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Habitus and liberation

Lecturer in French at The University of Tromsø


THe notion of habitus is often interpreted in an unnecessarily complicated way. This was emphasized by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, during his lecture “Physical Space, Social Space and Habitus” on the occasion of the Vilhelm Aubert Memorial Lecture (Oslo 1995). In this article I will try to explain the notion of habitus in a simple and easy-to-follow way. Hopefully this article can contribute to make this liberating notion more easily understandable. To understand the notion of habitus, one must have some knowledge about Bourdieu’s analysis of social space. 

According to Bourdieu, the sociological tradition gives a one-dimensional analysis of social space. Bourdieu develops his representation of social space in three dimensions by introducing the notion of taste, and showing how taste is socially determined. He divides the social space horizontally in two fractions, the dominating and the dominated. The dominating fraction contains individuals with significant amount of capital. The amount of capital is the total of economical, cultural and social capital a social agent possesses. The individuals that operate in the social space are called social agents. In the dominating fraction one will thus find the agents with high income, prestigious occupations and good connections. They will constantly have the power to define the “right” taste, and therefore the agents who are located in the dominating fraction also and almost with necessity, possess the criteria that are defined as important and right. The social space is also divided vertically. This division is determined by whether the amount of capital is dominated by economical or cultural capital. A university professor will therefore be found in the fraction dominated by cultural capital, whereas a Norwegian businessman like Kjell Inge Røkke will, most likely, have stronger economical than cultural capital. 

BOurdieu then introduces the notion of social field. Social space is composed of various social fields. Social agents can, as a rule, operate in more than one field at the time. Each field is based upon a doxa. The doxa is what unites the social agents of a field, it’s something they all consider so valuable that they don’t need to question it. In the field of literature, to present an example, all the agents agree that literature is valuable, and this is not questioned by any of the agents. Inside the field of literature however, like in any social field, there will be a constant battle on determining the criteria of the “good” and “right” taste. The agents who defines this taste, and who fulfils the criteria defined as “right”, will attain the highest social positions in a field. And the agents with the highest social positions in the dominating fraction will be the ones who define the “good” taste. In one of his major works La Distinction, Bourdieu and his research team from Collège de France used quantitative statistics to show how agents from a social field develop similar taste, which again differs from the taste of agents from another field. They also show how agents from the dominated fraction aspires to attain the taste that the agents of the dominating fraction has defined as right, and how difficult this is, because of the constantly ongoing changing and modification of these definitions. The “right” taste is automatically passé when it reaches beyond the borders of the dominating fraction, and the agents of this fraction will define other means to maintain the distinction between them and the agents of the dominating fraction. 

Every agent of a social field is provided with a habitus. The notion of habitus can be compared to Noam Chomsky’s idea of Generative grammar. Generative grammar is related to the inborn, and claims or suggests that every person is born with genetic grammar schemas that form the basis of learning any language. Habitus is also schemas, which work in the same generative way. Habitus is socially attained and it’s part of an agent’s amount of capital. Habitus is constituted in the environment that surrounds a person. It’s not in the blood, in the genes or in the physique of the body. Habitus is something you acquire; it belongs to the social sphere. The notion of habitus includes the idea of it’s having a generative power. This generative power function’s independently, beyond the control of the social agents. Habitus coordinates and generalises practice. Habitus organises both the practice of an agent and how this agent will apprehend other agent’s practice. According to Bourdieu the notion of habitus covers at the same time both an agent’s fundamental ensemble of schemas of perception and the agent’s systematically physical habits and practice. Habitus shows in the manners, in the way of talking and moving and in the attitude of an agent. It’s the living conditions, as well as the position in the social structure that produces habitus, and therefore the habitus of one social agent will resemble the habitus of social agents from the same field and differ from the habitus of agents from other fields. 

HAbitus is thus socially attained and this acquirement can happen in plural ways. Either through total acquisition, which is the early acquisition, the one that individuals are submitted to from birth (and even maybe before, already in the mothers stomach), or habitus can be acquired later on, delayed acquisition. Young social agents will absorb the habitus of their field all naturally, without reflection, because that is what they observe and what they learn is correct. If an agent changes field, i.e. changes position in the social space, the habitus of the new field should be acquired. This will be a delayed acquisition, and to succeed the agent must know about the codes and rules that lay in the habitus of the new field.

To illustrate this I will use table manners as an example. Since the social positions more often than not are reproduced, most of the agents in the dominating fraction will possess total acquisition. In some social fields, with traditionally high prestige, for instance like in the field of nobility, centuries has been used to develop distinction mechanisms. The nobility was defined to be exempted from all kinds of physical work that did not concern leading war. According to the rules that were formulated by the Catholic Church in the 16-century to exclude Protestants from nobility, the aristocrats could loose their noble title if they indulged in physical pursuits. The aristocracy has consequently had a lot of spare time, a lot of which was used to develop socio-cultural traditions that operate as distinction mechanisms. The agents of this field have developed and perfected the codes and rules of table manners since the field emerged in the Middle Age, and have thus defined what constitutes “right” and “good” table manners. These table manners will with that be recessed into the noble habitus, whereas a newcomer has to acquire these rites so as to not stand out from the rest. The embodied example of how deeply cemented the habitus of a social agent can be, for me, is a woman I met while working at a nursing home in Oslo. The woman suffered from severe aphasia. She had lost her language, was unable to deal with any of her own primary needs and the staff at the home helped her with everything, except eating. This woman had formerly occupied a high social position, and at meals she ate like she was sitting at the queens table. Certain table manners were so established in her habitus that this physical habit remained intact even if she was now living completely in her own world. 

