Doctoral Dissertation Research: Federal Policy and Scientific Research on American Physique

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project examines how the U.S. federal government invested in and used science to create specific kinds of standards. While the focus on fitness and health seem like contemporary concerns, they actually date back to the calorie experiments of 19th century Agricultural Experiment Stations, the 1920s nutrition advice of the Home Economics Bureau, and the 1950s fitness projects of the President's Commission on Physical Fitness. Although the impact of such projects has been extraordinary, these multiple agencies and bureaus have never been understood as critical stakeholders in a continuous discussion of good citizens or fit bodies. Political historians have largely avoided the seemingly cultural domain of physique (weight, size, musculature), while cultural historians have tended to overlook the political and scientific aspects of fitness. This research offers a corrective, bringing the state's investment and the role of science in definitions of normal bodies to the fore.

This project investigates the different government agencies and types of scientific expertise and government agencies involved in changes in weight and musculature standards. The research centers on three main questions. First, how did physique become legitimized as a concern of the U.S. federal government? Second, how were decisions about physical measurements made, and how were physiological standards set? How and why did these standards change over time? Third, what were the political implications of these changing body standards? That is, did these standards simultaneously include and exclude individuals as normal citizens?

The investigators' methodology is based in extensive archival work. Documents and materials are examined through qualitative study, consisting primarily of critical textual analysis. Such historical scholarship offers insight into the complexity of state agencies and forms of scientific expertise, and provides an analytical framework to study contemporary debates about health and fitness. The project uncovers and theorizes a largely forgotten history in a way that promises to impact policy studies, anthropological and sociological studies of the body, and the history of science. It also brings attention to some understudied federal archive collections such as the Home Economics Bureau and the President's Commission on Physical Fitness. Its subject matter is of great contemporary interest, as it provides needed historical context for current debates over government intervention in American standards for weight and fitness.

Effective start/end date1/1/1112/31/11


  • National Science Foundation: $10,000.00


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