Skip to main content

The Ease of Hard Work: Embodied Neoliberalism among Rocky Mountain Fun Runners

Abstract

In contemporary Western countries, thin, fit, and “healthy” bodies operate as important markers of social status. This paper draws together Foucauldian and Bourdieusian literatures on this topic to investigate how “embodied neoliberalism” (internalized individualism and self-responsibility) intersects with performances of “embodied cultural capital” (high-status markers used to create social distinction). Through an ethnographic case study of upper-middle class white “Fun Runners” in Boulder, Colorado, I ask how people with culturally valued thin, fit bodies enact social status and produce exclusion in an interactional setting. My findings challenge a straightforward translation of “hard work” into status, as we might expect based on neoliberal discourse. Instead, I argue that runners engage in two simultaneous (seemingly paradoxical) forms of boundary work: First, they perform hard work, discipline, and deservingness – drawing boundaries against those who do not engage in the work of bodily discipline; Second, they perform ease and fun – drawing boundaries against those who lack the habitus to make this work appear easy and natural. I contend that the resulting performance of the “ease of hard work” makes the status of thin, fit bodies appear both earned and natural, a doubly effective means of producing exclusion and legitimizing status. These findings reveal that embodied neoliberalism intersects with race and class-based habitus, while also shedding light on how people in privileged positions claim to “deserve” their status through narratives of color-blind meritocracy despite evidence of structural inequalities.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Notes

  1. For some of Bourdieu’s (1984) discussions of ease (and its opposite, pretension or insecurity), see pages 247–255, also pages 66, 74, 84, 95, 176, 207.

  2. The irony and theoretical richness of the title of the “Fun Run” was not apparent to me when I chose the site, but emerged through my analysis.

  3. Previous research has looked at this phenomenon for women (i.e. Cairns and Johnston 2015), but future research could compare the practices of men and women.

  4. There were not enough negative cases to explore why people failed to achieve the ease of hard work. Amy had a lower-class background, while John (discussed below) made a high-income (though I did not ask about his class background). Their cases are primarily interesting in how they reveal the boundary work that the other runners engage in.

References

  • Andreyeva, Tatiana, Rebecca M. Puhl, and Kelly D. Brownell. 2008. Changes in perceived weight discrimination among Americans, 1995–1996 through 2004–2006. Obesity 16: 1129–1134.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Ayo, Nike. 2012. Understanding health promotion in a neoliberal climate and the making of health conscious citizens. Critical Public Health 22: 99–105.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Barnett, Clive, Nick Clarke, Paul Cloke, and Alice Malpass. 2008. The elusive subjects of neo-liberalism: Beyond the analytics of governmentality. Cultural Studies 22: 624–653.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bellah, E. N., R. N., Bellah, S. M. Tipton, W. M. Sullivan, R. Madsen, A. Swidler, W. M. Sullivan, and S. M. Tipton. (2007). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California press.

  • Bobrow-Strain, Aaron. 2012. White bread: A social history of the store-bought loaf. Boston: Beacon Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bonilla-Silva, Eduardo. 2006. Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bordo, Susan R. 2003. Unbearable weight: Feminism, Western culture, and the body. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Boulder Economic Council (2018) Market profile Boulder Colorado, January.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1978. Sport and social class. Social Science Information 17: 819–840.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. The forms of capital. In Handbook of theory and research of for the sociology of education, ed. J. Richardson, 241–258. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. The logic of practice. Redwood City: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1998. Acts of resistance: Against the tyranny of the market. New York: The New Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Brenner, Neil. 1994. Foucault’s new functionalism. Theory and Society 23: 679–709.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, Brian J., and Sally Baker. 2012. Responsible citizens: Individuals, health, and policy under neoliberalism. Anthem Press.

  • Cairns, Kate, and Josée Johnston. 2015. Choosing health: Embodied neoliberalism, postfeminism, and the “do-diet”. Theory and Society 44: 153–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cherry, Elizabeth, Colter Ellis, and Michaela DeSoucey. 2011. Food for thought, thought for food: Consumption, identity, and ethnography. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 40: 231–258.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Crawford, Robert. 1980. Healthism and the medicalization of everyday life. International Journal of Health Services 10: 365–388.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Currid-Halkett, Elizabeth. 2017. The sum of small things: Culture and consumption in the 21st century. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Davies, Christie. 1982. Sexual taboos and social boundaries. American Journal of Sociology 87: 1032–1063.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Dean, Mitchell. 2010. Governmentality: Power and rule in modern society. Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Limited.

