What is the habitus clivé?

By Sam Friedman

While habitus is surely one of the most influential concepts in Sociology today, the related idea of the habitus clivé is less well known. Our editorial board member Sam Friedman, London School of Economics, explains where this concept came from and how his recent research, published in The Sociological Review, indicates that it may be more important than its originator believed. 

What is the habitus? What role does it play in explaining social life?

How long have you got? No really, that’s a huge and controversial question. Many sociologists would argue habitus is a fundamentally incoherent and unhelpful concept. Yet I’ve always been drawn to habitus. Put simply (or my attempt at simplicity!), habitus is a set of dispositions (i.e long-lasting manners of being, seeing, acting and thinking) that flow from your primary socialisation, and in particular from the social class position of your parents when you were growing up – what Bourdieu sees as your ‘conditions of existence’.

Where does the concept of habitus clivé come from? How does it complicate our understanding of habitus?

For Bourdieu a person experiences habitus clivé, or cleft habitus, when their ‘conditions of existence’ change so dramatically over the course of their life that they feel their dispositions losing coherency and experience a sense of self torn by dislocation and internal division. Bourdieu wrote particularly eloquently on this state of being as it was something he had experienced first-hand. His own personal story was one of extraordinary upward social mobility, from a rural working-class upbringing to the Chair of Sociology at the College de France. Interestingly though, as I explain in the article, there is a slight irony to Bourdieu’s self-analysis when read through the lens of his wider social theory. You see, Bourdieu very much saw himself (and his own habitus clivé) as the exception to the rule and famously argued that the dispositions flowing from habitus were so durable that in the vast majority of cases they stayed unified through time. He therefore rarely engaged with the concept in his own empirical work. However, in my research on the upwardly mobile I found that habitus clivé was not simply the exception that proved the rule, and in fact a relatively higher percentage of my respondents (although obviously still a minority) reported a sense of cleft habitus – and certainly many more, proportionally, than Bourdieu would have assumed.

How does this help us understand the personal challenges entailed by social mobility?

I think the notion of habitus clivé, and more generally habitus as an overarching concept, is useful in helping us understand how people actually experience social mobility. As I first explored in the article, politicians and sociologists often frame upward mobility as an unequivocally progressive force – as a sign not just of personal achievement but of a healthy functioning meritocracy. However, this elides the possibility that people make sense of their social trajectories not just through “objective” markers of economic or occupational success, but also through symbols and artefacts of class-inflected cultural identity. In this way, habitus is crucial because it allows us to conceptualise how a mobile person’s past can shape their horizon of expectations in the present. My analysis thus illustrates both the struggles the 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’.

You distinguish between upwards transitions in terms of their speed: how does the operation of the habitus differ in the case of ‘slow’ and ‘fast’ transitions? 

This was really interesting. The issue of mobility speed was very important in unpacking why some people who had experienced similar ranges of upward mobility had found it emotionally difficult and others hadn’t. For example, people who had experienced very abrupt ‘moments’ of upward mobility (particularly in the early part of life), moving to an elite school or university, for example, or gaining early employment in a prestigious firm or company, had felt what Bourdieu calls ‘hysteresis’ – a mismatch between field and habitus. In the aftermath of this sudden change, these people recalled the emotional struggles of feeling like a ‘fish out of water’. And while in most cases this immediate feeling of dislocation subsided, the memory had invariably left a lingering emotional residue. In contrast, I was struck by how respondents who had experienced mobility as smooth described slow and steady upward journeys, normally in large companies or organisations, where they had had time to ‘get a feel for the game’ in each new rung of the occupational hierarchy.

Sam Friedman is Assistant Professor in Sociology at LSE. He is a member of the editorial board at The Sociological Review. You can find him on Twitter  @SamFriedmanSoc.

Originally posted 4th May 2015.

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