As you will see from the essay it was as much about how the research was gathered and analysed as about piercing. That is why there is a lot of space given over to the sucess or failure of the actual techniques used. It was for the subject "Methods of Research" and a lot of the marks came from that angle not from the subject matter.



Betts, Katherine (1994) 'Body language' in Vogue, April, vol.184,
iss.4, p.344. 

Blacking E.J.(ed) (1977) The Anthropology of the Body, Monograph
No.15, Academic Press: London. 

Blake, Elissa (1994) 'Pierced bodies in rebellion' in The Age. Tempo,
20 April, p.11.

Faurschou, G (1988) 'Fashion and the cultural logic of
postmodernity' in Kroker, Arthur and Louise (eds) Body Invaders,

Featherstone, M,  M. Hepworth and B. Turner (1991)(eds) The Body. 
Social Process and Cultural Theory, Sage:  London.

Fetterman, David (1989) Ethnography.  Step by Step, Applied Social
Research Methods Series, vol.17, Sage Publications: Newbury Park. 

Foucault, Michael (1980) 'Body/power' in C.Gordon (ed) Michael
Foucault.  Power/Knowledge, Harvester:   Brighton. 

Giddens, Anthony (1991) Modernity and Self-Identity, Stanford
University Press:  California. 

Goffman, Irving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,
Penguin:  London. 

Mansfield, Alan and Barbara McGinn (1993) 'Pumping irony: the
muscular and the feminine' in S.Scott and D. Morgan (eds) Body
Matters, Ch 4, p.49-68. The Falmer Press:  London. 

Manne, David (1993) 'Hung up on SM' in The Melbourne Times,
July 7, p.13. 

Masterton, Andrew (1994) 'Carved in Flesh' in The Age Extra, 3
September, p.13. 

Myers, James (1992) 'Nonmainstream body modification.  Genital
piercing, branding, burning and cutting' in Journal of
Contemporary Ethnography, Vol.21, No.3, Oct, p.267-306. 

Paine, Rod (1994) Writing the Body:  Containing a most Improving
Cultural Inquiry into the Contemporary Practices of Skin Tattooing
and Body Piercing, (honours year thesis) Swinburne University. 

Polhemus, Ted (1978) Social Aspects of the Human Body Penguin: 

Robinson, J (1988) Body Packaging, Macmillan: Syney. 

Rubin, A (1988) Marks of Civilisation, Museum of Cultural History: 
Los Angeles.

Sanders, Clinton (1988) 'Marks of mischief.  Becoming and being
tattooed'  in Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol.16, No.4,
Jan, p.395-432. 

Scott, Sue and David Morgan (eds) (1993) Body Matters The Falmer
Press:  London.

Shilling, Chris (1993) The Body and Social Theory Sage: London. 

Stocking, George (1968) Race, Culture and Evolution:  Essays in the
History of Anthropology, Free Press:  New York. 

Turner, Brian (1991) 'Recent developments in the theory of the
body' in M. Featherstone, M. Hepworth and B. Turner (eds) The
Body.  Social Process and Cultural Theory, Sage:  London, p.1-35. 

Vale, V and Andrea Juno (eds)(1989) Modern Primitives Re/Search
Publications: San Francisco. 

 Virel, Andre (1979) Decorated Man.  The Human Body as Art/Text,
Abrams: New York. 

Body Piercing in the West:

a Sociological Inquiry.

A research report by Susan Holtham.

The term body piercing is fairly self evident.  It refers to the
piercing of the body with a hollow gauge needle and the
installation of surgical grade steel (or gold, titanium, surgical
plastic) jewellery into the tongue, nipples, nostril,  naval, lips,
labia, eyebrow, ear cartilage, ear lobe, ear tragus, perineum, penis,
scrotum, septum, clitoral hood and clitoris proper.   

