Alain Mueller

Anthropology, movement, and a pinch of punk rock

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Anthropologically grasping the squat. Part 1: the squat represented and representing

Four men squatting, obviously in the Huda Sector, Ghata, Haryana, India. Source: unknown. 

For quite a long time, I have been fascinated by the squatting position. I consider the squat to be an extraordinary ethnographic “tracing element”—in Michel Serres’s sense1—to approach and explore broader anthropological questions, and anthropological knowledge itself.

I’m not the first anthropologist to be interested in the squat. In his very famous essay on the “techniques of the body,” Marcel Mauss already used the example of the squat to point at the differences in the treatment of the body and its techniques among societies, as he says2:

The child normally squats. We no longer know how to. I believe that this is an absurdity and an inferiority of our races, civilisations, societies. (…)

The squatting position is, in my opinion, an interesting one that could be preserved in a child. It is a very stupid mistake to take it away from him. All mankind, excepting only our societies, has so preserved it. (…)

You can distinguish squatting mankind and sitting mankind. And, in the latter, people with benches and people without benches and daises; people with chairs and people without chairs. Wooden chairs supported by crouching figures are widespread, curiously enough, in all the regions at fifteen degrees of latitude North and along the Equator in both continents.

When analyzing Mauss’s approach to the squat (and the squat in general as I’ll show), various approaches can be adopted. The first one, which seems to me the most obvious one, is a reflexive one. From the perspective of an Anthropology-after-Writing-Culture, this analysis would take Mauss’s analysis itself as an object of analysis, i.e. the ways the squat is represented and representing in “classic” anthropological narratives. Such a reflexive analysis says a lot about the epistemology and ontology that both traverse Mauss’s analysis and, recursively, that Mauss’s work contributed to solidify.

From this perspective, Mauss’s approach to, and accounting for the squat is a very telling example of the discursive production of what Bruno Latour calls the double Great Divide. Briefly summarized, Latour’s analysis of the fabric of the Modern epistemology and ontology shows that they rely on a radical dichotomization between 1) nature and society—the First Great Divide—and 2) between “Us” (Moderns) Vs. “Them” (Premoderns)—the Second Great Divide.

Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard Univ. Press, 1993, p. 99.

I don’t want to go too much into detail here, but it might be useful to mention that Latour builds on the notion of Great Divide as theorized by Jack Goody and his analysis of the construction of anthropological knowledge (from Lévy-Bruhl to Lévi-Strauss). What Goody does is to identify how these authors establish (essentially through the use of categories) a radical dichotomy between “We” and “They”, as he states3:

We start with the conviction that there are important differences between ourselves (variously defined) and the rest. […] We try to state the nature of these differences in very general terms – the move from myth to history, from magic to science, from status to contract, cold to hot, concrete to abstract, collective to individual, ritual to rationality.

In Goody’s perspective, the Great Divide is mainly a discursive production. This does not mean this production has no real outcome. The discourses do circulate and solidify through the mediation of socio-technical systems and quasi-objects (including, yes, books) and, consequently, become common sense.

Similarly, for Latour, the production of the double Great Divide essentially relies upon a façon de parler, that is, upon discourses, or speech acts in Austin’s sense, that are, again distributed and materialized through various forms of mediations and dispositifs (typically, academic disciplines have been institutionalized like this).

Mauss’s analysis of the squat is indeed a neat example of how anthropologists have participated (and still do) in the construction of the double Great Divide. It is very obvious when examining the categories that Mauss uses to qualify the squat as a technique of the body. He clearly opposes “We,” “people with chairs,” and a loss of the ability to squat, with “They,” “Premoderns,” “people without chairs” that have conserved the squat (Second Great Divide). Mauss’s analysis, therefore, insinuates that squatting is “more natural” (First Great Divide), less civilized.

