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Configurational analysis

In cultural and social studies, configurations are patterns of behaviour, movement (→movement culture) and thinking, which research observes when analysing different cultures and/ or historical changes. The term “configurations” is mostly used by comparative anthropological studies and by cultural history. Configurational analysis became a special method by the Stuttgart school of Historical Behaviour Studies during the 1970s and later by body culture studies in Denmark.

Configurational analysis is marked by its distance towards the history of ideas and intentions, which are conceived as mainstreams in historical studies. Configurations of human behaviour and movement have attracted special attention in the framework of phenomenology (→Phenomenology (philosophy)) and particularly in materialist phenomenology.

Configurations in different cultures were studied since early twentieth century.

Ruth Benedict (1934) contributed to the anthropology of Native Americans by using the term of “configurations” as a translation of German “ ”. Configuration denoted a whole of social attitudes, practices and beliefs and was nearly identical with “culture”. It was used for comparison – between the Hopi Indians and the Indians of the prairies, between Japanese and Western culture – and in a perspective of cultural relativism: Each culture has configurations of its own.

Gaston Bachelard (1938) used the term ”diagram” to describe an order of conceived reality both in scientific and in literary understanding. This was his key to a "materialist psychoanalysis". Bachelard’s approach became later a source of inspiration for Michel Foucault.

The age of Renaissance focused on the chains of similarities, going from sign to sign. Cervantes shaped an ironical picture of this configuration by the phantasmas of Don Quixote.
The 18th century constructed the tableau as an universal grammar. On this base, Linné constructed the genealogical trees of plants and animals as a tableau of life. An ironical picture of this configuration was given by Laurence Sterne in his Tristram Shandy.
The 19th century discovered progress and evolution – in life science as natural history, in economy as production, and in language as linguistic history. On the background of these modern configurations, which took their form around 1800, individual subjectivity was constructed, as well as the dynamic of industrial life developed.
Time of bodily movement is marked, among others, by contradictions between acceleration and slowness – between living rhythm and mechanical pace – between linear-abstract and irreversible time – between cyclical, progressing and situational time. Historical change saw for instance the transformation from the noble exercises of the eighteenth century with their circulating and formally measured patterns to modern gymnastics and sports with their patterns of speed, acceleration, and flow, which characterized industrial behaviour more generally.
Space of bodily movement is characterized by contradictions between the straight line and the labyrinth – between connection and parcellation of spaces – between geometrical and directed space – between space, place and intermediary space. Foucault’s study of the panopticon as a specific modern way of organising the space of movement and bodily visibility around 1800 showed the societal depth of this analysis.
Energy of bodily movement consists of a multiplicity of different atmospheres, radiations, moods and modes of attunement. Modern suspension (suspense, tension, thrill, excitement – in German Spannung') emerged in eighteenth and nineteenth century’s boxing and ball games at the same time as it appeared in detective novels. This coincidence was illustrative for the configurational change towards industrial society. Social energy was also illustrated by the study of laughter in the tradition of Mikhail Bakhtin’s analysis of Renaissance society.
Interpersonal relations in bodily movement tell about power and gender – about winners and losers – about you- and we-relations in motion. The study of sports has especially been enriched by the attention to gender unbalances in body culture.
Objectification of bodily movement is especially characteristic for modern body cultures. Bodily movement is reified in a tension between process and result – between social production, reproduction and a-productive encounters in bodily activity – between producing data or pictures by movement. The production of records by modern sports has been a central point for understanding modern industrial behaviour.
Above these basic body-cultural processes, body culture shows patterns of organizational and institutional character as well as the meanings and ideas, which are ascribed to bodily practices. Mainstream studies of sport often over-emphasize these superstructures (→Base and superstructure), while the configurational analysis of body culture gives priority to the focus on bodily practice, in the framework of a materialist phenomenology.
Pierre Bourdieu (1966/67, 1979) launched the concept of ”habitus” to describe patterns of action, of bodily practice and presentation, of taste and aesthetic form (comparable to the Gothic style of Medieval cathedrals). Like configuration, habitus was illustrative for a certain homology, which could be found inside a given social formation or class and as distinction between different social classes.
Peter Sloterdijk (1998/99) developed a cultural ”morphology”, which described the psychosocial geometry of people’s living space and inhabitations, their world and their understanding of God. Micro- and macrospheres were related to each other by characteristic configurations.
1979: La distinction. Paris: Minuit. – English 1984: Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. London: Routledge
1998: Body Cultures. London: Routledge
2001: “Thinking contradictions. Towards a methodology of configurational analysis, or: How to reconstruct the societal signification of movement culture and sport.” In: Knut Dietrich (ed.): How Societies Create Movement Culture and Sport. University of Copenhagen: Institute of Exercise and Sport Sciences, 10-32.
2010: Bodily Democracy. London: Routledge
1970: Was ist Soziologie? München: Juventa. – English 1978: What is Sociology? New York: Columbia University Press.
1975 (ed.): Verhaltenswandel in der industriellen Revolution. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer
1981: Historische Verhaltensforschung. Stuttgart: Ulmer


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