In the last decade a surge of popular interest and involvement in
the permanent body modification practices of piercing and tattooing
has been evident in the industrialised West (Rubin 1988, Paine
1994).  This 'popular interest' manifests itself as numerous articles
in popular magazines (eg. Betts 1994), as 'special features' on local
current affairs television, in radio documentaries, as the theme of
large-scale photographic exhibitions (see Manne 1993) and as
articles in newspapers such as The Age  (see Masterton 1994, Blake
1994 - among many others) which have helped to disseminate a
basic knowledge and awareness of these modification practices to a
larger more mainstream population.   Creating a knowledge and an
interest in Melbourne which has in the last five years shifted
piercing out of the backrooms of adult bookstores and into heavily
patronised, high-technology shop-front studios. 
This research derived its impetus from the observation that what
has been a highly stigmatised practice repugnant to mainstream
Western society now seems to be gaining in popularity and
momentum.   (Although this is not intended as an analysis of the
processes by which marginalised practices are co-opted into
popular culture per se.)   What fascinates me is what I perceive to
be a new and emerging physical sensibility among the citizens of
the developed nations.   
Specifically, what it is about the lived experiences of modern
people which leads increasing numbers of them to seek out and
participate in practices long considered the domain of primitive

Literature Review:

The exotic ritual practices and body ornamentation of the world's
'tribal peoples' have traditionally been the domain of cultural and
social anthropology, generating and sustaining a huge body of
research (eg. Stocking 1968, Blacking 1977).   The focus of such
attention has always been on traditional non-western societies; 
'primitives', simultaneously naked and adorned, alternatively
cutting and scarring the body and piercing the face.    From
studies of Tiv scarification to Mayan tongue piercing,
anthropological inquiry is largely descriptive, couching
explanations for primitive body modification practices in  terms of
its function and role in tribal societies (Polhemus 1978:149-173).    

Rubin (1988) claims that his academic anthology Marks of
Civilisation is the first systematic, cross-cultural and inter-
disciplinary exploration of body modification and adornment.  Marks
of Civilisation purports to be global in scope, however it pays
scant attention to the contemporary Western body modification
practices of body piercing, focusing instead on tribal cicatrisation
and tattooing. 

Popular anthropological texts which feature Euro-American subjects
such as Virel's (1979) Decorated Man  and Robinson's (1988) Body
Packaging compound this trend by portraying primitive body
modification and Western adornment practices in providing scopic
pleasures for a populist audience.  

Two recent ethnographic studies on tattooing and body piercing in
contemporary America have explicitly attempted to redress this
balance.  Based on years of in-depth field work both Myers (1992)
and Sanders (1988) are concerned with their subjects' motivation
and rationale for becoming pierced and tattooed.   Sanders became
extensively tattooed in the seven years he spent engaged in field
research.  He interviewed and surveyed tattooed people and
emphasises the tattoo as both a mark of disaffiliation from
conventional society and as a symbolic affirmation of personal
identity (Sanders 1988:395).   

 Myer's participant observation in ritualised SadoMasochistic group
'piercing parties' over a two year period led him to conclude that
such practices fulfilled a universal human function in providing a
'rite of passage as a cultural drama' as well as providing the
means by which members could proclaim their various social
affinities.  Myers devised eight categories to contain his subjects'
rationale for their involvement in body modification practices.  He
describes his subjects as 'sane, successful people' in an effort to
counter both the emphasis in medical and psychological literature
on aberrant psychology and self-mutilation and the repugnance
mainstream society feels toward his subjects' interests in the body.

Myers' conclusions are limited by the nature of his sample
population and are couched in cross-cultural, trans-historical and
ultimately functionalist explanations for Euro-American body
modification practices.   Such non-local and non contextual
explanations for what appears to be a relatively recent and also
increasingly popular and divergent practice in the West are
ultimately unsatisfying and necessitate the examination of broader
approaches to the body in sociology. 

The Body in Social Theory:


Shilling (1993) describes classical sociology as being 'disembodied'
because it maintains and accepts the mind/body dichotomy.  In
focusing on the mind as that which defines humans as social
beings, classical sociology has tended to ignore the 'embodiedness'
of its human subjects (1993:8).   Shilling describes the body as
thus having had an 'absent presence' in sociology, nurturing and
informing much of its enquiry yet neglected as an object of
analysis (1993:10).   The traditional focus in sociology on
collectivities and a fear of supporting work based on biological
essentialism has contributed to the disciplines inability to
adequately account for the physical body in social space (Scott
and Morgan 1993:2,14).
Two broad paradigms can be identified in sociological literature
pertaining to the body.  The first, Shilling describes as the
'social-constructionist paradigm' (1993:10).  Two theorists dominate
here. Goffman (1959) focuses on social life as a shared set of
bodily gestures and idioms whereas Foucault (1980) conceptualises
the body in social life as the site of multiple and contesting
Social constructionist views of the body tell us about how society
has 'invaded', 'shaped', 'classified' and made the body meaningful;
the body is named as a theoretical space,  yet this space tends to
remain undertheorized.  Social constructionism thus reduces the
human body to social forces (Shilling 1993:198). 

