Lately I’ve been piecing together some thoughts on what we are doing when we act in the world, what we’re reproducing, and how (or if) things could be otherwise. This enquiry brought me back to a thinker I’ve been reading for some time — Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). His writing is extremely insightful, equally for its theoretical trenchancy and ethnographic narrativity. He was a subversive thinker, really, and he was very gifted at uncovering the mechanisms that operate in our daily lives to determine how we act, what we like, what we know, how we articulate these things, and much much more. Based on my limited knowledge, he’s also one of those thinkers whose theories are rarely put to gainful use by others, opposed to, say, the more regularly used and understood works of folks like Lévi-Strauss, Gramsci, Marx, Durkheim, and, well, many others (fill in the blanks for yourself). Some have “used” Bourdieu quite skilfully, of course — for my money, Thomas Csordas stands above the rest. But if I had a quarter for every academic paper I’ve heard delivered at conferences in which someone invokes Bourdieu and their ideas become more recondite than they were before invoking him, then I’d be flush enough to spring for lunch. This is to say, it seems like for many people Bourdieu muddies their ideas more than clarifies them.
Why is this? You read his work, and it’s so incisive…so clever…so rich. If anyone who reads this blog also reads Bourdieu, then perhaps that person can set me straight, point to some useful examples of Bourdieu put to use in fruitful and novel ways. In the meantime, I’m happy to post this clip from Pierre Charles’s 2001 documentary on Bourdieu, Sociologie est un sport de combat (“Sociology is a Combat Sport”). It offers some insights from the man himself about what makes society tick. After the clip, if you’re still interested, I offer a dump of my notes on the intellectual genealogy of one of the concepts Bourdieu put to great use in his works – habitus.
A Rough-n-Ready Genealogy of the concept HABITUS
The word habitus derives from the Latin √habere, “to have.” Habitus is the Latin translation of the Greek hexis (ἕξις). The verb habere was typically used in the sense that someone or some people had a disposition to act or behave in a certain way.
ARISTOTLE argued that a person becomes courageous by doing things that make her courageous; having gained the state of being courageous, resulting from the willful enactment of deeds that led to the courageous disposition—what some people might call habitual or routine—she becomes more and more readily able to act courageously. ARISTOTLE did not concern himself with the causes that might have led her to want to acquire the disposition of courage. Rather, he focused on the development of character and the ways in which character relates to moral behavior. So, for example, his argument is that a person trained as a pipefitter over time comes to possess the necessary disposition to act in a way befitting a pipefitter. For ARISTOTLE the locus of analysis, as well as the end of the analysis, was the individual. He did not think one could fruitfully explain the practices of the pipefitter’s union by analyzing the structures of the pipefitter’s disposition.
St. Thomas AQUINAS’s theory of habit went like this: every habit is a disposition, and every habit is that by which one acts as the result of one’s will. One has these habits or dispositions, and these possessions operate upon the individual as principles for action and behavior. Our actions therefore ensue from habits (e.g., science is the habit of conclusions arrived at by means of reason; hence, one who has mastered the rigmarole of a science [including the rationale it entails] may, through willed acts, do the work of a scientist). Unlike BOURDIEU’S culturally deterministic use of habitus (see below – the one who put habitus on the map as a sociological concept), AQUINAS did not presume nor claim that the habitus, or habits of thought, present obstacles to freedom in one’s actions (free will, of course, is crucial to AQUINAS’s theological program).
With Émile DURKHEIM we begin to see the notion of habitus develop as an important sociological concept. DURKHEIM formulated something he called the “collective habit,” which very closely resembles the habitus as employed by Pierre BOURDIEU. The collective habit exists as expressions, or behaviors, of people and are passed on from one person to another by word of mouth, education, and the like, and becomes fixed in writing (e.g., legal and moral rules, parables, sayings, tastes, etc.).