More recently, Tim Ingold has been revisiting Mauss’s demonstration of the squat in his article “Culture on the Ground: The World Perceived Through the Feet.” Similar to Mauss, he states4

In most non-western societies the usual position of rest to adopt, while awake, is the squat […]

Anthropologists, however, are not the only ones representing the squat within a web of categories that pertains to the double Great Divide. The squat is represented and representing in ways that contribute tracing the double Great Divide in many representational settings, showing how these dichotomies are constantly produced, reinforced and becoming common sense through discourses in a broad sense, that is, through material-semiotic mediations of various kinds. In what follows, I examine a couple of examples that I stumbled upon over the course of my wanderings. Of course, they are not exhaustive in any way, but I found them very telling.

Hans Erni “La vie sociale en Mauritanie,” mural painting (detail) 1954, Musée d’ethnographie, Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Photo: Alain Müller

This squatting position above, for instance, is a part of a larger mural painting located in what is today the cafeteria of the Ethnographic Museum of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, which shares its building with the Anthropology Institute where I teach. The mural painting was realized by Swiss artist Hans Erni, who joined Anthropologist Jean Gabus at the beginning of the 1950’s to undertake fieldwork in Mauritania. Their aim was to study craftsmanship, bodily techniques, and gestures. Here, the squatting position and its depiction denote the underlying fabric of the ‘Us’ Vs. ‘Them’ Great Divide, that is, in the (political and public) representation of Otherness and the invention it pertains to. They squat, we don’t.

Detail of a strip from Hermann and Greg, Bernard Prince, “La flamme verte du conquistador,” 1974. Photo: Alain Müller

Time-traveling to roughly 20 years later, this is another interesting illustration of a squat, this time taken from the Franco-Belgian comic Bernard Prince (I love Franco-Belgian comics and think they are fantastic tokens to question and analyze the political economies of representation). In the album “La flamme verte du conquistador,” drawn by Hermann and written by Greg (both very famous names in the world of Franco-Belgian comics) in 1974, this illustration of a man squatting serves well the narrative plot, as it contributes to trace and draw the radical alterity and wilderness of a gang of thieves, natives of Marayali, an imaginary country near Venezuela.

Let me get back to this notion of double Great Divide. In both Goody’s and Latour’s perspective, the Great Divide(s) indubitably pertains to ontological dualisms. They do not only consist of separating and splitting stuff for the sake of it. Rather, they constitute strong ontological asymmetries in the heritage of the so-called Cartesian Split. In other words, both the First and the Second Great Divide have to be understood vertically (contrary to what the above-reproduced diagram by Latour could suggest) to the extent that both the “We” and the “Culture” poles are constructed and homogenized as ontologically superior to the “They” and “Nature” ones. Ultimately, both Goody and Latour are showing to what extent such an epistemology/ontology lay the foundations for dominating and domesticating 1) Non-Western Others and 2) Nature.

This “verticality” is obvious in the Comic example, where squatting becomes the tracing marker not only of radical alterity but of a threat, a danger, at least a positionality that is negatively valued. Another very obvious example of this dimension is the subtle way the squat, “originally” a wide-spread technique of the body, became a form of stigma in regions that are currently profoundly transformed by a process of modernization. In such context, squatting slowly became a marker for stigmatization rather than solely a technique of the body, and “those who still squat” slowly became synonymous for “non-educated,” “rural,” “Premodern” populations. The squat, its representation and what it represents are now entangled within the production of a Third Great Divide (which is pretty much a hybridization of the two first divides), that is, a divide radically separating urbanity and rurality. Although I’m not a specialist of China, there seems to be such a process going on in Chinese society, where squatting became strongly associated with rural areas (while from the so-called Western perspective, squatting remains strongly associated with China as a whole—as I’ll show hereinafter—, which shows how sneaky and fluid the entanglement of the now triple Great Divide is constantly and continuously (re)structured and (re)arranged.

My colleague and friend, anthropologist Yvan Schulz, chatting with an old man in Longsheng County, Province of  Guangxi. Photo: Pierre Schulz.