The second paradigm is described by Shilling (1993) as
'naturalistic' or 'reductionist'.  Here the tendency is to reduce the
complexities of social life to an  unchanging pre-social body which
forms the biological basis for social relationships and inequalities;
social categories are thus reified as natural phenomena .  
Naturalistic views both underestimate and overestimate the
importance of the biological body to society by assuming that
social phenomena can be seen as direct and unmediated products
of the body and failing to perceive that social inequalities can
themselves become embodied (1993:199). 

Neither reductionist nor constructionist paradigms are able to
adequately account for what appears to be an increase in body
modification practices in the West as body piercing seems to be a
social act inscribed upon a biological phenomenon.   

Thus the theoretical framework adopted for this research will be
the work of Chris Shilling.  Shilling is attempting to create a third
paradigm he describes as a 'foundationalist' view of the body. 
Shilling argues that the human body is most profitably
conceptualised as an unfinished biological phenomena which is
taken up and transformed as a result of participation in society

What emerges from the literature review as crucial to this 
research is the need to contextualize the practice of body piercing
within its location and place in history.  Previous research has
erroneously concluded that body-piercing serves universal
functions by comparing and conflating piercing practices from pre
and post industrialised countries as 'remarkably similar' (Myers

What seems evident is that in traditional societies, ritual body
modification practices connect people and their bodies to the
reproduction of long established social positions whereas in the
industrialised West body piercing seems to serve the function of
individuating the self from society. 
The work of Giddens (1991) and Turner (1991) on modernity and
self-identity is invaluable in understanding this paradox.  Turner
identifies and highlights four broad historical factors in the West
he argues contribute to the rise of the body as a 'self-reflexive
project for modern people' in the period of time he conceptualises
as 'high modernity' (1991:19-22).  Giddens uses such concepts as
'lifestyle' to describe the 'integrated set of practices chosen by
individuals to give  material form to a particular narrative of self-
identity' (1991:81).   Giddens (1991) argues that as the dominant
discourses of religion, family duties and hard work lose currency
at the close of the twentieth century, modern people are
attempting to construct a 'narrative of self' upon all that seems to
remain solid and tangible: their physical bodies (1991:225). 
Considered in this context an upsurge in hitherto 'primitive' body
modification practices among modern people can be aligned with the
dominant  discourses and pre-occupations of mainstream society in
physical health and fitness.  

Where Giddens and Turner provide a broad historical and
theoretical context with which to account for the rise of body
piercing in the West, Rubin, a social anthropologist, documents in
loving detail the rise in popularity and the evolution of tattooing
in the West.   While not concerned with body-piercing per se the
trajectory is arguably similar.   Rubin (1994) contends that the
'tattoo renaissance' in the West was bought about by the
professionalization of the practice; with increasing access to high
quality tattoo resources hitherto excluded groups of the middle
class and women became involved, helping to lessen the stigma on
tattooing, thus broadening its appeal (1994:233).  

A common and enduring theme throughout much of the literature is
the impact piercing the body has on both an individual's self
identity and feelings of group affiliation.  Sanders (1988) writes of
tattoos providing 'social cues' between people, and of his subjects
marking themselves with 'indelible symbols of what they see
themselves to be (1988:426)'.   Paine (1994) echoes this sentiment
with his analysis of body piercing as part of the fashion system. 
Paine argues that piercing provides the means for an individual to
'attempt to forge a genuine mode of self-exploration which does not
rely on the current authenticating narratives of fashion (1994:14)'. 
There are two important reasons for this research.  The first is
that it will attempt to fill a gap in the literature.   Despite an
exponential increase in recent sociological writing on human
embodiment and various body modification and adornment practices
specifically (eg.body building: Mansfield 1993, tattooing: Sanders
1988, 'style': Faurchou 1988) there is a paucity of literature
pertaining specifically to body piercing practices in Western

Secondly, the medium of the human body has a unique capacity as
the focal point for the integration of extremely individual and at
the same time extremely collective levels of experience (Polhemus
1978:27).  This study may then serve as a vehicle for furthering
an understanding of how objective and subjective, individual and
collective experiences are integrated in everyday reality.  These
data may thus yield valuable insights into the increasingly
individual 'life-worlds' of contemporary citizens of the West.  They
may also contribute to a project which is gaining momentum in
sociology (see Featherstone et al, 1991, Scott and Morgan 1993):
attempting to provide the theoretical apparatus to adequately
'account' for the body in the social world. 

