The PhD Abstracts below were published in MSo Volumes 6, 7 & 8.

Touching work


A narratively-informed sociological phenomenology of Holistic Massage

Dr Carrie Purcell, University of Edinburgh 



This thesis comprises an exploration of the practice of Holistic Massage, working across the sociological areas of complementary and alternative medicines (CAM), body work, emotional labour, sociological phenomenology and narrative inquiry. Holistic Massage is one of a plethora of practices encompassed by the field of CAM. While there has been steadily increasing sociological interest in CAM in recent years, much research has treated this diverse group as relatively homogeneous. This thesis looks at one practice in depth, in order to address issues specific to Holistic Massage – including what ‘holism’ adds up in to in practice, and the devaluation of knowledge based on touch(ing) – as well as those concerning CAM more broadly. Hence, whilst drawing on existing research on CAM, this research also addresses a lacuna within it via a novel methodology.

The thesis employs the conceptual tool of ‘touching work’, which brings together the concepts of ‘emotional labour’ (Hochschild 1983) and ‘body work’ (Wolkowitz 2006 and others) in a way that draws out relevant aspects of each around the fulcrum of touch, thus accounting for the latter in both its sensory and emotional meanings. In so doing, it also contributes to the recently burgeoning literature on the senses in sociology, and to an embodied sociology more generally. The thesis also draws on sociological phenomenology, in particular the notion of the intersubjective ‘stock of knowledge’ (Schutz 1963), and the understanding of talk as constitutive of the everyday social world. The overall methodological approach taken – which is outlined fully in the second chapter - brings together phenomenological theory with narrative inquiry, and specifically with the analysis of the form and content of talk. The analysis presented is based around data from loosely-structured interviews with ten women who do Holistic Massage. The interviews were analysed in terms of their overall shape and distinctive features (Chapter Three) and, in subsequent chapters, with respect to both what was said and how it was said. This analysis examines the constitution of a Holistic Massage stock of knowledge (Chapter Four) and how the practice is bounded (Chapter Five), and concludes in Chapter Six by taking a step back from the detail of the data to look at what can be known from it about Holistic Massage and touching work.

Piecing together the constitution by practitioners of a stock of professional Holistic Massage knowledge makes a significant contribution to the sociology of CAM, and thus to medical sociology more broadly. Also, by uniting phenomenological sociology and narrative inquiry, it provides a novel perspective on a form of work which is part of a small but significant contemporary occupational field in the UK. In particular, it draws out the multiple aspects of touch which can in fact be known and articulated through talk and challenges ideas about the supposedly ineffable character of touch. In this regard, it points to similarities between how practitioners talk about this and the Foucauldian challenge to the ‘repressive hypothesis’, which sees people as in fact talking readily and in detail about matters where they claim silence prevails.

This doctoral research was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.


Dr Carrie Purcell
University of Edinburgh
carrie.purcell@ed.ac.uk


Hochschild, A.R. (1983) The Managed Heart: The Commercialization of Human Feeling, London, University of California Press
Purcell, C. (forthcoming 2013) ‘Touch in holistic massage: ambiguities and boundaries’, in C. Wolkowitz, R.L. Cohen, T. Sanders and K. Hardy (eds) Body/Sex/Work – Intimate, Embodied and Sexualised Labour, London: Palgrave
Wolkowitz, C. (2006) Bodies at Work, London: Sage


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Abstracts are published here as provided by the author and in the order in which we receive them.