The most stereotypical example of this vertical dimension, that is, the active, continuously ongoing fabric of the “They” vs. “we” divide and the asymmetry it pertains to through the representation of the squat—and the squat as a representation—is this “Toilet Rules” sign. It was spotted on the door of the bathroom of a shopping mall in Thun, Switzerland, which has the reputation to be a destination of choice for Asian tourists. “You squat, we don’t!”

But let me move back from common sense to anthropological discourse itself. This vertical dimension is a bit less obvious in both Mauss’s and Ingold’s analyses of the squat that are without a doubt a bit more subtle and also with different valuations attached. Here, while represented clearly as the Others and thereof radical alterity, “those who squat” are not associated to depreciated positionalities, such as villains and/or uneducated inhabitants of rural areas, and the very ability to squat is not looked down upon; quite the contrary.

And this where it becomes a bit trickier: when dualisms and dichotomies that lay the foundation of asymmetries are (re)produced by “defenders” of the dominated and domesticated “poles.”  This is the case in Mauss’s analysis of the squat. Although his analysis clearly pertains to the double Great Divide with regard to the categories used and the dichotomies they point at, there is also a clear reversal of values intricate to Mauss’s analysis. In a sort of “reverse orientalism”, Mauss insists on the idea that it is a pity that the squatting position wasn’t preserved in Western societies. So does Tim Ingold. While taking the Divides for granted, Mauss as well as Ingold, then, are espousing the idea that the “natural,” the “Premodern” treatment of the body must be better than the chair-sitting position that it was substituted by in Modern societies.

In recent years, this positive valuation of the “squat from Premodern Societies,” has found a strong echo in new paradigms of fitness and sport training, as well as, in a larger perspective, “holistic” approaches to health. Here, the rehabilitation and the “reconquering” of the squatting position in so-called Western societies is praised, in referring to non-Western societies as models for best (or better) practices. All these communities agree and insist on the importance of squatting for the overall health of the body, drawing on several arguments such as the need to regain a restricted mobility resulting from the modern sitting positions, the health of the spine and/or the more “natural,” “anatomical” and therefore “healthier” character of defecating in a squatting position. As the categories used indicate, these discourses still pretty much reify the double Great Divide.

Kelly Starrett’s work is a very telling example for this. Starrett, a doctor of physical therapy, co-founder of the San Francisco CrossFit branch, and author of the best-selling book Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance, has been advocating for the rehabilitation of the squat for a very long time. His idea on the topic can be very well summarized by the following post he published on his social media profiles:

Taken from the Facebook page of Starrett’s Mobility Wod.  
In his video “Squatting to Restore Spinal Motion and to Poop,” Kelly Starrett explains the benefits of this position in the following words (my transcript) while sitting in a full squat position:

In our sense, and a [interrupted by one of his interlocutors] it is very Japanese. Basically, what you’re seeing is a lot of hips; lateral rotation of the sacrum and the pelvis together. And that’s important. Because a lot of time when we stand, we get stuck in sacrum in one direction and pelvis in another direction, which is called mutation. And so one of the things that happens, we get fully locked in extension all the time. Sitting like this does a couple of things: one is that it opens up the spine in the back. In fact, we don’t see any lumbar disease in any third-world country, or any country that toilets on the ground, or sleeps on the ground. And secondarily, we see no hip disease in any country that sleeps on the ground, toilets on the ground, partly is because that completely reinforces this range of motion. You’ll find that it’s not an accident that many of the best athletes on the planet have excellent hip . . . flexibility . . .

Here again, the structure of the discourse, the categories used (and suggested) and the dichotomies they refer to pertain to the double Great Divide: “They,” “Japanese” (therefore non-Western), i.e. squatting mankind (i.e. what the human body was “naturally” built for), are doing much better than “We,” “Western,” i.e. sitting mankind who lost the range of motion allowing us to “naturally” squat.