In order to avoid repeating Myers' (1992) ethnographic 'thick
description' of body modification practices in contemporary America
this research has identifiably  different theoretical objectives. 
This study moves beyond Myers' research parameters in an effort
to contextualize what appears to be an upswing in body
modification practices in the West.  Specifically asking:  why at
this moment in history are the modern people of the industrialised
nations indulging in body modification practices formally the
domain of the world's primitive peoples?


This research builds on a fairly recent trend in Sociology, where
the study of marginalised communities and/or practices is initiated
and undertaken by members of those same communities (eg. the
work of lesbian and gay theorists of the seventies which has since
given way to research endeavours by those representing a
plurality of sexualities).  Following Paine (1994), Rubin (1988), Vale
and Juno (1988),  Sanders (1988) and Myers (1992) I write about
body piercing from an 'insiders' perspective. As someone who has
been involved in piercing and tattooing from a young age I cannot
claim critical distance from either my subject or my informants. 
However, Fetterman (1989) argues that every researcher begins
with biases and preconceived notions of how people think and act,
and to mitigate the negative effects of bias the ethnographer must
first make specific biases explicit (1989:11).  This is my particular
bias:  I don't perceive piercing, scarring or tattooing the body to
be an abhorrent or mutilating practice.  

Despite a gradual and observable shift into the mainstream, body
piercing still has residual connotations of deviance.  Thus access
to valid data may be difficult or impossible for an 'outsider', as
the relatively short time frame of this study precludes the
groundwork necessary to establish trust and rapport between the
'outsider-researcher' and the population under study (Fetterman

This research has been designed with my position in mind and
attendant ready access to a group of 'piercees'.  The data
gathering instruments will generate data which can be qualitatively
analysed.  Although a quantifiable demographic profile of 'piercees'
would be invaluable, any attempt to glean reliable data about an
individual's status as a mainstream or as a marginalised person
would probably be considered too invasive. 

After Sanders (1988), I have a two pronged approach to data
gathering:  in-depth interviewing and a short written
questionnaire.   These research instruments were chosen both for
their expediency and for their fundamental role in  generating
qualitative primary data.   The time constraints of this project
mean that it is not an ethnography per se, but an ethnographically
styled report.  I am hoping to maintain however, the emphasis in
ethnographic research on preserving and detailing the 'emic'
('natives' perspective) of my  informants in tandem with the etic - 
grounded theory.  Ethnography - the art and science of
describing a group or culture - has been selected as the mode of
this research because its inductive, holistic nature allows for
multiple interpretations of reality and alternative readings of data
(Fetterman 1989:12).   

The Interviews:

I conducted and recorded in-depth interviews with three people
currently working as body piercers in Melbourne.  At the
beginning of the interviewing process I had little idea of what
information I needed to elicit, and thus the first two interviews
were semi-structured with open-ended questions.  Using the
inductive approach I hoped the data from my interviewees would
aid in the generation of a theory, or number of theories about
body piercings move from the marginalised to the popular.   The
three piercers interviewed were nominated as the 'key informants'
in this research, as they are the facilitators of the practice and
thus the 'gatekeepers of knowledge'.   Fetterman (1989) contends
that key informants are able to provide a 'macro' picture of the
culture or practice under study and can thus help synthesise the
researcher's observations (1989:50).   
The sample was thus 'purposive'.  I hoped the face-to-face
interviews would provide the kind of valuable non-verbal cues and
denotative information impossible to glean from the written
surveys.  As well as establishing the required trust and friendship
I needed to have access to the walk-in clientele at a local body
piercing studio for surveying purposes. 

The Written Survey:

(See Appendix A)
The written survey was designed to hold interest and be 'user
friendly'.  Questions were grouped under the headings 'past',
'present' and 'future' in a ploy to make respondents feel as if
they were documenting an aspect of the narrative of their lives. 
The data I wanted to elicit formed the 'micro-picture' - explicitly
individual experiences of being pierced.    The questions are all
open ended and designed to glean information about personal
identity and group affiliation without actually stating my specific
interest.  It is hoped that data from the interviews with the
piercers can be 'triangulated' with the data from the surveys of
the piercees in an effort to test the quality of both sources of

Respondents were primarily the customers of a local body piercing
studio.  The sampling method was snowball in tandem with a
purposive one.   These methods were necessary because the
'piercing population' are impossible to quantify, often indiscernible
from the larger population, and rarely 'capturable' in any one
locale.   An individual was deemed suitable for participation in this
project if they had one or more non-mainstream piercings in their
The key variable was the piercing itself, the definition of a 'non-
mainstream' piercing was operationalized as any  piercing other
than one or more small unstretched ear-lobe piercings. 

