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Physiognomy: From Science to Profiling

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You cannot escape the current reality of the construction of ethnic and sexual stereotypes within the world today. All around, you see a depiction of, ‘the terrorist’ as the middle eastern Muslim man, with his deeply wrinkled, brown skin and untamed beard, or the ‘female beauty’ as the thin, pale woman with smooth skin and round eyes. The Caucasian is hired over the non-Caucasian, the man over the woman. Dirty looks or averted gaze in fear for the Muslim, approached to ask for directions for the beautiful woman. When ancient philosophers from across the globe, started toying with the idea of being able to read, or understand an individual’s basal personality traits, all by looking at someone’s face, would they have even believed where their practice would remain within the 21st century? 

Physiognomy, as it is now known, has been around for centuries, with the first evidence of the practice stemming back to ancient Mesopotamia (Jenkinson, 1997). And with a similar practice known as, shenxiang quanbian, also evidenced throughout Chinese history some 4000 years earlier (Kohn, 1986, p. 227). Physiognomy today is considered a pseudoscience, mainly because of its historical relation to palmistry, astrology, divination, and later even to various religious faiths (Jenkinson, 1997). Yet, it is hard to disregard its prominence within today’s society.

It is argued by Hassin and Trope in their article Facing faces: Studies on the cognitive aspects of physiognomy, that physiognomy can no longer be understood as the process of “reading from faces”, but rather as, “reading into faces” (2000, p. 837). This remains consistent when considering the current systems of scientific studies which all have historical links to physiognomy. They include ethnography, anthropology, and criminology, all based on, as Jenkinson discusses in their article Face facts: a history of physiognomy from ancient Mesopotamia to the end of the 19th century, “racial and sexual profiling” (1997). Jenkinson further discusses this idea of physiognomy as an extension of human natures, “want to break things down and categorize” (1997, p. 7). But is this just a form of self-reflection within itself?

How can it be that science so highly regarded, as to have been evidenced within Aristotle’s school, alongside Charles Darwin’s understanding of the correlation between human and animal emotion, has become so distorted into becoming a defining feature of profiling? Well, it has possibly always been that way (Rahul, Agrawal & Kohli, 2019). Twine discusses in their article, Physiognomy, Phrenology and the Temporality of the Body, of the contemporary understanding of physiology as a relation between the self and the other (2002). This idea of a “physiognomic gaze”, as Wegenstein and Ruck discuss in, Physiognomy, Reality Television, and the Cosmetic Gaze, is not really new (Wegenstein & Ruck, 2011, p. 27). A close link between physiognomy and the aesthetic gaze was very quickly joined, as European philosophers and scientists, such as John Caspar Lavater, added illustrations depicting features which could define an untrustworthy, or criminal trait within an individual (Wegenstein & Ruck, 2011). 

The real issue now is trying to find physiognomy’s true place within history, as systematic proof of the human need to categorize and therefore profile. While it seems obvious that the issues which remain alongside physiognomy’s practice will remain, it invites more questioning into the human behavior of stereotyping, as more than just a mass media portrayal, but also as an individual behavior depicted across centuries, with evidenced practice. 

Reference List

Hassin, R., & Trope, Y. (2000). Facing faces: Studies on the cognitive aspects of physiognomy. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 78(5), 837-852. doi: 10.1037//0022-3514.78.5.837

Jenkinson, J. (1997). Face facts: a history of physiognomy from ancient Mesopotamia to the end of the 19th century. The Journal Of Biocommunication, 24(3), 2-7.

Kohn, L. (1986). A Textbook of Physiognomy: The Tradition of the “Shenxiang quanbian”. Asian Folklore Studies, 45(2), 227. doi: 10.2307/1178619

Rahul, M., Agrawal, R., & Kohli, N. (2019). Layered Recognition Scheme for Robust Human Facial Expression Recognition using modified Hidden Markov Model. Journal Of Multimedia Processing And Technologies, 10(1), 18. doi: 10.6025/jmpt/2019/10/1/18-26

Twine, R. (2002). Physiognomy, Phrenology and the Temporality of the Body. Body & Society, 8(1), 67-88. doi: 10.1177/1357034×02008001004

Wegenstein, B., & Ruck, N. (2011). Physiognomy, Reality Television and the Cosmetic Gaze. Body & Society, 17(4), 27-54. doi: 10.1177/1357034×11410455