No wonder that Starrett posted the article “Why Can’t Everyone Do the ‘Asian Squat’?” published in The Atlantic, accompanied by the comment “Humans are born squatters”. Again, the narrative structure of both the article and Starrett’s comment to it are quite obvious: Humans are “naturally” squatters, but “we” have lost it. To the contrary, “Asians,” they, not only never lost the ability to squat, but all of them do it everywhere and all the time. We seem to be radically different, and the ability to squat shows it.

Ido Portal, another well-known trainer and movement practitioner, as for him, praises the value of the squat by proposing the playful “Squat 30/30 Challenge”. The challenge consists in (trying to) stay in a squat position for 30 minutes per day. The first post by Portal on the Facebook group page dedicated to the challenge is a drawing of a squatting person, accompanied by the following message:

Squat 30/30 Challenge Squat- a basic human position. Original human use: REST. Having difficulty squatting? Lets work on it! For the next 30 days spend 30 min a day of ass to grass, relaxed spine, fiat foot squat . . . and get HUGE benefits in mobility, knee and hip health, digestion and more! Join the ‘Squat 30/30 Challenge’ FB group and post your picture and experiences – support each other! . . .

As Starrett, Portal and his followers depict the squat as “natural” for human beings and thus trace “nature” in its radical separation from “civilization” (First Great Divide). I found this example, posted on the Facebook group page dedicated to the challenge, very telling:

Taken from the Facebook page of the 30/30 Squat Challenge.  

There are many examples found online with the very same type of argumentation down to the rhetoric and narrative architecture: “We” have lost the “natural” squatting position, while “They” (broadly understood as Premoderns, such as in this example, and/or “Non-Westerns”) still use it (and they were/are right to do so!).  This last example sums it up pretty well:

A Facebook post by the French coaching service Protocole 2PM. 

Posted on a social media platform by Protocole 2PM, a French fitness and physical therapy center, this picture is accompanied by the following text (my translation):

Mankind has always used this natural sitting position to manipulate objects, to rest, to play, to urinate, or to defecate.
Besides, it’s a natural position for the baby while playing.
The use of furniture from Western culture (chairs and tables, toilets, etc.) tends to forget this position in favor of a 90-degree seat.
This is much less the case in the Asian or the African culture for instance.

As the squat and its representations serve as tracers to divide “nature” and “civilization”, as well as “We” vs. “They”, the resulting ontological dichotomies set the ground to operate as part of a boundary making and identity building process that is articulated on the mode of reversed orientalism, by reversing respectively the values attached to each pole, such as in the title Nature knows best, and, furthermore, the indexicality of who “We” and respectively “They” point to. Thus, the squat becomes a marker of who “We” are, radically different from “They” who don’t squat. The resulting identity produced is very often linked to a territory or a “culture,” such as “Asia”, as it is the case in the telling example of this video, “Why Asians Can Do The Asian Squat,” in which the very ability to squat is plotted as a strong signifier of “Asianness” among second or third generation of Asians in the United States. Note that along with this shift, there is a move from the squat as depicted to the ability to squat that becomes depicting.

I’ll leave this first part with an open question: Have you ever made the actual experience of (trying to) squatting? This is an important move—in all senses of the term—as it allows to move from a reflexive, representationalist analysis to a recursive, experiential one. Stay tuned for part 2.

  1. As he says: “To achieve a narrative, one needs a tracing element.” Serres, Michel, “Sceptre.” In Tintin au pays des philosophes, edited by Michel Serres et al., Paris: Philosophie Magazine, 2011, p. 114, my translation of “Pour réussir un récit, il faut avoir un élément traçant. ”
  2. Mauss, Marcel, “Techniques of the Body,” Economy and Society, 1973[1934], 2, 70-88, p. 77 ff..
  3. Goody, Jack, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 3.
  4. Ingold, Tim, “Culture on the Ground The World Perceived Through the Feet,” Journal of Material Culture, 2004, 9, no. 3: 315-340.

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