obasogie 3013: 36). I have previously drawn on a subset (N=27) of these interviews in my 2013 book, Blind to Sameness, which deals with the social construction of male and female bodies through visual attention and disattention, and I am currently writing an article about the unique sensory features of blind people’s perceptions of race based on a second set of 25 interviews (see Table 1 below for more information about the samples).
Blind people seem to have a different temporal frame for sex and race attribution – one that is slower, and more deliberate. Respondents described their impressions of bodies as being built diachronically, as they encounter different features and characteristics individually over time.
The one thing I can tell you is when you as a sighted person, when you met me for the first time, all of the idea of what
I look like would hit you at once – my height, my approximate weight, my hair, […] you’d have all those impressions at
once, whether you wanted them or not. Whereas for a blind person, if I met you, I would gain impressions of you one
thing at a time. If I held your arm that would be one thing, but I would have no idea what your hair was like, or if you
were wearing earrings. Whereas if you saw me, all those things would be impressed upon you at once. For a blind
person they come piece by piece. So I might, for example, know how tall a woman is but have no idea what her hair
was like. And that wouldn’t happen to you. Unless you just plain forgot what his hair was like or her hair was like. So it’s
a piece by piece physical impression that you gain as opposed to the entire impact when you see someone for the first
second and it all hits you at once. (William, blind since birth)
James, who has been legally blind since birth, and totally blind since age 34, used the parable of the blind men and the elephant to illustrate this idea of a “piece by piece physical impression”:
I assume you know the story of the […] blind men who try describing an elephant. One man is feeling the trunk,
another man is feeling a leg, another man is feeling the tail. The difference between folks like me and most folks is that
I describe the tail without asserting that it is an elephant. After I’ve groped everything in the area […] eventually I figure
out what is elephant and what is circus floor. (emphasis added)
As opposed to a holistic gestalt that impresses itself upon them rapidly and all at once, these respondents describe blind people as building their impressions of bodies much more slowly and deliberately. As Lou put it: “You can glance and see. I can’t glance and see; I have to listen.”
Specifically highlighting a temporal difference between visual and non-visual race attribution, Thomas, who identifies as white and has been blind since childhood, provides the following description:
If you’re sitting in a crowded room and let’s say it’s filled with White people, Asian people, Black people, Hispanic
people, and blind and sighted people -- all kinds of people from races and origins, but nobody’s saying a word. You’re
going to have a whole room of sighted people who, most likely, ya know, unless you’ve hit some kind of a mass
anomaly of nice people who don’t prejudge, you’re gonna have a room full of people from all different races forming
all kinds of opinions about other people in the room, based on vision alone and things that they have learned about
people who looked like that as they were growing up. But all your blind people are going to be sitting around going
‘who the hell’s in the room?’ Wondering where they came from, who they are, are they Asian, or Hispanic, or Black?
In Thomas’ characterization, in situations of co-presence without conversation or interaction, blind people do not have any information about the race of the people around them. Samantha similarly highlights the difference between the immediacy of sighted information about race and the relative slowness of blind people’s process of race attribution, which only happens after speaking with a person.
Maybe it is because I can’t see someone and make a judgment right away until after I’ve talked with them. Maybe that’s it. […] If someone just passes by me on the street and I don’t talk to them and they don’t talk to me, I don’t know
anything about them.
The blind people I interviewed also exhibited a heightened awareness of the perceptual work sex attribution requires, perhaps in part because of the temporal differences described above. For example, a number of the respondents described sex attribution as a “draining” process, a puzzle that is occasionally a struggle to piece together, indicating that when perceived non-visually bodies can be sufficiently indistinct in terms of sex to be difficult to interpret and categorize.
It [sex] is not always obvious. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but I gather information through whatever I
hear – their movements, the way they walk, and, of course, the way they speak; and from what I smell. Yeah, it’s pretty
draining a lot of time. (Tim, blind since age 3)
Betty explained that it can take some time – and sometimes even someone else’s help – for her to sort out whether a person is male or female:
It took a little while to sort it out, or I just shut up and listened and waited for someone else to clue me in. […] You can
be confused. (blind since birth)
Others framed the same point in terms of intention, explaining that they often have to intentionally try to figure out someone’s sex, particularly if they are not interacting with the person directly. For example, one respondent offered this description of how she determines the sex of those around her in her college classes:
I try to introduce myself to those around me. I pay close attention to names when the professor is taking role. I like to
have an idea of who is in the class. I tend to listen to what is going on when we are doing group work. What I mean by
listening is, pay attention to how the people around me interact or who is sitting near me by their voices. (Juliana,
visually impaired since birth, totally blind since age 16)
The implication is that, without this conscious, concerted effort, Juliana would not know the sex of many of her classmates.
