On Pierre Bourdieu Part 3: Habitus

The text for this series is David Swartz’ book Culture and Power: The Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Swartz says that Bourdieu extends concepts from economics to sociology. Bourdieu writes about various forms of capital the individual might have, and the interests that drive the individual in the pursuit of capital and its use. Capital comes in material forms, as economic resources, as well as symbolic forms, as social capital, cultural capital, religious capital. Bourdieu says that these are recognized as capital when they are “…objects of struggle as valued resources.” P. 43.

Interests are “… defined practically as whatever motivates or drives action toward consequences that matter“. P. 71. Swartz says that for Bourdieu seems the critical interests are obtaining power and wealth, which probably explains the use of economic models. Elsewhere Swartz says that Bourdieu’s framework seems less useful for analyzing the working class or the underclass. P. 82. That makes sense, because the concerns of a large part of society don’t involve gaining wealth and power; other concerns are dominant, such as maintaining their existence.

The use of economic modeling raises the specter of rational actor theory and other axioms of neoliberal theory. Bourdier explicitly disavows rational actor theory. He insists that most human action is pre-reflective, dispositional and tacit, rather than consciously planned and strategized to assure optimal outcomes. The definition of interest is similarly vague. These definitions are more like descriptions. They leave open a space at the center of the theory that serves to remind us that as individuals we are largely inscrutable to others, and perhaps even to ourselves. It also leaves a space for surprise, for the generation of new behaviors by the self. The point of sociological inquiry is to discern regularities in behavior that are invisible even to ourselves, using various forms of observations and different kinds of statistics.

Bourdieu says that just because a scientist can formulate a rule that describes the behavior of a group doesn’t mean that individuals are following a rule. Rather, he says that we follow a practical and informal knowledge that helps us predict which behavior might produce the desired results. Again, that leaves from for individual agency.

Bourdieu says that people form ideas of the way society works and the way they fit into society beginning at a very early age from their families, their friends and their surroundings including people and events. These experiences are internalized, and become the basis through which people understand the world and their own potential. This practical sense of position and possibility is called habitus. Habitus is “the product of class situations, not their cause.”

Habitus, then, represents a sort of deep-structuring cultural matrix that generates self-fulfilling prophecies according to different class opportunities. And Bourdieu’s “cultural” explanation of unequal educational attainment differs from the blaming-the-victim version of culture-of-poverty arguments in emphasizing individuals’ adaptation to limited opportunities rather than the cultural origins of deviant behavior. It shows how structural disadvantages can be internalized into relatively durable dispositions that can be transmitted intergenerationally through socialization and produce forms of self-defeating behavior. P. 104.

This unconscious socialization of the individual turns into an acceptance of the power structures confronted by the individual. It seems natural, so that neither the dominated nor the dominant feel cheated or privileged. It affects the sense of possibilities and establishes the limits of aspiration, and thus limits the scope of actions that seem plausible to each individual. In other words, it cements class relations.

As I was reading, I got the impression that Bourdieu used habitus to make predictions about how people would behave. I don’t think that’s right. Instead, it appears that the point of the concept is to describe how people come to accept the status quo. They learn from experience what results are likely from particular actions, and they internalize the results of those experiences as the world they live in, the world that sets the parameters for the success or failure of their actions. Kids learn beginning at birth what actions produce favorable outcomes, and which produce bad outcomes. They aren’t thinking, these are concrete experiences, not processed by a thinking mind. The learning is pre-reflective, that is, people aren’t even aware that they are learning, because they aren’t able to think about or to understand what is happening. They only see that it is happening, and they think that’s the way things are and will be.

Changing one’s habitus is difficult. Swartz says that change occurs only when the strategies are applied in new situations and they produce unexpected results. In such cases there can be a gradual adjustment to the new circumstances. Action requires some use of capital, mostly social, cultural or economic. People are reluctant to make use of their capital unless they think there is a reasonable chance of success, won’t make such use if the outcome is uncertain. That assessment arises from habitus, which limits the exposure to new situations. As an example, Swartz cites the results of changes in the French education system after WWII. Middle class people were more likely to take advantage than members of the working class who were inclined to “know their place”.

