Paul Elmer

Beyond Bourdieu: body work in the cultural industries – Or – Bananarama rebuffed: it ain’t only what you do, it’s the way you do it, too.

Adopting a sociological paradigm implies a concern with social structures, on the one hand, and individual agency on the other, raising the well-established sociological problem of accommodating public relations both as a social/economic/political phenomenon and as a meaningful social act carried out by individuals. One strand of this structure-agency debate has become concerned with the materiality of the body as a focus for agency in ways that may reproduce, as well as resist, such structures; today, ‘body studies’ form a recognisable strand of sociological thought (Schilling, 2007).

This paper reviews the contemporary debates and examines their implications for public relations research. The reason for doing so now is that recent years have seen embodiment begin to emerge as an important aspect of the social construction of public relations roles (Edwards, 2006; Yeomans, 2007; Johanssen, 2007). Encouraging and useful as this is, subsequent study will need to develop within a theoretical framework that rapidly moves beyond Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and hexis, or Goffman’s concept of performance in social roles (Bourdieu 1984, 2002; Goffman 1974). Seminal as these ideas are, the danger is that public relations, coming rather late to the debate, will take too long to engage with contemporary re-workings of embodiment, and especially with current sociological examinations of face and body work within the wider cultural industries. This paper aims to briefly sketch that contemporary landscape. My intention is that subsequent scholars may avoid the lengthy path I took which, I discovered, was novel in terms of public relations study but routine, sociologically, and as a result we can move the debate forward at a more informed level, as it deserves.

In my task I am drawing on my own recent study, which examines various aspects of the way that public relations practitioners enact their roles. This paper will not rehearse the results of that study, but will go beyond a simple review of literature to examine the implications of ‘performative’ research that has the potential to affect the relationship between formal educational curricula and socialisation processes.

Tensions, which emerge when industry claims that education does not produce ‘the right sort of people’, are more or less a constant feature of public relations education. This paper will suggest ways that a well-considered examination of embodied social performances re-frames the debate and offers a powerful challenge to functionally-driven curricula. What a public relations practitioner can ‘do’ in terms of functional work, may not actually be such an important marker of employability as the curriculum currently implies. This challenge is rooted in well-documented social, economic and political behaviours, and suggests that what employers actually value are not functional skills but personal characteristics (what we might term the traditional outcomes of a liberal education). Mapping this back onto the structure-agency debate, embodiment offers a compelling link between the routines, relationships and performances of practice to broad social structures, rather than to organisational needs and functional norms.

Paul Elmer
University of Central Lancashire


Bourdieu, P. (1984). Distinction. A social critique of the judgement of taste (R. Nice, Trans.). London: Routledge.

Bourdieu, P. (1992). The field of cultural production: Essays in art and literature. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Edwards, L. (2006). Rethinking power in public relations. Public Relations Review, 32, 229-231.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame Analysis. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Johansson, C. (2007). Goffman’s sociology: An inspiring resource for developing public relations theory. Public Relations Review, 33, 275-280.

Schilling, C. (Ed.). (2007 ). Embodying Sociology: Retrospect Progress and Reports. Oxford Blackwell.

Yeomans, L. (2007). Emotion in public relations: a neglected phenomenon. Journal of Communication Management, 11(3), 212-221.

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