The ambiguities of sex reported by the respondents directly challenge dominant (visual) cultural assumptions about the “obviousness” and “self-evidence” of sex. In this vein, many participants stated or implied that they are not aware of the sex of most of the people they encounter in the course of their daily lives – unless they explicitly interact with them, or they intentionally try to figure it out.
I usually don’t try to tell their gender unless I am trying to decide out of self interest, e.g. feeling social, wanting to
make a friend, or feeling flirty. […] It really depends on the situation. […] Out of the hundreds of people I pass
throughout the day I probably know the gender of ten of them. (Simone, blind since age 15)
As a result, the everyday experiences of blind people, particularly their “unfocused” interactions (Goffman 1967: 133) – those in which individuals within one another’s visual and aural range are going about their activities without a shared point of attention – are notably less punctuated by sex difference. “If they don’t talk at all, to me or anyone else,” as Lucy, who has been blind since birth, explained, “then really there's no way for me to know [someone’s sex].”
Similarly, many of the blind people I interviewed about race expressed that when a person is experienced non-visually, racial difference is not eliminated, but uncertainty and ambiguity are more acknowledged. “Most of the time, I can’t tell;” “I don’t necessarily know all the time;” “I might not even know;” “you really can’t say 100 percent;” “I’m fairly certain.” Such statements of uncertainty appeared consistently in the blind respondents’ accounts of their experiences with assigning race. For example, Emily, who identifies as white and has been blind since birth, described her experience with race attribution as follows: “I guess it is voice, um what kind of vocabulary, what kind of texture they have to their voice, but most of the time I can’t tell.” Olivia, who is also white and became blind in childhood, uses the term “fairly certain” to describe her sense of her co-workers’ race: “There are two people at work that I’m fairly certain are black just by the way they talk. Like they do have that accent and I’ve never asked anyone, and I’m fairly certain.” Even Olivia’s statement that she is “fairly certain” – let alone Emily’s comment that she often can’t discern race – represents an instructive difference from the natural attitude, reminding us that the (social) foregrounding of vision underlies any experience of race as phenotypically self-evident.
Blind people’s unique sensory experiences of sex and race offer an interesting vantage point from which to dislodge visual assumptions about sex, race, and the body in general. In the case of both sex and race, blind people appear to be aware of and routinely engage with significant ambiguities of categorization. These ambiguities, if attended to, can be helpful in problematizing visual notions of sex and race as phenotypically self-evident. Specifically, there is a perceptual “undoing” of racial categories through consistently grappling with uncertainty even while “doing race” non-visually. More broadly, multisensory social research – studies that compare multiple modes of sensory perception or otherwise highlight rarely-foregrounded modes of perception – offers an innovative approach to the essential sociological work of examining the taken-for-granted, and is a powerful strategy to highlight important processes of perceptual construction that underlie the social construction of reality. In light of this, my research emphasizes the need to connect the sociology of the senses with the sociology of the body, and to be more attentive to the role of sensory perception in the social construction of reality in general. Although it is arguably one of the most important mechanisms of reality maintenance, there are still too few sustained sociological examinations of perception.
Daipha, P. 2010. “Visual Perception at Work: Lessons from the World of Meteorology.” Poetics 38(2): 150-164.
Friedman, A. 2013. Blind to Sameness: Sexpectations and the Social Construction of Male and Female Bodies. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Goffman, E. 1967. Interaction Ritual: Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Pantheon Books.
Jay, M. 1993. Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth Century French Thought. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Obasogie, O. 2010. “Do Blind People See Race? Social, Legal, and Theoretical Considerations.” Law & Society Review 44(3/4): 585-616.
------. 2013. Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race Through the Eyes of the Blind. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Waskul, D. and Vannini, P. 2008. “Smell, Odor, and Somatic Work: Sense-making and Sensory Management.” Social Psychology Quarterly 71(1): 53-71.