So far I haven’t seen discussion of things done strictly for pleasure. For example, in the discussions of cultural and social capital, there is no mention of the fact that both can be enjoyed purely on their own, without regard to the possible gain of wealth or power. Similarly, there is no discussion of religious behavior as personally rewarding, and there is no discussion of altruism. This is an interesting gap, in part because personal pleasure is an important concern to the Frankfurt School. I wonder whether the omission will be cured later in the book, or whether maybe this is a result of the use of the economic model of competition for scarce resources that frames Bourdieu’s thinking.

Notre Dame undergrad (math); JD, Indiana University at Bloomington; 1st Lieutenant, US Army.; private practice in corporate and securities law; Assistant AG in Tennessee for consumer protection and securities; Blue Sky Securities Commissioner, Tennessee; private practice, bankruptcy and corporate law.

I have had a lifelong interest in economics. For most of my career, that interest was practical, focused on the problems in front of me. Lately I have been more interested in economics as a theory, especially its impact on the lives of people like those I met in my bankruptcy practice, and on the politics of money in the US. I also enjoy reading philosophers, starting in college and steadily expanding my reading ever since. I wrote at FireDogLake for a number of years.

Generally, I think the problem facing the US is the dominance of neoliberal discourse. I think it clouds the vision, and limits the kinds of problems that can be identified and solved. For example, the existence and danger of climate change can easily be identified in a scientific discussion. However, the problem does not fit the neoliberal discourse because science insists that the pursuit of individual and corporate self-interest will lead to devastation. In neoliberal discourse, the pursuit of self-interest always leads to Eden.

The neoliberal project has two prongs. One is the police function of crushing dissent and alternative views. The police function is provided by government agencies and private and institutional actors. The counterpart is the economic system , which is operated by government and by private and institutional actors. Some of these actors operate in both spheres. I focus on the second prong.

14 replies
  1. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Nice point, to distinguish what might motivate individual behavior – much of which Bourdieu would argue is “pre-reflective”, a mix of reasons of which we are not consciously aware – from observers’ efforts to explain and to predict it.

    Rational choice theory, for example, explains little and predicts less. It is more revealing of what its proponents and their patrons would like us to believe for their own purposes, rather than to illuminate the way in which individuals make economic decisions. It is also a way to restrict our understanding of the wide range of human behavior to the narrow scope its promoters allow Homo economicus.

    I think unconscious socialization is pervasive; it’s our customary method of learning about social expectations. Conscious socialization is more limited. It exists in schools, for example, and more deliberately in elite private schools.

  2. pseudonymous in nc says:

    “I don’t think that’s right. Instead, it appears that the point of the concept is to describe how people come to accept the status quo.”

    I think it demarcates a broadly available range around the status quo, the point at which one can expect a return on cultural capital, and the point at which that breaks down, which is more or less your point. It’s the range at which upward mobility is typically considered authentic or earned, after which it becomes suspicious or a fluke.

    “So far I haven’t seen discussion of things done strictly for pleasure.”

    You’d get some of that from a reading of ‘Distinction’ or ‘Practical Reason’, but Bourdieu’s argument is that even personal hobbies or practices are both located within social and class-based spaces and operate in relational ways. He discusses how organised sports emerged out of bourgeois society and very quickly set up the juxtaposition of amateur “gentlemen” and professional “players” and the different goals and expectations on either side — and talks about how playing golf recreationally in France is different from playing golf in Japan.

  3. earlofhuntingdon says:

    Golf is a good example.  It involves availability of land: not much played in Holland, frequently played in the US.  It involves using it for recreational purposes, which requires land, the idea of “recreation” itself, including who can participate and at what cost.  Golf in Japan is phenomenally expensive, golf in the US is common for many.  It involves using the “outdoors” for recreational purposes: city businessman find it novel, not so farmers, construction workers.  It is a social game played most often among peers, and expresses their social relations.

    The list of implicated norms is long.  The same analysis could be applied to many things, television, the theater, football, cycling.