The Cyber Survey:

(See appendix B)
'Posted' by modem to a talk group on the World Wide Web called
Rec.arts.bodyart the 'cyber survey' was a copy of the ink and
paper survey with an altered introduction proclaiming my status as
an insider in the practice.  This was essential in order to allay the
inevitable suspicion about my motives and interests in the piercing
practices of 'Rabiters' (regular contributors to the talk group) as
a novice 'poster' to what is a fairly tight and active group.   The
sampling method was a thus a 'voluntary' one; replies were
requested to be sent to my private E-mail address. 

There were problems in the data arising from my research design. 
My written survey didn't elicit enough detail or the type of
information I was hoping for to be able to extrapolate ideas about
group and personal identity from.   The 'purposive' sampling
method was problematic as was the wording and circumspect nature
of the survey questions, some of which may have seemed ludicrous
to my respondents - eighty-five per cent of who had visible facial
piercings - such as 'who knows about your piercings?' and 'who
doesn't know'.  


The Interviews:

I came to regard the three piercers as 'exemplars' of the practice,
in that they each embodied the practice of piercing as a profound
lived experience - as a life-style.    Bill and George (and Louise to
a lesser extent) are visibly heavily pierced.  In their roles as
proprietors of the two professional piercing studios in Melbourne
they act as facilitators of the practice; the environments they have
created both sets the tone and guides the experience for their

Bill has extensive experience with the original Californian piercing
conglomerate 'Gauntlet' who claim to have originated and
customised the practice (a move from the primitive to the modern)
in the States and who now export their jewellery and piercing
knowledge world-wide.  Bill claims that piercing is 'huge' in the
U.S. but that as a fashion it is already on the decline.  

Louise has a differing emphasis on her personal interest in body
piercing than do Bill and George.  Louise first became pierced in
the context of a commitment ceremony with a lover, and says she
enjoys her piercings because they're sexually stimulating and make
her feel positive about her body as well as providing pleasure for
herself and those around her.   

Whereas Bill de-emphasises the sexual aspect of body piercing and
says his involvement is to do with 'the  mapping of his own
history and personal evolution'.  The many piercings and tattoos
he wears having a 'synergistic effect on his life', facilitating an
'alternative spirituality'.   Bill and George emphasise what they call
the 'tribal aesthetic' in both their own bodies and in their piercing
studio in an effort to 'honour the tribal roots of body piercing'.  
George's interest in piercing stems from what he describes as 'the
desire to experience his mind and body on different levels and
thus become more self-aware.'

Louise describes the demand for professional piercing services in
Melbourne as having 'gone through the roof' in the last three
years.  Her business began as a two hour service on a Saturday
afternoon above a gay male adult bookstore in 1990 and has since
expanded to two studios in Melbourne and Sydney, with six
piercing staff working full-time six days a week.   Louise credits
the phenomenal rise in interest in body piercing to a range of
factors.  Predominantly the increased visibility of piercing having
a kind of 'flow-on' effect as new people become aware of the
options available to them to augment their bodies.  Louise also
performs many piercings as part of commitment ceremonies and
ritual acts of submission or attachment.  She also senses in her
clientele a general move toward 'reclaiming their bodies and taking
pleasure in the look and feel of the piercing'. The three
interviewees all credit the rise of interest in body piercing in part
to do with a general disaffection with the governing narratives of
our lives.  Specifically, Louise thinks many of her clients are 'on
the search, searching for meaning, and for feelings of belonging to
something larger than themselves that isn't religious'.    

All three informants spoke of having pierced 'all types of people,
of all ages from every profession'.  Louise claims that customers
are no longer of a predictable 'type', however her customers are
predominantly interested in facial piercings. George says the
majority of his customers are under twenty-five and interested in
the 'socially acceptable' piercings of the naval and nostril.

The Survey:

Eighteen men and fifteen women completed and returned the
written questionnaire, N= 33.  Eight of these came by E-mail.  The
majority of returned 'cyber surveys' were from the U.S.   Mean
age of respondents was twenty-five, range in ages was twelve to

What I was attempting to elicit with the surveys was a
comprehensive and holistic picture of how piercing figured in my
respondents' lives.  Many themes emerged from piercees' answers
to the all important 'what motivates you to do it?' question, which
echo some of the findings of Myer (1992) and Sanders (1988) as
well as the insights of the 'exemplars' of the piercing world: the
piercers.  (See table 2 for a statistical  breakdown of respondents'
reasons for becoming pierced). 