FRom early childhood all agents in social space acquire habitus. Habitus can be learned and “un-learned”, but this is more complicated and will always require reflection around what constitutes your actual habitus and knowledge about the codes and rules that determine the habitus you wish to acquire.

Literature provides us with a lot of excellent examples of habitus. I wish to conclude this paper with some examples from French literature. First from Balzac’s Father Goriot.

Mme de Beauséant, who is mentioned in the quotation, occupies one of the highest positions in the nobility described in Father Goriot, because her family is a bastard branch of the French royal family, Madame de Nucingen is what we call a parvenue, a newcomer in the nobility. Her father, Goriot, a poor commoner, made a fortune on corn speculation during the big French Revolution. With that he could provide his daughters with solid dowries and thus “buy” them noble titles. Consequently, Madame de Nucingen does not possess the aristocratic habitus. Mme de Beauséant, who occupies one of the highest positions use this social defect to distinguish herself from Madame de Nucingen. 

– Elle est charmante, dit Eugène après avoir regardé madame de Nucingen.

– Elle a les cils blancs.

– Oui, mais quelle jolie taille mince!

– Elle a de grosses mains.

– Les beaux yeux!

– Elle a le visage long.

– Mais la forme longue de la distinction.

– Cela est heureux pour elle qu’il y en ait là. Voyez comment elle prend et quitte son lorgnon! Le Goriot perce dans tous ces mouvements, dit la comtesse au grand étonnement d’Eugène.

En effet, madame de Beauséant lorgnait la salle et semblait ne pas faire attention à madame de Nucingen, dont elle ne perdait cependant pas un geste.

– She’s charming, said Eugene after having looked at Mme de Nucingen.

– She has white eyebrows.

– Yes, but she is wonderfully slim!

– She has big hands.

–But she has beautiful eyes!

–Her face is too long.

– But the long shape is a mark of distinction.

– It’s good for her that she has that. Look how she takes and drops her lorgnette! The Goriot betrays in all her movements said the viscountess to Eugene’s great surprise.

As a matter of fact madame de Beauséant had a close inspection of the hall and it looked like she was paying no attention at all to madame de Nucingen, yet she didn’t miss a single gesture. 

To Mme de Beauséant it’s enough to observe how Mme de Nucingen takes and drops her lorgnette, because from these movements she can determine her social background; “The Goriot”, i.e. her father’s social position, is betrayed in all her movements. The end of the quotation reveals how a person of noble birth uses the lorgnette, imperceptible.

Mme de Nucingen tries to attain the noble habitus but it’s not so easy, as Mme de Beauséant, pronounces; “Il y a de pauvres bourgeoises qui, en prenant nos chapeaux, espèrent avoir nos manières.«» Just like some commoners think they can acquire our manners by putting on our hats.” These quotations show how difficult it can be to acquire a new habitus

I Will terminate with an example of habitus from newer French literature. In her book «La femme gelée” “The frozen woman” Annie Ernaux describes part of a woman’s life. This woman is born and raised in a lower social class, i.e. in the dominated fraction. Her in many ways unconventional mother inculcates into her the importance of education for those who wish to change their social position, but at her school however, the teachers are cherishing a woman image that differs completely from herself and her immediate surroundings. Soutien contre cette évidence que certaines filles de la classe plaisent aux demoiselles plus que d’autres (…) gracieuses innés, je croyais.”  A support against the fact that some girls appealed more to the teachers than others (…) innately graceful, I thought.” The girl is big and quite clumsy. In the following quotation she compares herself with the dollish bourgeois girls in her school, girls that possesses the habitus she aspires to. 

Vite, venez à moi mon apparence imaginaire, celle que je me fabrique quand je m’ennuie en classe, en prenant les longs cheveux blonds de Roseline, «ce serait un crime de les couper», a dit la maîtresse, les joues rebondies de Françoise, la finesse d’allure de Jeanne (…) En sourdine déjà l’étrange feuilleton que je me raconte pour effacer la fille réelle et la remplacer par une autre, pleine de grâce et de fragilité. 

Come quickly to me, my imaginary appearance, the one I invent when I’m bored in class, taking the long blond hair of Roseline, “It would be a crime to cut it”, said the teacher, the round, pink cheeks of Françoise, the alluring style of Jeanne (…) Making painful already the strange story that I tell myself to erase the real girl and replace her with another, full of grace and fragility. 

This quotation shows how an agent aim at the taste that is determined as “right”, the main character strives after the image of the bourgeoise woman that is imparted in her school, and aspires to change her habitus according to this image, becoming graceful and fragile like the girls the teachers prefers.

The notion of habitus procures insight in how physical habits, practice, and perception schemas of own and others practice are formed. This notion has a liberating function because it helps us to see that taste and practice is not recessed and natural, but socially determined and that what is regarded as “good” or “bad” taste depends on the prevailing definitions inside a social field.






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