    • pseudonymous in nc says:

      That applies even to solitary pursuits that take place in shared space: I’m reminded of Rahawa Haile on hiking the Appalachian Trail and the whiteness and straightness of “outdoorsy” activities:

      The rule is you don’t talk about politics on the trail. The truth is you can’t talk about diversity in the outdoors without talking about politics, since politics is a big reason why the outdoors look the way they do. From the park system’s inception, Jim Crow laws and Native American removal campaigns limited access to recreation by race. From the mountains to the beaches, outdoor leisure was often accompanied by the words whites only. The repercussions for disobedience were grave.

      If you narrow things further and start thinking about activities-for-pleasure that take place in private, personal space, you end up having to think about the social and cultural environments in which people are typically granted private, personal space — even something as intimate and non-projective as reading.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      And even who is taught to read.  I’m thinking of Jim Crow policies in North and South, where African Americans had to pay taxes for public schools, while paying twice to send their children to schools that would accept them.

      It’s worthwhile thinking about such things.  The neoliberal powers that be seem intent on pushing us all into that pay twice-get nothing culture.

      • pseudonymous in nc says:

        “Who uses libraries?”

        And that’s a telling phraseology — the “who does this?” asked from the perspective of a non-doer — because it’s interrogating boundaries and identifying oneself as outside of them.

  4. imasmakurmomsdum says:

    Malcom Gladwell wrote a book very similar to this. “Outliers” talks about the conditions of success, and how competitive conditioning at an early age can cause children to internalize their current worth for the rest of their life. For example, if a kid sucks at soccer and is put in the worst league, he is going to carry that status and position for the rest of his life in almost all walks situations. Very good article.

  5. Ed Walker says:

    I’m looking forward to reading Distinction when I finish the Swartz book. Looking at my own choices, the thing that bothers me about the discussion of EarlofHuntington and  pseudonymous in nc is the idea that in making those choices I was trying to accumulate cultural or social capital. If so, it really was unconscious. It seems to me that I tried lots of things as a kid and as an adult, and settled on things that gave me pleasure: reading and singing as avocations; and lawyering as work (at least until it didn’t). The singing was more or less déclassé among my peer group of lawyers, or was seen as a novelty, and it was worse in some circles I traveled in, where I just didn’t talk about it. I never discussed any of my reading except for an occasional novel, so I doubt anyone except my closest friends had any idea of what I read for pleasure. So, I’m not sure what cultural capital or social capital I got from these activities.

    However, I accept that all three of these things are marks of my privilege. I further agree that I learned to love reading from my mother, who encouraged it from an early age, and who pushed me to read complex books early. I may have mentioned she gave me The Myth of Sisyphus by Camus when I was 16 or so, and I picked up a whole lot of other stuff at that level on my own. This probably counts as socialization as we are using the term.

    But none of that is meant exactly as a disagreement, more of an effort to find room for individual  agency.

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      Social capital I see as neutral: it is often essential to community, while it can also be situational, selfish or predatory.  It is a resource through which we associate, and without that, we wouldn’t even have emptywheel.

      I don’t see it as negative; I see it as a resource that can be abused.  Bourdieu studied it as he dissected power relations, which are often subject to abuse.  The powerful accumulate or extract it in excess (as with most resources) to their peculiar advantage.  Hoi polloi need it as we need air, power, water, food and friends.

  6. Wise Fool says:

    From your post I infer that you had a loving family that encouraged you to explore new ideas and different ways of thinking about the world and your place in it. That suggests you grew up in a stable, middle-class environment and had a healthy sense of self-respect and self-confidence instilled in you from an early age. This positive sense of who you are and what you are capable of achieving, in turn, influenced the choices and decisions you made as you matured into adulthood and made your way in the world.

    Every person has individual agency but how that agency is exercised is greatly influenced by early-childhood experiences which unconsciously shape and influence his or her personality. This has a profound impact on their relationship with themselves, the world and the individuals they interact with in the world. That is how I understood it…but I know next to nothing about Bourdieu’s thought so I could very well be wrong about that.

