Habitus and Social Science: a Virtual Roundtable

Following our ground-breaking special section on the habitus beyond sociology, published in February this year, we invited some of the contributors to undertake a dialogue for our blog. Elizabeth B. SilvaHelene AarsethSam FriedmanLynne Layton and Muriel Darmon discuss some of the key issues addressed in the special section.

Why is the habitus an important concept for the social sciences?

Elizabeth: The concept of habitus offers guidance for social theory to historicize and denaturalize the social world. It refers to how the past – of an individual, or of a field – shapes the present and how this conditions future possibilities.

Habitus is a highly debatable concept, the current debate showing lots of ambiguities originating from Bourdieu’s own imprecise and shifting uses of the notion. I map this out in my paper ‘Unity and Fragmentation of the Habitus’. From this mapping I show two key features of the notion of habitus which are elaborated about in this Special Section: (1) that subjectivity, and ways of accounting for its relationality with the social world, occupied large space in Bourdieu’s theorizing (e.g. in Pascalian Mediations), and in his empirical investigation (e.g. in The Weight of the World); (2) that social change is accounted for in recognition of the passing of time and shifts in diverse field engagements both at individual level and in how fields connect over time.

It is difficult, however, if not impossible, to explore the notion of the habitus with no reference to the other strongly related notions of field and capital. Habitus provides both an account of what one does within a field in a context of values and valuation (which are intrinsic to the notion of capital) and also an account of the limits/constraints within this field/value/valuation context.

Lynne: Habitus, as described by Bourdieu, is one of very few key concepts in sociology that can illustrate the complexity of the synchronic and diachronic links among the psychological, historical, and sociological. It is also one of the few sociological concepts to acknowledge and respect the power of unconscious process. As shown in our contribution, ‘Conflicts in the habitus: the emotional work of becoming modern’, a generation’s habitus can be passed down even in dramatically changing social circumstances. Thus, the concept captures the hold that embodied conscious and unconscious practices and feelings have on the psychosocial character of later generations. Our extension of Bourdieu’s recognition of the conflicted nature of one’s habitus shows, too, that emotionally based conflict, combined with broad socio-cultural changes, can contribute both to changes in habitus and to its reproduction.

Sam: I am particularly interested in exploring how habitus may be a useful concept for social mobility researchers. This largely quantitative research community has largely ignored the work of Bourdieu, with influential proponents like John Goldthorpe writing off concepts like habitus as deterministic and almost antithetical to social mobility. However, as I and others in this volume note, Bourdieu’s conception of social space was constructed along three dimensions – volume of capital, composition of capital and‘change in these properties over time’. Thus he did have a theoretical conception of social mobility in the habitus – as a ‘band of more or less probable trajectories’ based on one’s ‘volume of inherited capital’. Indeed there are two key ways in which habitus can enhance existing sociological understandings of social mobility. First, habitus allows for a much more sensitive understanding of the relationship between time and social mobility. Standard quantitative mobility research usually involves inspecting standard mobility tables, comparing origin and destinations taken from two points in time, and measured with a single occupation-based variable. This approach has obvious merits, notably in allowing a form of standardisation which permits comparative analysis. However, there are fundamental limitations to rendering time in this linear way, not least the fact that it conflates occupational ‘access’ with class ‘destination’ and fundamentally elides the stickiness of one’s class origin. In contrast, habitus represents a much more temporally-sensitive tool – allowing us to conceptualise how the capitals that flow from class origin can shape mobility trajectories well beyond occupational entry. I have explored this in recent work that has highlighted the existence of significant class-origin pay gaps in top occupationsSecond, and linked to this, habitus allows for a more fruitful integration of the objective and subjective features of social mobility. In this way, habitus allows us to understand the long shadow of class origin not just in terms of material outcomes but also in terms of identity. Here, as my article probesthe identities of the mobile tend to always carry – at least in some form—the symbolic baggage of the past, and this historical imprint often has important consequences for how they act and feel in the present. My analysis thus illustrates the struggles the long-range upwardly mobile face in gaining acceptance in their ‘destination’ social group, but also the emotional labour required to marry this with maintaining connections to their ‘roots’.

How can our theorisation of the habitus be extended?

Elizabeth: Because habitus combines the idea of action guided by unconscious, invisible, mechanisms, and guidance by common rules linked to autonomous and conscious decisions, I think that attention to how the unconscious is patterned socially and how rules are devised and followed – with attention to general principles and historical changes – can productively assist our theorization of the habitus.

