Habitus Essay

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In the first chapter of Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977) Bourdieu explicitly addresses the problems inherent in limiting our understanding of human society to the false distinctions that represent typical sociological explanations – particularly, the distinctions between objective versus subjective and structure versus agency. He argues that the structure of society (as represented by social institutions and macro-structures) is far more dynamic than is normally portrayed, and that human agency has far more input in shaping social structures and social institutions than is normally discussed by sociologists. This discussion provides a natural segue to his discussion of habitus in the second chapter. Habitus epitomizes Bourdieu’s interest in linking phenomenological and symbolic interactionist perspectives (sometimes equated with the subjectivist view) with the more structuralist approach (sometimes equated with the objectivist view) of American and some European sociologists. Additionally, habitus also illustrates the intimate connection between structure and agency as represented in the social actor, where the social actor can be an individual, a group, or any large collectivity.

Bourdieu defines habitus as the way in which actors calculate and determine future actions based on existing norms, rules, and values representing existing conditions. It is important to understand key aspects of habitus. One key element of this definition is that Bourdieu argues that existing norms, rules, and values have been mentally and cognitively integrated into the actor’s frame of reference, and that they represent general social standards as well as specific situational and personal experiences. This illustrates his way of integrating the macro-elements of a structured social world that imposes its will on actors with the dynamic agency that enables actors to engage in individually determined actions. Additionally, this illustrates the integration of an objective reality created by existing structural elements in society with the subjective reality of the social actor. A second key element of habitus is that ”future” actions refer to a range of possible actions, from what you do immediately upon reading this entry to what you might plan to do on your next vacation. Bourdieu states that social actors engage in a continuously dynamic interaction with their environment and other actors such that they are aware of negotiating from a range of possible actions to take. A third key element associated with his definition of habitus is that, in identifying actors’ agency in calculating actions, Bourdieu explains that this process is rational in that it takes into account potential outcomes for any specific action as well as something other than rational in that it also takes into account subjective motivations. In other words, habitus reflects actors’ emotional and spontaneous reactions to particular situations and the other actors involved. The final key element of the idea of habitus is that it represents a fluid set of guiding principles for the social actor. While actors in similar positions in society may share similar habitus, as their environment and the other actors in the environment change, so does the habitus. It is consistent across actors, which allows us to understand particular settings and cultures as well as what is unique to each individual.

Bourdieu’s idea of field also serves to demonstrate the intimate connection between objective and subjective realities as well as between structure and agency. His discussion of fields also integrates a Marxist focus on conflictual relations with a Weberian focus on formal hierarchies. Fields represent the network of relations between and among positions actors hold within particular structural or organizational systems. For example, Bourdieu examines artistic or literary fields and he describes them in terms of the positions actors hold relative to one another. Additionally, he argues that there are several hierarchies of fields as well as hierarchies within each field. The specific positions held by actors linked in terms of similar structural or organizational systems are embedded in fields of power, which are then embedded in fields of class relations. The connection to Marxist and Weberian ideas is immediately evident when you view the field as a set of interconnecting positions that occur on several different levels – similar to 3-D chess, where the players must be aware of not only the first board, but also how the chess pieces on two other levels of boards are interacting with, and affecting, the primary or first board.

Bibliography:

  • Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press, New York.

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