1. Respondents' relationship to their body.  

All but five respondents reported feeling their body had 'changed'
after having being pierced.  This usually entailed a change in
their feelings about their bodies and themselves; eg. 'it made me
feel I could do anything', 'I feel more attractive and self-aware',
'invisible piercings give me an inner confidence'.  Other
respondents wrote of their piercing practices having to do with
issues of control over their bodies.  Two women write:
      'I really like the way my body looks a lot better
      now.  I have been a heavy person all my life and
      my body felt out of my control.  Body modific-
      ation is totally within my control'. 

      'I do not have a spectacular body, my husband
      quite rightly calls me a telephone pole with lumps.
      I think that my (nipple and clitoral hood) rings
      add to my being a woman'. 

Another young woman writes of how she uses piercing:
      (It's been) done at times when I felt like I needed
      to ground myself.  Sometimes I feel like I'm not in 
      my body - that's when its time.  Also, my clitoral 
      hood pierce has meant that my vagina is no
      longer a taboo area for me.'

2. Sexual enhancement: 

Piercing the body to heighten the experience of sex is a common
theme which fuels popular interest in the practice and is often the
way in which piercing services are 'sold' to the public.  In this
sample group sexual enhancement was the second most frequent
rationale given for piercing the body.  

One American women in her sixties writes: 
      'In forty-three plus years I have become a woman
      who is prone to waken her husband in the small
      hours and initiate the dance that leaves us both
      exhausted and at peace with our world.  Would I
      be so demanding without my rings?  Don't hold
      your breath waiting for me to remove them to find out'.  

This survey only attracted two (of thirty-three) respondents who
were interested in piercing as part of sado-masochistic body play. 

 3.  Symbolic power.

Some respondents imbued private acts of piercing with  symbolic
power capable of reclaiming previous experiences of powerlessness. 
One twenty-eight year old woman frames her decision to recently
have her nostril pierced as a response to her experience of
becoming a mother at eighteen: 
      'the experience of being a young mother is in part
      why I chose to get my nose done....I felt trapped
      by others' expectations, the piercing was a way of
      pushing through my own desires to deal with in
      myself the power of the systems that be...and my
      desire to refuse to conform.'
Another young American woman writes that her piercings...
      seem to take place after an unpleasant event...
      I guess as my way of getting some pleasure out
      of the situation.  The first tongue piercing marked
      six months after having been raped and symbol-
      ized my inability to speak about the event.' 

4. Ritual purposes and significant events.

For others body piercing served the function of indelibly marking
in the flesh significant events in their lives. 
In the words of one man:

      'Each time I was pierced it was to mark the
      profound moments in my life.  My first fuck,
      the first death of a close friend, mental well-health.

Another heavily pierced respondent spoke of his most significant
piercing experience to be his two heavy gauge guiche (perineum)
piercings performed as his partner was in labour the night their
son was born.   Another couple pierced each other's navels on
their second anniversary. 

5.  Enjoying the process, liking the look: aesthetics and pleasure.                  

Thirty-seven percent of the reasons given for becoming pierced
were to do with enjoying the process and liking the look.  
Respondents spoke of the 'thrill' and 'rush' of the actual moment
of the piercing as well as enjoying playing with the healed pierce
and adorning their bodies with jewellery.  

6. Tribalism:

Only one young woman couched her interest in piercing
in its primitive and tribal origins:
      'People with body piercings represent a strength
      - tribal... a symbol of going through an experience 
      and surviving...the piercing is a physical manifest-
      ation of it.'

7. Non-conformity.

Many respondents were conscious of their desire to rebel against
the mainstream and aware of the power of visible  piercings to
shock and disturb those they encountered.  One man wrote of the
reaction to his tongue pierce:
      'a couple of people have screamed,
            one man passed out when he saw it'. 

Others write of friends' and strangers' disbelief at the size of
their stretched ear-lobe holes and the courtesy they show aged
relatives by disguising their body modifications when visiting. 
When asked if they thought they were perceived differently by
friends or strangers after becoming pierced the majority of
respondents replied yes -and no.  One man sums up neatly:

      Those that know me see it as entirely in
      character.  Strangers do perceive me differently,
      or I imagine they do, from the amount of time
      they spend talking to my eyebrow. 

