Somatotype and constitutional psychology
Somatotype is a taxonomy developed in the 1940s, by American psychologist William Herbert Sheldon, to categorise the human physique according to the relative contribution of three fundamental elements, somatotypes, named after the three germ layers of embryonic development: the endoderm, (develops into the digestive tract), the mesoderm, (becomes muscle, heart and blood vessels), and the ectoderm (forms the skin and nervous system). His initial visual methodology has been discounted as subjective, but later formulaic variations of the methodology, developed by his original research assistant Barbara Heath, and later Lindsay Carter and Rob Rempel are still in academic use.
Constitutional psychology is a now discredited theory, also developed by Sheldon in the 1940s, which attempted to associate his somatotype classifications with human temperament types. The foundation of these ideas originated with Francis Galton and eugenics. Sheldon and Earnest Hooton were seen as leaders of a school of thought, popular in anthropology at the time, which held that the size and shape of a person's body indicated intelligence, moral worth and future achievement.
In his 1954 book, Atlas of Men, Sheldon categorised all possible body types according to a scale ranging from 1 to 7 for each of the three "somatotypes", where the pure "endomorph" is 7–1–1, the pure "mesomorph" 1–7–1 and the pure "ectomorph" scores 1–1–7. From type number, an individual's mental characteristics could supposedly be predicted. Barbara Honeyman Heath, who was Sheldon's main assistant in compiling Atlas of Men, accused him of falsifying the data he used in writing the book. Questions exist about her motivations in making these accusations.
The three types
- Ectomorphic: characterized as linear, thin, usually tall, fragile, lightly muscled, flat chested and delicate; described as cerebrotonic inclined to desire isolation, solitude and concealment; and being tense, anxious, restrained in posture and movement, introverted and secretive.
- Mesomorphic: characterized as hard, rugged, triangular, athletically built with well developed muscles, thick skin and good posture; described as somatotonic inclined towards physical adventure and risk taking; and being vigorous, courageous, direct and dominant.
- Endomorphic: characterized as round, usually short and soft with under-developed muscles and having difficulty losing weight; described as viscerotonic enjoying food, people and affection; having slow reactions; and being disposed to complacency.
There is evidence that different physiques carry cultural stereotypes. For example, one study found that endomorphs are likely to be perceived as slow, sloppy, and lazy. Mesomorphs, in contrast, are typically stereotyped as popular and hardworking, whereas ectomorphs are often viewed as intelligent but fearful and usually take part in long distance sports, such as marathon running. Stereotypes of mesomorphs are generally much more favorable than those of endomorphs. Stereotypes of ectomorphs are somewhat mixed.
Though the psychological bindings have largely been discredited, Sheldon's physical taxonomy has persisted, particularly the Heath-Carter variant of the methodology. This formulaic approach utilises an individual's: weight (kg), height (cm), upper arm circumference (cm), maximal calf circumference (cm), femur breadth (cm), humerus breadth (cm), triceps skinfold (mm), subscapular skinfold (mm), supraspinal skinfold (mm), and medial calf skinfold (mm), and remains popular in anthropomorphic research, as to quote Rob Rempel "With modifications by Parnell in the late 1950's, and by Heath and Carter in the mid 1960's somatotype has continued to be the best single qualifier of total body shape".
This variant utilises the following series of equations to assess a subject's traits against each of the 3 somatotypes, each assessed on a 7-point scale, with 0 indicating no correlation and a 7 a very strong:
- Endomorphy: =
- Mesomorphy: =
- Ectomorphy : Calculate the subjects Ponderal Index:
- If , Ectomorphy =
- If , Ectomorphy =
- If , Ectomorphy =
This numerical approach has gone on to be incorporated in the current sports science and physical education curriculums of numerous institutions, ranging from the UK's secondary level GCSE curriculums (14-16 year olds), the Indian UPSC Civil Service exams, to MSc programs worldwide, and has been utilised in numerous academic papers, including:
- Olympic Lightweight and Open Rowers possess distinctive physical and proportionality characteristics for selecting elite athletes; Kerr D, Ross WD, Norton K, Hume P, Kagawa, Masaharu; 2007; Journal of Sports Sciences 25(1):pp. 43–53.