    Google Scholar 

  • Desmond, Jane C. 1993. Embodying difference: Issues in dance and cultural studies. Cultural Critique: 33–63.

  • Dworkin, Shari L., and Faye Linda Wachs. 2009. Body panic: Gender, health, and the selling of fitness. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ehrenreich, Barbara. 1989. Fear of falling: The inner life of the middle class. New York: Pantheon Books.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ellingson, Laura L. 2006. Embodied knowledge: Writing researchers’ bodies into qualitative health research. Qualitative Health Research 16: 298–310.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Emerson, Robert M. 2001. Contemporary field research: Perspectives and formulations. Long grove: Waveland press, Inc.

    Google Scholar 

  • Emerson, Robert M., Rachel I. Fretz, and Linda L. Shaw. 2011. Writing ethnographic fieldnotes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Featherstone (1991) The body in consumer culture. In The body: Social process and cultural theory, ed. Mike Featherstone, Mike Hepworth, and Bryan S. Turner, 170–196. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

  • Fine, Gary Alan, and Ugo Corte. 2017. Group pleasures: Collaborative commitments, shared narrative, and the sociology of fun. Sociological Theory 35: 64–86.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Fine, Michelle, Lois Weis, Linda Powell Pruitt, and April Burns. 2012. Off white: Readings on power, privilege, and resistance. New York: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Fletcher, Robert. 2014. Romancing the wild: Cultural dimensions of ecotourism. Durham: Duke University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Foucault, Michel. 1991. Governmentality. In The Foucault effect: Studies in governmentality, ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon, and Peter Miller, 87–104. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gallagher, Charles A. 2003. Color-blind privilege: The social and political functions of erasing the color line in post race America. Race, Gender & Class 10: 22–37.

    Google Scholar 

  • Gimlin, Debra L. 2002. Body work: Beauty and self-image in American culture. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Giroux, Henry A. 2015. Against the terror of neoliberalism: Politics beyond the age of greed. London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Guthman, Julie. 2011. Weighing in: Obesity, food justice, and the limits of capitalism. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Guthman, Julie, and Melanie DuPuis. 2006. Embodying neoliberalism: Economy, culture, and the politics of fat. Environment and Planning D 24: 427–448.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Harvey, David. 2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hickcox, Abby. 2012. Green belt, white city: Race and the natural landscape in Boulder, Colorado. Discourse: Journal for Theoretical Studies in Media and Culture 29: 3.

    Google Scholar 

  • Hilgers, Mathieu. 2013. Embodying neoliberalism: Thoughts and responses to critics. Social Anthropology 21: 75–89.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Holohan, Meghan. 2014. Fittest city? Boulder, Colorado once again tops the list. Today.com , April 5.

  • Holt, Douglas B. 1997. Distinction in America? Recovering Bourdieu’s theory of tastes from its critics. Poetics 25: 93–120.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hutson, David J. 2016. Training bodies, building status: Negotiating gender and age differences in the US fitness industry. Qualitative Sociology 39: 49–70.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Jennings, Jay. 2011. Why is running so white? Runner’s World, November 14.

  • Johnston, Josée, and Shyon Baumann. 2014. Foodies: Democracy and distinction in the gourmet foodscape. New York and London: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Khan, Shamus Rahman. 2011. Privilege: The making of an adolescent elite at St. Paul’s school. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Khan, Shamus Rahman. 2013. The ease of mobility. In Thomas Birtchnell and Javier Caletrío, ed. Elite Mobilities, 136–148. New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, Michèle. 1992. Money, morals, and manners: The culture of the French and the American upper-middle class. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, Michèle, and Marcel Fournier. 1992. Cultivating differences: Symbolic boundaries and the making of inequality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, Michèle, and Annette Lareau. 1988. Cultural capital: Allusions, gaps and glissandos in recent theoretical developments. Sociological Theory 6: 153–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lamont, Michèle, and Virág Molnár. 2002. The study of boundaries in the social sciences. Annual Review of Sociology 28: 167–195.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • LeBesco, Kathleen. 2011. Neoliberalism, public health, and the moral perils of fatness. Critical Public Health 21: 153–164.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lizardo, Omar. 2008. The question of culture consumption and stratification revisited. Sociologica 2: 1–31.

    Google Scholar 

  • Lofland, John, David Snow, Leon Anderson, and Lyn H. Lofland. 2006. Analyzing Social Settings: A guide to qualitative observation and analysis. Belmont: Wadsworth.

    Google Scholar 

  • Luna, Jessie K. 2018. The chain of exploitation: Intersectional inequalities, capital accumulation, and resistance in Burkina Faso’s cotton sector. The Journal of Peasant Studies.: 1–22.

