Aishwarya Ramachandran’s PhD Thesis Proposal

Title: “The fate of the somatotype: Examining the afterlives of a body classification system”

Thesis Supervisor: Dr. Patricia Vertinsky
Committee Members: Dr. Brian Wilson, Dr. Mona Gleason
Dr. Moss Norman

Abstract: While the story of the “somatotype” really begins with William H. Sheldon, an initially well-respected American psychologist who first outlined this system of body-classification during the 1930s, this dissertation project picks up in the years following his ostracization by the broader academic community following WWII. Sheldon was roundly criticized for his eugenic and racist views, for defending the notion of a biological connection between physique and temperament and for touting the supremacy of hereditary influences on human behavior, all of which showed up in his somatotyping research. Knowing this backstory, one may wonder—how has the use of the somatotype managed to retain interest (and even thrive) throughout the 20th century and into the present? The focus of this dissertation is an attempt to answer this question. I examine three case studies where Sheldon’s colleagues successfully revived the somatotype in disparate areas including medicine, physical anthropology, psychiatry, physical education, and sport science. The somatotype was introduced into new areas of research and application through implicit and explicit acts of “boundary-making”, a process whereby scientists draw boundaries between science and non-science to make claims for intellectual authority and legitimacy while denying the same status and resources to “pseudoscientists” and “outsiders”. Nevertheless, the somatotype continued to be used to define and delineate the bounds of “normal” physiques, generating specific understandings of human evolution and variation, and fostering discriminatory beliefs around race, class, intelligence, and athletic performance. In a fourth macro-level case study, I use science mapping techniques and archival approaches to explore the evolving interest in and international reach of somatotyping research from its inception to the present moment, broadly considering the relationships between clusters or groups of somatotype researchers in different disciplinary arenas. Through these studies, I illustrate how, despite persistent and ongoing criticisms of its racist and sexist foundations and implications, academics across the globe have continued to show interest in the use of somatotypes to measure, classify, and organize groups of people in particular ways.