- Anthropometric characteristics, body composition and somatotype of elite junior tennis players; Sánchez‐Muñoz C, Sanz D, Mikel Zabala M; Br J Sports Med. 2007 Nov; 41(11): 793–799; doi:10.1136/bjsm.2007.037119
- Somatotype Variables Related to Muscle Torque and Power in Judoists; Lewandowska et al.; Journal of Human Kinetics volume 30/2011, 21- 28 doi:10.2478/v10078-011-0069-y
- Anthropometric characteristics and body composition of Greek elite women volleyball players; Papadopoulou S; Kinanthropometry VII, Edition: 7, Publisher: Pochefstroom University for CHE, Editors: H. de Ridder and T. Olds, pp. 93–110
- Somatotype of Top-Level Serbian Rhythmic Gymnasts; Purenović-Ivanović T, Popović R; Journal of Human Kinetics. Volume 40, Issue 1, Pages 181–187, ISSN (Online) 1899-7562, ISSN (Print) 1640-5544, doi:10.2478/hukin-2014-0020, April 2014
- Anthropometric characteristic, body composition and somatotype of Canadian female soccer players; Adhikari A, Nugent J; American Journal of Sports Science 01/2014; 2014(2(6-1)):14-18.
- Anthropometric, morphological and somatotype characteristics of athletes of the Brazilian Men’s volleyball team: an 11-year descriptive study; Petroski et al. 2013, Brazilian Journal of Kineanthropometry & Human Performance;2013, Vol. 15 Issue 2, p184
- Comparison of body composition and somatotype of trained female triathletes; Christopher N. Leake, 1989, Journal of Sports Sciences, Volume 9, Issue 2, 1991, pages 125-135
- Study on the adult physique with the Heath-Carter anthropometric somatotype in the Han of Xi'an, China; LT Yang, 2015, PMID 25940679
- Somatotype characteristics of female patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus; AG Baltadjiev, 2013, PMID 23905489
- Somatotype characteristics of male patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus; AG Baltadjiev, 2012, PMID 23101284
- Anthropometrica: A Textbook of Body Measurement for Sports and Health Courses; Kevin Norton, Tim Olds, Australian Sports Commission, UNSW Press, 1996, ISBN 978-0868402239
- Somatotype analysis of elite Taekwondo athletes compared to non-athletes for sports health sciences; Noh et al.; Toxicology and Environmental Health Sciences; 2013, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 189–196
- Somatotype: a more sophisticated approach to body image work with eating disorder sufferers; Stewarta et al.; Advances in Eating Disorders: Theory, Research and Practice, Volume 2, Issue 2, 2014; DOI:10.1080/21662630.2013.874665
- The Relationship between Posture and Somatotype and Certain Biomechanical Parameters of Iran Women’s National Dragon Boat Team; Pourbehzadi et al.; Annals of Biological Research, 2012, 3 (7):3657-3662
- Height, weight, somatotype and body composition in elite Spanish gymnasts from childhood to adulthood; Alfredo Irurtia Amigó; apunts med esport. 2009;161:18-28
The principle criticism of Sheldon's constitutional theory was that it was not a theory at all but one general assumption, continuity between structure and behavior, and a set of descriptive concepts to measure physique and behavior in a scaled manner.
His use of thousands of photographs of naked Ivy League undergraduates, obtained without explicit consent, from a pre-existing program evaluating student posture, has been described as scandalous, and perverted ("the study of nude people by lewd people").
His original thesis has also been described as fraudulent for knowingly failing to acknowledge / account for body shape changing with age.
His suggestion of a genetic link to both body shape and personality traits has also been described as objectional.
Sheldon's theories enjoyed a vogue as the "pop-psych flavor of the month" through the 1950s. Modern scientists, however, generally dismiss his claims as outdated, if not outright quackery.
- Biological anthropology
- Body mass index
- Body shape
- Eugenics in the United States
- Female body shape
- Neurobiological effects of physical exercise
- The Bell Curve
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