In Primitive Classification (1903), DURKHEIM and Marcel MAUSS argued that cultural classification systems (specifically the classification of natural systems in traditional Australian societies) are structured by the social order. The ways in which a society classifies things, they said, reveal a distinctive pattern of socially informed types of thought that exist in a society. The principles of a society’s classification systems, furthermore, structure the cultural practices in which people daily partake. DURKHEIM and MAUSS thought societies were constructed as unified entities and, as unified entities, societies impose themselves on their environments. Accordingly, for DURKHEIM and MAUSS it was appropriate to analyze society as a cohesive body, of which the undergirding structural principle is a “conscience collective.” DURKHEIM and MAUSS do not quite close the gap in this model between the social structure and social agency. Clearly BOURDIEU drew upon, or at least absorbed, some the social understanding of DURKHEIM and MAUSS insofar as his later understanding of class and “specific habitus” are concerned.
MAUSS’s work on body techniques (1935) is for all intents and purposes the immediate precursor to BOURDIEU’s conceptualization and use of the idea of habitus. For his part, it’s likely that MAUSS’s habitus belongs to the ARISTOTELIAN vein. That is, we can say MAUSS reintroduced the Latin concept habitus, with its ARISTOTELIAN weight, into French sociological theory. But he was also attuned to the post-Darwinian applications of the concept—namely, that society is built on the differentiation between morphology (material structure of an organism) and physiology (the nature of the organism’s functioning). Above all, the habitus was important to MAUSS because of its incisiveness for explaining the ways in which socialization, particularly through systems of education, imposes social forms of thought and body techniques. So-called techniques du corps became for him a “bodily habitus.” MAUSS’s intent was to show how body techniques are powerfully and effectively formed through social education and training, and naturally that they vary from society to society.
MERLEAU-PONTY expanded HUSSERL’s social phenomenology to include habits as the embodiment of forms of classification. HUSSERL understood habits to refer to meaningful events that are constituted in lived experience, which people hold onto and which resurface over time. HUSSERL further understood these habits to be possessions, in the Latin sense of habitus, and they generate states in the individual that enable action. MERLEAU-PONTY was opposed to the structuralist program, but he did concede that in the case of cultural systems there was something that structured the ways people know, produce art, perform rituals, create myths, and so on. He hastened to add to this capitulation, however, that men, society, and history do not exist for these structures. He felt there needed to be a “lived equivalent” to the overriding cultural systems and structures. He rejected the notions of cultural and historical determinism. He sought rather to promote the existentialist dictum that humans are free to choose their actions. As such, MERLEAU-PONTY tried not to understand social codes of an abstract nature that define the human individual; rather he promoted the analysis of culture through a testing of one’s self through experiential encounters with the other (and vice versa). In the process, the self changes itself and changes other selves, and through these changes views of nature and human being change and, in turn, cultural constructions change and develop.
The structuralist notion of LÉVI-STRAUSS that cultural productions of societies, e.g., culinary practices, marital associations, kinship, etc., are generated by codes (or grammars) greatly influenced BOURDIEU. These codes (or grammars) are analyzable as social behaviors and linguistic features shared by people in a society, and they ultimately generate meaning in a community and find expression as they regulate and order the lives of people within a society. For LÉVI-STRAUSS and the structuralists who adopted his view, habitus is “a generative schema in which the forms of elemental social structures come, through the process of socialisation, to be embodied in individuals, with the result that people necessarily act in such a way that the underlying structures are reproduced and given effect” (Nash 1999, 177).
Under the command of BOURDIEU, the idea of the habitus becomes “a system of shared social dispositions and cognitive structures which generates perceptions, appreciations and actions” (1988, 3, fn.2). Whereas LÉVI-STRAUSS and the structuralists were not able to account for the causal effectiveness between cultural structures, which in turn left open the role of any mediating factor between social structure and social agency, BOURDIEU’s fashioning of habitus did precisely that. Namely, with the concept of habitus BOURDIEU wedded the structuralist theory of culture (social classification, class position) with psycho-social agency theory, or systems and agents (hence, embodied forms of classification, perception, judgment, and so on).