Helene: Bourdieu’s concept of habitus offers a notion of a subject that escapes autonomous and transcendent conceptualizations, yet without resorting to the de-corporealization evident in much constructivist and deconstructivist approaches. Also, habitus may provide a conception of libidinal attachments that does not resort to a notion of affect as a non-signifying force or intensity, as is the case in some strands of affect theory. Bourdieu’s habitus is ‘socialized subjectivity’ that emerges in praxis, as a product of the interaction between body and environment and as a way of responding to and investing in these environments. I am particularly inspired by feminist interpretations and developments of Bourdieu’s concept, such as for instance Diane Reay’s and Lois McNay’s. McNay provides a reading that emphasises the hermeneutic dimension involved in the habitus and field-interaction, arguing that the dialectic of subjective and objective structures must involve interpretations and intentional dimensions. If the sedimentations of practices and experience that in Bourdieu’s conception hold together and drive the socialized subject involve interpretations and intentionality, then ‘socialized subjectivity’ is something more than effects of processes of subjection.

Lynne: Bourdieu only occasionally recognizes the dynamic nature of the unconscious, that is, the centrality of conflict in motivating not only the reproduction but the evolution of habitus. His relation to psychoanalysis was ambivalent, possibly because, in his day, the dominant psychoanalysis in France was Lacanian. Our paper draws on relational and object relational psychoanalytic theory, which we think is a better fit with the concept of habitus than other versions of psychoanalysis. We explore relational dynamics in families, socially and idiosyncratically produced conflicts that have to do with class, gender, and other social norms.

What resources can we find outside of sociology to provide for this extension?

Elizabeth: Because other disciplines have developed more resources to understand these matters of the invisible and the unnoticed, I think that learning from specific branches and theoreticians in psychology and psychoanalysis (about the unconscious) and also from philosophy (on rules and ordering) could be productive to sociology to extend the understanding of the habitus both in theory and empirically. This doesn’t mean that the sociological stance would be abandoned at all. I’d think about using these resources sociologically. For instance, with questions about the social nature of the unconscious. This is about drawing from various resources to make social matters visible.

Helene: In my efforts to develop a practice-theoretical notion of emotional investments, I suggest that Bourdieu’s notion of ‘investment in the psychoanalytic sense’ could be developed further by taking inspiration from non-antagonist notions of desire and culture, evident for instance in Donald Winnicott’s idea of transitional experience as a motivational force, and developed by Christopher Bollas’ idea about the transformational object that the subject are attracted to because it represents a potential for self-transformation. In one of the articles in the Special Section, Eros in the field? Bourdieu’s double account of socialized desire’, I suggest that Hans Loewald, perhaps less well-known in the UK, is particularly interesting to consider. To Loewald, the motivational force evident in the transitional experience is not limited to the child’s urge to seek relief from helplessness and dependence, but constitutive of our way to perceive and relate to the world. In Jonathan Lear’s formulation, Loewald’s transitional experience is an erotic force ‘by which ego strives to keep itself connected to the world from which it is differentiating itself’. It is this romantic notion of the relationship between subject and the world, evident in the German tradition and most often linked to the early Marxist notion of praxis, what I wanted to retrieve – although such romantic notions would probably be problematic to Bourdieu himself.

Lynne: As mentioned above, we believe that the concept of habitus can be extended by rethinking it through such psychoanalytic concepts as the unthought known, enigmatic signifiers, and the intergenerational transmission of trauma and of other emotional ways of being. Habitus can also become alive via psychoanalytic understandings of how inequalities of class, race, gender, and sexuality are lived, consciously and unconsciously, how they mark the body, mind, and ways of interacting with others in defences such as disavowal and identification/disidentification. Basic psychoanalytic concepts of repetition compulsion and resistance are central to understanding the hold of habitus.

Muriel: In my view we should be cautious not to jump too early ‘outside of sociology’, even to explain things that seem to lie beyond sociology’s traditional scope! Don’t sociologists have an epistemological duty, and even a right to be sociologists? Such a stance dates back to Durkheim and his Suicide, and I try to show in my article that it is still the epistemological backbone of Bourdieu’s position towards psychoanalysis, even if other interpretations may go in the exact opposite direction.

How can the habitus be captured empirically: challenges and ways of doing it (in your own work and other suggestions?)?