The majority of respondents were interested in other body
modification practices, many planned to become tattooed (if they
weren't already) and some were curious about cutting and
branding.   All but three of those surveyed considered their
acquired piercings to be permanent, having made 'a commitment to
them'.  Which suggests that piercing the body is not simply a
fashion destined to be discarded by the mainstream as its
popularity wanes but something more enduring and integral to
these respondents' perceptions of self.  

Few respondents' wrote about piercing in terms of group affiliation
or belonging.  Although from my 'hanging around' at a local
piercing studio it was apparent that people were arriving with
relatively large crowds of their peers to either be supported
through their experience or to be pierced as a group.  (Such as
the four young police cadets who rocked into Nomad one Saturday
asking for a group discount on four navel piercings).

An examination of which parts of the body are being chosen for
piercing may offer insights into this phenomenon (see table 1).  A
staggering eighty-five percent of respondents were wearing (all or
some of) their non-mainstream piercings in their faces or ears. 
One in four of those surveyed also had a navel pierce - usually
worn to be 'shown off' - which suggests that respondents'
piercing practices are - consciously or unconsciously - to do with
the projection of a 'self'  which requires an audience of some


The completed surveys reveal a major flaw in my methodology.  
The majority of respondents had very little to write about their
personal experiences of piercing, this was probably due in part to
the fact that they were approached by me (in the manner of a
purposive sample) to participate in my research, and often had
little time to consider the questions or little interest in the
process.   I managed to elicit far richer data from the cyber
survey, as those who volunteered to participate in my research
were much more interested and had information they were keen to

The sampling method meant that respondents were skewed toward
those who were either visibly pierced, or newly pierced, or were
friends of Bill and George and keen to hang out and be seen in a
groovy shop-front piercing studio.   Which has implications for the
demographic of this sample, away from the 'quietly pierced' or the
'long-time pierced' toward the predominantly young, 'hip' and
visibly pierced.

Also, seven of the thirteen questions allowed (but didn't
encourage) simple yes or no answers; which I unfortunately
received in abundance.   (The two 'pilot questionaries' were filled
out very adequately by people known to me and thus I didn't
anticipate this problem).  

Thus the survey data collected can be said to have problems of
poor  validity.  The survey instrument was unable to elicit either
the depth or type of information required (with some very notable
exceptions). Questions I hoped would reveal information about
community affiliation (are the people you know interested in
piercing too?, are your piercings visible or shown off?)  were a
total wash-out.   Also, less than half of survey respondents
reported having had any significant experiences around piercing.  

This research would have benefited greatly by a modified written
survey containing questions specifically asking for an individual's
social affiliations as well as asking how their piercing practices
impacted on their personal identity.  Each question would need to
contain various probes for detailed explanations.  

To shape further research (as Myers did with his participant
observation at SM piercing parties) into a study of those for whom
piercing was a significant part of their lives and personal make-
up, the most successful sampling style is the 'volunteer' method.  
With surveys either left on a studio counter to be filled in and
returned at a respondent's leisure or a request for  respondents
such as posting to a talk group on the World Wide Web.  Upon
collection of the written data, those with the most eloquent,
interesting or divergent responses could be approached with a
request for a face-to-face interview.  

Crucial to the analysis of qualitative ethnographic research is the
process of 'triangulation' - comparing and contrasting different
sources and modes of gathered information to test for possible
third variables and alternative 'explanations'.  

The body piercers, Louise, George and Bill, all bought to their
personal involvement in becoming pierced the desire for intense
physical states upon which they could build and experience some
kind of heightened awareness.   For Louise this was bound up
with her sexuality; the practice embedded her into a sexual
community interested in sex as body play and consensual

George and Bill couch their piercing practices in terms of a
'lifestyle', or more importantly as part of what they regard as a
movement toward what has been described as 'modern
primitivism' - the harking back to something more 'basic' and
fundamental in human nature: pain, ritual, a concern with the
processes of the body and exploration of different levels of
consciousness and physical experience.   (See Juno and Vale's
excellent non-academic ethnographic anthology Modern Primitives.)  
 It is upon this common interest in adorning and modifying the
body that small affiliational communities - or tribes - of 'modern
primitives' have developed in the wealthy, industrialised Western

Very few in this sample group of piercees (N=33) couched their
personal interest in piercing in the terms of either sexualized
body-play (as distinct from general sexual enhancement) or as part
of what Bill described as a movement toward the 'retribalization of
the planet'.  What has emerged from the survey instrument
(however flawed) which is beneficial for my research question is
the lack of significance many of those surveyed bring to their
involvement in what has been until very recently a highly
inaccessible and stigmatised practice.   However, the experiences of
the piercers may be seen as the foregrounding or the making
explicit and conscious of what could be the larger more generalised
and 'subterranean' mood of their clients. 

