Bourdieu's Habitus Research Paper Starter

Bourdieu's Habitus

The history of sociology shows it to be a discipline that focuses on both macro and micro issues. Theorists and practitioners of sociology tend to focus either social structures (such as capitalism) or social action (such as symbolic interaction) in their work. However, some sociologists have made it their mission to finds ways of bridging structure and action. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is one of these, and in his book, “Outline of the Theory of Practice” (1977), he revived the concept of habitus to the sociological lexicon. Habitus refers to the apparently durable patterns of thought, behavior (or practice) and taste that people acquire and that link social structures (like class position) to action (like choices people make). While habitus is seen as a somewhat elusive concept to define, sociologists of culture and of the body have used it, nonetheless, to explore how social location (not only class, but also gender and ethnicity) is linked to cultural patterns and choices. In recent years, the concept of habitus has been applied to studies of how people in different social positions live out their routine, bodily experiences and how these in turn, reinforce social position. These studies draw not only on the work of Bourdieu, but also of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, who also uses the concept of habitus, or rather, bodily practice, to explore links between people's everyday routine practices and the cosmologies they inhabit.

Keywords Bodily Hexis; Bourdieu, Pierre; Cosmology; Habitus; Matter-out-of-place; Profane; Sacred; Social Position; Social Practice

Bourdieu's Habitus

Overview

The history of sociology shows it to be a discipline that focuses on both macro and micro issues. Theorists and practitioners of sociology tend to focus either social structures (such as capitalism) or social action (such as face-to-face interaction) in their work. However, some sociologists have made it their mission to finds ways of bridging structure and action. The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu is one of these, and in his book, Outline of the Theory of Practice (1977), he revived the concept of habitus. Initially used in the phrase "social habitus" by Norbert Elias (Mennell, 1989), habitus refers to the apparently durable patterns of thought, behavior (or practice) and taste that people acquire and that link social structures (like class position) to action (like choices people make). While habitus is seen as a somewhat elusive concept to define, sociologists of culture and of the body have used it, nonetheless, to explore how social location (not only class, but also gender and ethnicity) is linked to cultural patterns and choices. In recent years, the concept of habitus has been applied to studies of how people in different social positions live out their routine, bodily experiences and how these in turn, reinforce social position. These studies draw not only on the work of Bourdieu, but also of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, who emphasizes how bodily practice links between people's everyday routine practices with the cosmologies they inhabit.

Defining Habitus

According to Dorland's Medical Dictionary (2007), in medical culture, the term habitus refers to "1. posture or position of the body. 2. Physique; body build and constitution" (p. 826). It is this meaning that sociologists have developed in order to examine how the human body is shaped by the social and physical environment in which it is located. For Pierre Bourdieu, habitus refers to the apparently durable patterns of thought, behavior (or practice) and taste that people acquire and that link social structures (like class position) to action (like the choices people make or the beliefs they hold that are tied to particular cultural practices). He defines habitus as a:

…system of practice-generating schemes which expresses systematically the necessity and freedom inherent in [a]…class condition and the difference [from other classes and fractions] constituting that condition (Bourdieu, 1992, p. 172).

Put simply, habitus is the internalization and enacting of social structures through movements and gestures; bodily shape, physique, movement in space and size which reveals the social location of people and the values that are generated from that location. For instance, the wiry, athletic, and graceful "balletic body" tells us something about the aesthetic and cultural values associated with the world of classical ballet (Wainwright, 2007).

However, Bourdieu's use of habitus is part of an attempt to move away from the determinism of rules and regulations associated with the systems approach of Talcott Parsons and instead, to account for the messiness of social life, the ways in which rules are applied and with what consequences (Crossley, 2001).

Social Practice

On the one hand, Bourdieu argues that the things people do (e.g. the gestures they make) are not wholly determined by social structures (people are not automatons), nor on the other hand, are they wholly guided by rational choices (people don't think consciously about all the moves and gestures they make). Rather, social practice (as the manifestation of the habitus) occurs and involves movement in time and space (Jenkins, 1992) and the characteristics of physical environments make demands on people to move in particular ways. For instance, buildings associated with formal, civic institutions (e.g. city hall or the courthouse) are characterized by a focus on civility and constraint. Therefore, people who work there generally walk sedately and talk quietly in such buildings without really thinking about what they are doing because they occupy the habitus that such an environment requires. That is, they have developed a "learned disposition" and practical sense of what is expected of them in line with the kind of work done in civic buildings.

Thus, social practice is largely not consciously organized. People move through their everyday routines without being wholly aware of how those routines are organized. They may carry a sense of the presence of past in the present (Bourdieu, 2000, p. 210) and maintain what Bourdieu refers to as a "feel for the game"-a sensory and embodied taken-for-granted connection with movements and gestures. This constitutes a "logic of practice" that is "intentionality without intention" (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1992, p. 19) or as Giddens (1984) puts it, a "practical consciousness" that enables people to go about their daily routine without thinking about it too much. In this schema, the logic of practice that shapes everyday movements and gestures is not necessarily a rational, well thought out set of principles or responses to rules and regulations: rather, it is a fuzzy logic that is tacit in nature.

Applications

Body Techniques

The habitus then, involves not only bodily physique, as in medical culture, but also a practical sense of moving and using our bodies in ways that are expected of us, a sense of knowing what is expected without really thinking about it. Bourdieu refers to forms of posture, gait, deportment, and style that people do without thinking as bodily hexis: forms of bodily movement that are ingrained, difficult to consciously alter and that literally reveal our background.

This idea has been explored by other social scientists, and indeed, Bourdieu develops his concept of habitus by building on some of this other work. In particular, he drew on research by Marcel Mauss, who examined the body techniques associated with different societies and who argued that people use, and learn how to use, their bodies differently in different societies. For instance, he shows how English soldiers during the First World War did not know how to use French spades (with the consequence that thousands of spades had to be substituted); how he taught the members of one society he encountered how to spit; and Maori women he met in New Zealand, are taught by their mothers to walk by swinging their hips, which looked ungainly to Western eyes but was admired by the Maori (Williams & Bendelow, 1992).

For Mauss, as for Bourdieu, the habitus reveals the "deepest dispositions" of people and their associated body techniques have three characteristics. They are technical and involve specific movements oriented to tasks (for instance, swimming); they are traditional because they are tied to particular contexts, relationships and cultures and have to be taught and learned; and they are efficient because they are oriented to a clear goal or purpose (Williams & Bendelow, 1992).

In addition to building on Mauss's work on body techniques, Bourdieu refers to the "practical taxonomies" that structure people's perception and classification of the social world (such as male/female, inside/outside, hot/cold) which, he argues, are rooted in and only make sense from the point of view of the body (Jenkins, 1992, p. 74-5). On this issue, Bourdieu shares a similar position to that of Merleau-Ponty (1962), who emphasized that perception is grounded in the body.

Habitus provides people with naturalized ways of being that are suffused with the trappings of their social location; moreover, these ways of being inform how people think and feel about and classify the worlds they occupy. The concept provides a way of exploring how constant...

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