Elizabeth: The empirical engagement with the concept of the habitus is a challenge for the ways in which we do sociology. It’s interesting that Bourdieu conceived of a sociology that strongly combines theory and the empirical. The development of concepts only make sense when directed to understand the social world. Research sensitivity is required to capture habitus. While it is possible to ask direct questions in a questionnaire about tastes and practices, their origins and developments, in order to sketch a habitus within some field, by a particular social group, the resulting knowledge would best be expanded by an ethnographic or biographical narrative sort of research engagement within a temporal exploration. Multi method explorations are always to be preferred when addressing matters of great social complexity as this one of the habitus.

Muriel: This is certainly a tricky question. Habitus is an ‘unobservable’: a scientific construct that can’t be observed directly and which is the supposed matrix of phenomena we actually can spot, like practices, behaviours, attitudes, representations, etc. How can we offer evidence of the existence of something that we can’t see?

What I have tried to do (for example in my research on anorexia) is to ‘grasp’ the habitus by analysing cases where it is transformed, or worked upon. It therefore becomes more visible than when it just ‘exists’ or ‘actualizes’ itself. The construction of an anorexic habitus during the anorexic career becomes visible through the work on dispositions displayed and described by the interviewees (the way they write the rules and reflexes of the diet into their very bodies, the way they work at getting a taste for certain food and for certain physical sensations). It also becomes visible through the counterwork on the anorexic habitus that takes place in the hospital, as I show in my article ‘Bourdieu and psychoanalysis: an empirical and textual study of a pas de deux’.

I do think it is possible to capture empirically the habitus through interviews. They are a good method to observe ethos and dispositions regarding self-presentation, but also to cautiously collect accounts of practices. Repeated interviews over time – longitudinal work – with the same participants are an even better method to grasp transformation and reproduction of habituses and dispositions. But to me the best method is probably to use observation (combined with interviews), to notice dispositions in context and come the closest to actually observe habituses at work.

Lynne: Our paper attempts precisely to trace the ways habitus changes and stays the same over time, and we have done this via analysis of qualitative multi-generational interviews that take up such questions as what relations are like with mothers, fathers, peers, husbands, wives; what emotional conflicts are worked through in ways that challenge a passed down habitus, and what emotional conflicts contribute to its repetition/reproduction.

Is the conception of the habitus shaped by psychological and psychoanalytical influences?

Elizabeth: The richness of the concept of the habitus is in linking individual/personal ways of doing things with social matters, cultural issues. In a nutshell: in what ways is our free will implicated in our choices about how we live our lives. In truth, there is a lot we do not know about what we do, and this not knowing gives a larger meaning to our actions.

There have been explorations by sociologists about the influences of psychology and psychoanalysis in Bourdieu’s development of the concept. I map these out in my paper ‘Habitus Beyond Sociology. I identify three main legacies from my investigation about sociologists’ explorations of the issue. These are from Jean Piaget, from Lev Vygotsky and also from Jacques Lacan. From my reading and discussion of these influences I found the two latter ones more plausible, although Bourdieu has not made explicit his allegiance to any of these theories.

In the SS I discuss these legacies, but more importantly, my fellow colleagues Helene Aarseth, Lynne Leyton, Harriett Nielsen and I, in three of the papers, engage with a proposal to extend the trajectory in Bourdieu’s theory of the habitus by considering the ‘intangibles’ in the habitus in relation to the work of two other psychoanalysts: Hans Loewald and Christopher Bollas.

From Loewald, for instance, a fresher way of understanding the integration between outer and inner worlds is worked out in relation to increasing complexity of experience – in this, psychic change is fundamental for personal growth, for making connections between past and present, conscious and unconscious encounters with culture. Desire, or what we like, is at the centre of the choices we make, the encounters we have. The question thus is what is it that we come to desire? Interestingly, the appreciation of desire is orientated by the field. Desires that matter in some fields may not matter in others.

From Bollas some rich qualifiers to the notion of the habitus appear. He refers to our existence being in a high proportion determined by a ‘not-cognitively apprehended’ ‘unthought known’. This refers to the articulation of internal and external realities that become part of our ways of living, from which and through which we sense, feel, observe, make sense of things… This implies an aesthetic sense, a mode of being. This unthought known is implicated in desire for change and in anxiety about change.

Originally posted 9th June 2016.

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