  • Lupton, Deborah. 1995. The imperative of health: Public health and the regulated body. Vol. 90. London: Sage Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  • Maguire, Jennifer Smith. 2007. Fit for consumption: Sociology and the business of fitness. London and New York: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Mears, Ashley. 2011. Pricing beauty: The making of a fashion model. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Metzl, Jonathan M., and Anna Kirkland. 2010. Against health: How health became the new morality. New York: New York University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Mueller, Jennifer C. 2017. Producing colorblindness: Everyday mechanisms of white ignorance. Social Problems 64: 219–238.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Navarro, Vicente. 2007. Neoliberalism, globalization, and inequalities: Consequences for health and quality of life. Amityville: Baywood Publishing.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ogden, Cynthia L., Margaret D. Carroll, Brian K. Kit, and Katherine M. Flegal. 2014. Prevalence of childhood and adult obesity in the United States, 2011-2012. JAMA 311: 806–814.

  • Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. 2014. Racial formation in the United States. London and New York: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  • Ong, Aihwa. 2006. Neoliberalism as exception: Mutations in citizenship and sovereignty. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Pagis, Michal. 2010. From abstract concepts to experiential knowledge: Embodying enlightenment in a meditation center. Qualitative Sociology 33: 469–489.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peck, Jamie, and Adam Tickell. 2002. Neoliberalizing space. Antipode 34: 380–404.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Peterson, Richard A., and Roger M. Kern. 1996. Changing highbrow taste: From snob to omnivore. American Sociological Review 61: 900–907.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Price, Patricia L. 2000. No pain, no gain: Bordering the hungry new world order. Environment and Planning D 18: 91–110.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Puhl, Rebecca M., and Chelsea A. Heuer. 2009. The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity 17: 941–964.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Roberts, David J., and Minelle Mahtani. 2010. Neoliberalizing race, racing neoliberalism: Placing “race” in neoliberal discourses. Antipode 42: 248–257.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Rose, Nikolas. 1999. Powers of freedom: Reframing political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Rose, Nikolas. 2001. The politics of life itself. Theory, Culture & Society 18: 1–30.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Saguy, Abigail. 2013. What’s wrong with fat? New York: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Saguy, Abigail, and Kjerstin Gruys. 2010. Morality and health: News media constructions of overweight and eating disorders. Social Problems 57: 231–250.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Shilling, Chris. 2012. The body and social theory. 3rd ed. London and Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Stempel, Carl. 2005. Adult participation sports as cultural capital: A test of Bourdieu’s theory of the field of sports. International Review for the Sociology of Sport 40: 411–432.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Talukdar, Jaita, and Annulla Linders. 2013. Gender, class aspirations, and emerging fields of body work in urban India. Qualitative Sociology 36: 101–123.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Tavory, Iddo. 2010. Of yarmulkes and categories: Delegating boundaries and the phenomenology of interactional expectation. Theory and Society 39: 49–68.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wacquant, Loïc. 2004. Body & Soul: Notebooks of an apprentice boxer. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Wang, Youfa, and May A. Beydoun. 2007. The obesity epidemic in the United States—Gender, age, socioeconomic, racial/ethnic, and geographic characteristics: A systematic review and meta-regression analysis. Epidemiologic Reviews 29: 6–28.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Wheaton, Belinda. 2004. Understanding lifestyle sport: Consumption, identity and difference. New York: Routledge.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  • Winchester, Daniel. 2008. Embodying the faith: Religious practice and the making of a Muslim moral habitus. Social Forces 86: 1753–1780.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Zussman, Robert. 2004. People in places. Qualitative Sociology 27: 351–363.

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

This paper has benefitted immensely from close readings and feedback from Jill Harrison, Mathieu Desan, Sanyu Mojola, Christina Sue, Amy Wilkins, Isaac Reed, Leslie Irvine, Jennifer Pace, Aaron Johnson, Andrew Gutierrez, Jamie Vickery, Laurent Cilia, as well as incisive comments from anonymous reviewers. Earlier versions of this paper were also improved through conversations at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association and the American Association of Geographers. Completion of this paper was supported by a writing grant from the American Association of University Women.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jessie K. Luna.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Luna, J.K. The Ease of Hard Work: Embodied Neoliberalism among Rocky Mountain Fun Runners. Qual Sociol 42, 251–271 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-9412-8

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11133-019-9412-8

Keywords

  • Cultural capital
  • Healthism
  • Fitness
  • Boundary work
  • Meritocracy
  • Color-blindness