Reflections on the notion of Habitus in Bourdieu’s work

While completing my third semester of the Erasmus Mundus MSc programme at Wageningen University in 2010, I came across one of the most fascinating concepts to grasp I have encountered during the course ‘Sociological theories of rural transformation’ – the habitus. I would like to share with you my basic reflection on this notion, as part of a series of four individual assignments.

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In the third chapter – Structures, Habitus, Practices – of his book Logic of Practice, Bourdieu (1990) introduces one key concept of his work, the habitus, emerging from an post-structuralist consideration of social structures from where the ‘social world’ is examined as a representation or a performance, and where structures and practices co-exist. According to Bourdieu , habitus designates a “system of structured, structuring dispositions constituted in practice and constantly oriented towards practical functions.” (Bourdieu, 1990: 53) It also accounts for ‘systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures’ tended towards to operate as ‘structuring structures’ that create and organize the practices and representations (Ibid.). The author stresses the fact that the habitus is enacted in reality in everyday life, that is of already realized ends, and which represents a system of motivated and cognitive structures. It is embodied in history, internalized as a second nature and therefore forgotten as history. Habitus provides an infinite capacity for generating ‘reasonable’, ‘common-sense’ behaviours or products, that are thoughts, perceptions, expressions and actions, whose limits are set by the historically and socially conditions of its production. Habitus enables the institution to attain full realization through its capacity of incorporation. It is also the immanent law imprinted in bodies of same histories, which is a prerequisite for the co-ordination of practices and for practices of co-ordination. (Ibid.: 59)

Bourdieu (1990) identifies individual habitus and class (or group) habitus, which are linked together. On one hand, individual habitus is built in from the ‘organic individuality’ actually attributed to immediate perception, socially designated and recognized, such a name, a legal identity. On the other hand, class habitus examines the individual habitus as it indicates the class or group. Actually, habitus is embodied in individuals, and at the same time it is a collective and homogeneous phenomenon, mutually adjusted overtime for and by a social group or class. Nonetheless, individual habitus may differ from one person to another due to the singularities of individual social trajectories. Another thing is that the habitus gives practices their relative autonomy regarding external conditions of the immediate present. This autonomy ensures the permanence in change that characterizes the individual agent as a world within the world. Based on past experiences, the habitus ensures its own constancy and its defence against change through the selection it makes within new information and rejection of information which question the information it has accumulated, if exposed to it accidentally or by force, and especially by avoiding exposure to such information. Because of the latter, the Habitus has the ability to protect itself from changes, crises and critical challenges by providing itself with a milieu to which it is as pre-adjusted as possible. One can find or live many of such situation in everyday life; for example, some people do not like to involve themselves in situations that they don’t have any expectations of what could happen (Eg. take a flight, discover an indigenous community in the depths of the Amazonie). However, instead of isolating itself, the habitus is also able to create strategies enabling agents to cope with unforeseen and constantly changing situations, and which are apparently determined by the future, by anticipation. (Ibid.: 61) This apparent flexibility within the habitus for change and action is subject to limits determined by the same habitus. Overall, the habitus appears to be a very complex concept. It is a proof of the active presence of the whole past and at the same time it is a product of the history. It is embodied in individuals, in structures (institutions), and it is both part of history and shaped through history. It acts as both enabling and obstructing social change.

Reference:

Bourdieu, P. (1990), The Logic of Practice. Chapter 3: 52-65.

 


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