Bourdieu and Habitus

Pierre Bourdieu’s desire to create a union of opposites, of the subjectivist and objectivist approaches in sociology, became what he called habitus.  This is his attempt to overcome the dualism in what he saw as a problem in sociological theory.  However, this attempt to generalize two opposing forces does not account for any individual’s desire to change or to remain unchanged in relation to his larger environmental milieu.  I will argue that Bourdieu’s definition of habitus is too broadly constrained where individuals are stripped of their conscious ability to independently utilize agency and effect real change.

Habitus, according to Bourdieu, “is a mental filter that structures an individual’s perceptions, experiences, and practices….  It refers to an individual’s ‘dispositions’ or ‘mental structures’ through which the social world is apprehended and expressed through both verbal and bodily language.”  (Appleroth and Edles 2008:  686).  By extension, this habitus controls the mind and language as well as the movements of the body.  Bourdieu does not take into account an individual’s ability to change, consciously, and independently, from the surrounding environment that he/she has been raised.

Take for instance, and individual that is raised in one location, grows to adulthood, moves to a completely different location, and begins to mimic the patterns of speech of the individuals in this new location.  At this new location, the agency of this individual is at work, perhaps consciously to change, perhaps subconsciously to fit in. But nevertheless, Bourdieu’s definition allows for no free will, no agency in which to change.  It allows for no “internalization of externality” (Appleroth and Edles 2008:  686) from more than one environment.

Bourdieu also argues that cultural tastes are at the heart of habitus, forming tastes based upon the social and economic class that one is from. (Elliott 2009:  147).  He makes no allowances for the cross-pollination of cultural mores, whether up the economic scale or down.  In other words, he fails to acknowledge the complexity of social life, choosing to describe culture as defined and confined within an enclosed space (Elliott 2009: 148).  If this were the case, the economic and social upper classes would not listen to popular music and the economic and social lower classes would not listen to classical music.

Additionally, by extension, children of the working class would not expect to better themselves with education, become doctors, lawyers, teachers, or politicians because their habitus is confined and defined by a working class one.  Bourdieu, in spite of his analysis, allows for no agency whatsoever on the part of the individual to evolve, to grow and change his economic situation through a gradual and evolutionary process through career aspirations and education.  It allows for no curiosity on the part of an individual to read literature that he/she is unfamiliar with, to explore music that is external to the social circle that he/she inhabits at work, school or home.

Bourdieu defines habitus narrowly, allowing for no exceptions, no deviations from the standard defined above.  This is the reason for such criticisms of his concept.  He took a broad view that forced him to overestimate the power of societies to wield “social domination within specific power structures of advanced capitalism”. He did not take into account the impact of globalization and media infiltration upon different societies.

Applerouth, S., & Edles, L. D. (2008). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

Elliott, A. (2009). Contemporary Social Theory:  An Introduction. (p. 55). New York: Routledge.