    • Ed Walker says:

      I see your point; thanks. There are plenty of people who had the same or greater potential that I did who don’t get these advantages, a fact I realized when I was in the Army and saw just how talented the soldiers in my unit were; all that was lacking for most was the education and the socialization. I recognize it in my attempts to make sure my kids learned things we thought were important, and with my granddaughter who we show all sorts of things other kids can’t see.

      In a way, you confirm one of the central points Swartz makes about Bourdieu: the process of reproducing social structures goes best when nobody consciously recognizes that it’s happening.

       

      • Ed Walker says:

        After thinking about it some more, I’ll add that we don’t normally think of selecting hobbies and even work as part of a struggle for wealth and power, even it it is heavily influenced by our socialization.

  7. Charles James says:

    I think that is the point. It’s not so much that you didn’t choose those things, but they were possible through a horizon of possibility offered by upbringing/social status/habitus. I’m reminded of counter arguments to Bourdieu or exceptions to the rule, when say African Americans in the US growing up in impoverished communities prove successful in sports and go on to make a lot of money by becoming professional athletes originally coming from economically poor neighborhoods. They are at least able to overcome or drastically change there economic capital situation and find success in the societal structure of professional sport which is offered in the US as means to become wealthy in the society.

    It seems to become messy to me when we try to rank certain status or what considered to be ‘successful’ socialization. These ratings I believe are inherently subjective and the idea that you could grow up very economically poor in one part of the world, but could be much happier than someone growing up in a wealthier country seems maybe not to relate to bourdieu’s argument, but I think could be part of the discussion. I think his notion of ‘field’ might be helpful here to.

    I’m reminded by a friend from a ‘economically’ poor country who is estranged by current arguments taking place in Europe and U.S. His response is something like why does everybody complain here about equality related to gender, classism or racism. For him, these countries are unbelievable in that most tend to have running water, electricity at a flip of a switch and smooth roads that you are not risking your life on when you need to travel somewhere. For me this is strange argument to hear as I feel like I’m aware of systemic oppression in this society and the need to change it, for him it is a situation of what is every complaining about, if I was born in these countries I would have had so many more opportunities and would not have had to spend so much of my life struggling to survive.

    Somehow Bourdieu’s economic rational and the focus on certain or just the self-contained nature of societies seems maybe to be a limitation. Interested to know what happens when different societies interact or different patterns of habituation come into contact when they are so different.

  8. charlesjames says:

    I think that is the point. It’s not so much that you didn’t choose those things, but they were possible through a horizon of possibility offered by upbringing/social status/habitus. I’m reminded of counter arguments to Bourdieu or exceptions to the rule, when say African Americans in the US growing up in impoverished communities prove successful in sports and go on to make a lot of money by becoming professional athletes originally coming from economically poor neighborhoods. They are at least able to overcome or drastically change there economic capital situation and find success in the societal structure of professional sport which is offered in the US as means to become wealthy in the society.

    It seems to become messy to me when we try to rank certain status or what considered to be ‘successful’ socialization. These ratings I believe are inherently subjective and the idea that you could grow up very economically poor in one part of the world, but could be much happier than someone growing up in a wealthier country seems maybe not to relate to bourdieu’s argument, but I think could be part of the discussion. I think his notion of ‘field’ might be helpful here to.

    I’m reminded by a friend from a ‘economically’ poor country who is estranged by current arguments taking place in Europe and U.S. His response is something like why does everybody complain here about equality related to gender, classism or racism. For him, these countries are unbelievable in that most tend to have running water, electricity at a flip of a switch and smooth roads that you are not risking your life on when you need to travel somewhere. For me this is strange argument to hear as I feel like I’m aware of systemic oppression in this society and the need to change it, for him it is a situation of what is every complaining about, if I was born in these countries I would have had so many more opportunities and would not have had to spend so much of my life struggling to survive.

    Somehow Bourdieu’s economic rational and the focus on certain or the self-contained nature of societies seems maybe to be a limitation. Interested to know what happens when different societies interact or different patterns of habituation come into contact when they are so different.

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