Habitus is a term used by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) to describe a social property of individuals that orients human behavior without strictly determining it. While habitus encompasses a sense of practical expertise, it is not a conscious expertise; rather, it may be seen as common sense. It is constituted of dispositions that are inculcated, structured, durable, generative, and transposable (see Thompson 1991, p. 12). Habitus is a state of the body and of being, a repository of ingrained dispositions that thus seem natural. Bourdieu calls this the bodily hexis, where “the body is the site of incorporated history” (Thompson 1991, p. 13; see also Bourdieu 1984, pp. 437, 466–468). Thus, habitus is purposeful without being questionable; it is transmitted but not actively taught.
Bourdieu presents habitus as a conceptual framework in which there are varying degrees of explicitness of, and competition among, norms. Under this framework, there are three ways that people experience the norms of their social existence. They do so through (1) a set of materially predisposed practices that express a belief about the way the world works and that reproduce that worldview. These predisposed practices tend to produce doxa, situations in which “the natural and social world appears as self-evident” (Bourdieu 1994, p. 160; 1976, p. 118); this is habitus, the unquestioned order of things. People also experience the norms of their social existence through (2) the contrasting situation of orthodoxy, in which “social classifications become the object and instrument of … struggle” and in which the arbitrariness of the current system becomes evident, and through (3) heterodoxy—a situation of more or less equally “competing possibilities” (1994, pp. 164–165). Bourdieu emphasizes the “complicitous silence” of community members in the continuous reproduction of the “collective rhythms,” or habitus, of the community (1994, p. 182).
A tension then exists between the formalized codes that dictate practices and “the generating and unifying principle of practices … constituted by a whole system of predispositions inculcated by the material circumstances of life and by family upbringing” (Bourdieu 1976, p. 118). The habitus is “the end product of structures which practices tend to reproduce in such a way that the individuals involved are bound to reproduce them, either by consciously reinventing or by subconsciously imitating already proven strategies as the accepted, most respectable, or even simplest course to follow. [They] … come to be seen as inherent in the nature of things” (1976, p. 118).
Thus, with this concept Bourdieu seeks to demystify the very concept of “natural” and to emphasize the creation of “a second nature” (1991, p. 123). For example, every day we don clothing. While we may think about what to wear, we do not think about whether we will wear something. The conventions of style in dress themselves are nearly as inculcated as dressing. Only within the field of fashion are these styles and meanings routinely discussed explicitly. There are those who challenge the professional fashionista’s (or the everyday women’s magazine reader’s) habitus of style, while punks are known for their ironic appropriation of military uniforms and their practice of making ugliness into beauty (see LeBlanc 1999). Andrew Martinez (Berkeley’s “Naked Guy” from the early 1990s) engaged in a practice of public nudity that sought to challenge the basic habitus of getting dressed at all (see Seligman 1992; Jacobssex 1992; and Jones 2006).
Habitus is a process, at once deeply embedded and simultaneously available for analysis; it is often discursively ephemeral, and yet easily accessed and employed. At points in his work, Bourdieu suggests that habitus is quite active, an activity of power of at least some savvy agents:
The work of inculcation through which the lasting imposition of the arbitrary limit is achieved can seek to naturalize the decisive breaks that constitute an arbitrary cultural limit—those expressed in fundamental oppositions like masculine/feminine, etc.—in the form of a sense of limits, which inclines some people to maintain their rank and distance and others to know their place and be happy with what they are, to be what they have to be, thus depriving them of the very sense of deprivation (Bourdieu 1991, p. 123).
For Bourdieu, if one does not understand that what one thinks is natural is actually accreted practice, and practice inculcated from a particular social position, one can never engage in true social change (see Brubaker 1993, p. 217). At the same time, he emphasizes that habitus is subconscious—it is embedded bodily. The question of when habitus does become concerted effort, analysis, or argument (that is, when does the situation of either orthodoxy or heterodoxy arise?) is often inadequately dealt with (see Calhoun 1993, pp. 80–82).
Though habitus is conceived of as deeply embodied and self-evidently nondiscursive, there is a sense that habitus competes across fields—that people can, indeed often must, acquire a particular habitus that they then must apply in particular situations (Calhoun 1993, pp. 77–80). Because Bourdieu uses habitus to deal with the cultural arbitrariness of language and discourse itself (see especially Bourdieu 1991), it is something of a paradox that he asserts its nondiscursive character.
The field of law is a particularly problematic arena when one is considering the place of habitus in social processes. “Predispositions” and the process of naturalization are important in the legal system, but habitus does not easily explain the existence of laws, especially in frontier situations of transition, where there are formative struggles over what the laws should be. This is especially significant in the legal process, where it is explicit that language and discourse are key. Indeed, while social actors may be “subconsciously imitating” and “consciously reinventing” social structures, a struggle is involved. Thus, actors are not necessarily “bound to reproduce” the prevailing images and structures of their community. Formal law has a role to play beyond that of everyday activities and reasoning, although these play a part in forming law. In other words, as Mindie Lazarus-Black argues, “common sense understanding, or … habitus, ‘is generated not only out of small scale networks of practice but also out of the legitimation project of the state.’ One function of [this] project is to define the people under its control (creating the external boundaries of the system) and to differentiate between them (creating internal boundaries within the system)” (1994, p. 6).
In terms of the symbolic power of language, there is a sense that actors in public fields such as law are playing to doxa, with a highly crafted and explicit discourse—the sound bites and metaphors of color blindness and racially neutral language, for example, which expose that race is a habit within a system that also acknowledges a doxa of democracy (see Gatson 1999; Bonilla-Silva 2003, pp. 49, 104, 125).
Thus, instead of suggesting that analyzing formal law is useless by stating that it is “unnecessary to make explicit or … invoke or impose any rules,” one should perhaps rather attempt to examine situations in which the struggle to invoke certain rules over others is very explicit (Bourdieu 1976, p. 141). Calhoun argues that Bourdieu’s “sociology does not offer much purchase on the transformation of social systems.… His accounts of the general system of social and cultural organization always render it as essentially conservative … imply[ing] dynamism … at the level of the strategic actor.… [Habitus] is at its best as a theory of reproduction, and at its weakest as a theory of transformation” (Calhoun 1993, pp. 70, 72). But that weakness is perhaps telling, signaling the inertia of systems, and the need for everyday sociology in the citizenry. For each of us, the habitus is cycle and process. There is a simultaneity of habitus—doxa, orthodoxy, and heterodoxy may be clearly delineated when they are used to describe a macrolevel history of a particular field. As to the everyday, and at points of conflict, the cycle of habitus may be far more difficult to tease apart.
SEE ALSO Bourdieu, Pierre; Cultural Capital; Habits; Social Capital
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Gatson, Sarah N. 1999. Farmers, Fanatics, Politicians, and Slaves: Racial Citizenship in U.S. Communities, 1840–1900. PhD diss., Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
Jacobssex, Joanne. 1992. Our Social Conventions Need to Be Obeyed, Even by the Naked Guy. Atlanta Journal and Constitution, p. A22.
Jones, Carolyn. 2006. Champion of Nudity Found Dead in Jail Cell. San Francisco Chronicle, May 21: B1.
LeBlanc, Lauraine. 1999. Pretty in Punk: Girls’ Gender Resistance in a Boys’ Subculture. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Seligman, Katherine. 1992. The Bareable Lightness of Being: What to Do about the Naked Guy? The Ottawa Citizen, A5.
Thompson, John B. 1991. Introduction. In Language and Symbolic Power, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, 1–31. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sarah N. Gatson
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