Body piercing in the West has moved out of its places of inception
- away from the invitation-only SM piercing parties, the bikers'
conventions, the private referral-only gay male piercing service -
firmly into the domain of the popular.  It has metamorphosed into
an affordable, regulated, competitive and visible service industry. 
But why now, as we approach the millennium, are growing numbers
of affluent, modern people choosing to undergo painful body
adornment and modification practices which may appear to others
to be lifted straight from the pages of National Geographic?  
Turner (1991), Giddens (1991) and Shilling (1993) document the
historic factors they claim are responsible for the meteoric rise in
emphasis and attention given to the body in modern social systems. 
 Significant to this research is Shillings' (1993, after Giddens 1991)
description of how people in modern developed societies attempt to
build and sustain a self identity.   Shilling argues that the erosion
of grand religious and scientific narratives in the latter half of
this century has undermined traditional meaning systems,
stimulating in modern people a heightened reflexivity about life,
meaning and death (1993:2).    The decline of those frameworks
which tended to support existential and ontological securities
residing outside of the individual and the massive rise of the body
in consumer culture as the bearer of symbolic value has meant
that modern people place an increasing importance on the body as
constitutive of the self (Shilling 1993:3). Thus the modern
individual's sense of self identity is reflexively understood in
terms of their own embodied biography;  the self and the body
have become reflexively organised projects, arranged and
performed against the backdrop of a complex plurality of choices
(Shilling 1993:4,181).   Shilling argues that in the affluent West the
tendency is for the body to be seen as a malleable entity which is
'unfinished' and always 'becoming'.  

As 'the self' has been conflated with the appearances of the
surfaces of the body then adorning the body can be assumed to
occupy an increasingly important role in an individual's identity
(1993:5). Considered in this way the 'taking up' of body piercing
in the West by growing numbers of modern people can be seen as
part of this highly reflexive process of inscribing the surfaces of
the body in order to delineate and project some kind of visible,
tangible identity. 

As human embodiment is at the very centre of nature / culture
and biology / society divisions then taking the body seriously in
sociology can be seen as central to widening the scope of the
discipline (Shilling 1993:29).   Further study of the body within
the popular could usefully attend to themes of personal identity
construction; specifically how particular embodied practices orient
individuals in their lives and how those practices enter into the
construction of social relations.  An intriguing avenue of research
has been suggested by Shilling (1993) who contends that the
emphasis many individuals' place on their bodies as constitutive of
the self can be seen as an attempt to retain some form of power in
an increasingly complex world and thus serves as a retreat from
the 'world-building' activity that is imperative to meaningful
participation in social systems (1993:182).  


The relationship between the piercing practices of traditional
societies and modern individuals is paradoxical.  In traditional
societies piercing practices serve to enculturate and socialise the
otherwise 'mute' body, whereas in the West piercing the body is a
much more deliberative and reflexive process, often bound up with
an individual's desire to separate the self from society.   What
seems doubly paradoxical is that as Western people appropriate,
customise and participate in hitherto tribal practices in response
to what is described as 'a loss of governing narratives', those
same tribal people are giving up their interest in inscribing their
own bodies as their governing narratives are subsumed by Western
ideals of progress, technology and consumption (Rubin 1988:15). 

What seems evident is that while trends and patterns in piercees'
rationale and motivation for becoming (and continuing to become)
pierced are demonstrable, piercing the body is a practice upon
which individuals bring a range of desires and multifarious
meanings.  From committing to a partner to 'liking the look' to
wanting to reclaim an experience or 'piss off' one's parents to
mapping one's journey through life to extending and intensifying
orgasm.  The practice itself has only residual connotations of
meaning which are steadily being eroded as it moves into the
mainstream.  As the denotative power of the practice fractures and
becomes diffuse piercing the body can serve only as an
experience. In this age of simulacrum piercing the body serves as
an authentic experience, one that cannot be simulated, one which is
yours and yours alone to embue with meaning as you require. 

So there it is folks. Your coments are always welcome.
Return to the Studio.