PIERRE BOURDIEU said the Habitus…
 is an embodiment of structure (collapse subject | object distinction)
 provides the grounds for agency (limited arena of choice)
 enables individual trajectories to be studied (has a history and leaves traces)
 unites past and present (product of early experience yet modified by subsequent experience)
Habitus = The Principle that Regulates the Act
Habitus = Internalized Structure
Habitus = Embodiment of Objective Structure
The habitus is a generative mechanism (method?) for the structuring of social practice. Or, social practices are produced by a particular habitus. All social practices therefore, upon analysis, reveal the structures of the habitus that generate them. For the social scientist, the challenge of studying the habitus is to analyze social practices in such a way that the principles (cultural categories – e.g., medicine, religion, politics, education, etc.) that undergird the generative structures of the habitus are laid bare.
BOURDIEU himself claimed to find the concept of habitus to be useful as the principle that generates and regulates the act because it at once allowed him to refer to something that is akin to habit and yet different from the notion of habit. Namely,
habitus is that which one has acquired, but which has become durably incorporated in the body in the form of permanent dispositions. So the term constantly reminds us that it refers to something historical, linked to individual history, and that it belongs to a genetic mode of thought, as opposed to essentialist modes of thought (like the notion of competence which is part of the Chomskian lexis). Moreover, by habitus the Scholastics also meant something like a property, a capital. And, indeed, the habitus is a capital, but one which, because it is embodied, appears innate (Bourdieu 1993, 86).
Do habits not have a history, too? Are they not indelibly incorporated in the individual? Habits do have a history, for they are acquired. But on BOURDIEU’s view history is specifically tied to the practices of social groups (especially “classes”), such that our dispositions to act, think, and feel have both an individual and social impact and genealogy. They are not in-built then, but “genetic” in the sense of PIAGET’S “genetic epistemology.” Jean Piaget in 1968 delivered a series of lectures at Columbia University entitled, “Genetic Epistemology,” in which he argued the we may come to understand knowledge and knowledge acquisition on the basis of its history, in particular its sociological genesis and the psychological notions and practices which inform the social formation of that knowledge. Piaget’s genetic epistemology, moreover, attempts to take up the process of formalization in society (e.g., through education, familial relations, and so on). Habitus for BOURDIEU is acquired though one’s group associations and, importantly, it becomes something one possesses. It’s here for BOURDIEU that habitus breaks from habit, for the habitus as genetic possession is of necessity tied to every act, and so every act is regulated by the principles that form the habitus. Habits do permeate every action one makes.What is more, since individuals in society embody the habitus, it develops a history by and through the practices it generates. The process of embodiment occurs over time, during which the generation of practices continues and perdures even after the original generative material conditions that produced the habitus have disappeared. In the process of embodiment—i.e., internalizing the habitus in individuals, families, class groups, etc.—the principle of the habitus find expression in the structuring of culture.
 Habitus is arranged by the principles of the social structure(s)
 Social practices are arranged by the structured principles of the habitus
 From socialization individuals in a society acquire a set of dispositions
 These dispositions reflect the central structural elements (kinship regulations, political ideologies, religion, etc.) of their society
 Individuals in a society behave in ways that reproduce the structural elements of the habitus
For BOURDIEU, the habitus is, in gist, history turned into nature. We generally take that which is natural to be fixed, biological, the stuff we’re hardwired with, and therefore beyond our control; that which is historical, however, we understand to be acquired, indeterminate, culturally imposed, and mapped onto the natural. Rarely, however, do we experience the rift between these two fields. BOURDIEU writes, “In practice, it is the habitus, history turned into nature, i.e. denied as such, which accomplishes practically the relating of these two systems of relations, in and through the production of practice. The ‘unconscious’ is never anything other than the forgetting of history which history itself produces by incorporating the objective structures it produces in the second natures of habitus” (1977, 78-79).
Habitus, Capital, Taste
The habitus is, essentially, a set of generative dispositions that every individual body appropriates in the form of “physical capital” (NB: BOURDIEU also recognizes several other sorts of capital, e.g., cultural, economic, symbolic, etc., at play in society). To have more physical capital than another person (or group) means that one has (or a group has) more capacity to define one’s (or its) lifestyle and body as superior and more worthy of reward than others. This is an example of how “class” becomes embodied. About this BOURDIEU wrote:
The schemes of the habitus, the primary forms of classification, owe their specific efficacy to the fact that they function below the level of consciousness and language, beyond the reach of introspective scrutiny or control by the will. Orienting practices practically, they embed what some would mistakenly call values in the most automatic gestures or the apparently most insignificant techniques of the body—ways of walking or blowing one’s nose, ways of eating or talking—and engage the most fundamental principles of construction and evaluation of the social world, those which most directly express the division of labour (between the classes, the age groups and the sexes) or the division of the work of domination, in divisions between bodies and between relations to the body which borrow more features than one, as if to give them the appearance of naturalness, from the sexual division of labour and the division of sexual labour (1984: 466).
As a result, lifestyles proportionate to one’s class become invested in the bodies of social beings. Even the most mundane physical traits, such one’s gait or gestures, in turn serve to perpetuate social inequalities in society. Physical capital thus affects bodies, which in turn become, for BOURDIEU, bearers of value in society.
In the essay, “Plat du Jour” (1988), Michel de CERTEAU discusses behaviors of preference related to everyday things such as food, clothing, music, et cetera. These preferences are experienced on the personal and ordinary level as individual “tastes,” yet they are ineluctably linked to society and social stratification. For example, the lowers classes of society are and have been regularly portrayed by historians, the media, and in literature as having “vulgar tastes,” the high classes as having “refined” or “distinguished tastes.”
In Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984), BOURDIEU demonstrates that each individual is assigned a position in society according to his or her class. This position is determined by the kind and/or amount of capital in each person’s possession. The composition and kind of capital owned by each individual is modifiable directly in proportion to the motility of one’s prospect in society as determined by the fixed place of social strategies structured to uphold the class divisions and privileges (1984, 208). The argument is ultimately quite circular: one has a place in society; one may change out of that place to another according to the options (e.g., employment opportunities, ability to travel and relocate one’s home, etc.) commensurate with one’s capital wealth. Since the opportunities accorded a person are homologous to his or her capital, including the opportunity to make more financial capital, the cards are stacked against a person in the lower middle class to ever experience the food, clothing, and music (the so-called behavior preferences) of the higher social classes.
Ways of operating in society, too, are homologous with various strata in society. A social group is defined by its class position, its ways of operating born of the requisite rotation of “a set of ready-made choices, objectively instituted possibilities” (1984, 209). Such an ordered society has a severe stifling of creativity and invention, of individuals and communities. Situations are structured in society according to a perduring system of dispositions that standardize and influence practices by modifying them to other certain specific practices. Consequently, genuine intentionality and inventiveness are near impossible in BOURDIEU’s system. BOURDIEU’s primary condition for any intelligibility in social life rests squarely on homogenization of the habitus within social groups (1977, 80). To explain variation among individuals in a social group, BOURDIEU classifies systems of homologous groups of individuals’ dispositions so that any variants from the social group habitus are considered derivations in style, taste, etc. of the norm (1977, 86).
There are and will always be individuals in society whose tastes, style, behavioral preferences deviate from the group habitus, to be sure. But, ultimately, for BOURDIEU any improvisation is regulated improvisation, or as Thomas CSORDAS put it, improvisation that is “open-ended yet circumscribed by the dispositions of the habitus” (Csordas 1993, 152).
BOURDIEU constructed a rather closed system, whose gate is closed in advance of any creative uprising, nearly precluding anything new from arising that might influence an individual (or the group) so profoundly that she or he might expand her or his tastes—e.g., trying new food, hearing new music, wearing en vogue clothing, etc.—including a chance meeting with a new interlocutor (perhaps even if only in a book!) who might introduce to that person new cultural practices. BOURDIEU claimed that, “as an acquired system of generative schemes objectively adjusted to the particular conditions in which it is constituted, the habitus engenders all the thoughts, all the perceptions, and all the actions consistent with those conditions, and no others” (1977, 95).
For BOURDIEU, the fact that tastes (e.g., such as food behaviors – what one likes to eat, how to prepare it, and how to eat it) and practices come from such “early learning” and are not (usually) taken up again later in life (e.g., in secondary school or college) makes them just as, if not more, immobile in one’s habitus throughout life (1984, 78-79).