Habitus is a sociological term that refers to people’s embodied traits and behaviors (ie. Your skills, habits, and dispositions). These habits, skills, and dispositions are learned through socialization and are so ingrained in our identities that they feel completely natural.
Examples of a person’s habitus include the way you dress, your accent, your body language, things you feel naturally good at, and your values.
The theory of habitus is used in sociology to explain how individuals develop their social identities and cultures are reproduced through the generations.
Habitus Definition in Sociology
Habitus refers to a person’s embodied traits and behaviors (ie. Your skills, habits, and dispositions).
These formations are acquired through socialization and shape an individual’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors.
Over time, our habitus becomes so ingrained that it feels natural rather than culturally mediated.
For example, people often forget they even have an accent because their accent seems so natural to them – it’s all they know. Only by leaving their homeland might they learn to ‘hear’ their accent again.
Similarly, a person who grows up in a devoutly religious family may come to believe their religion’s values and sacred texts as natural truth because their minds have been trained within the religion’s paradigm.
The Habitus and the Field
Habitus is acquired in social and cultural contexts. Therefore, groups of people develop a shared habitus.
You are not the only person with your accent, or ways of behaving, or a particular set of cultural values.
To describe how any individual’s habitus exists within a context and is shared with others, Bourdieu came up with the concept of the ‘field’.
Bourdieu would use sports metaphors to describe the two:
- Habitus is metaphorically our ability to play the game – our ability to “swing the racquet” like it’s an extension of the arm.
- Field is metaphorically the rule of the game – the rules of tennis such as how to win and how to score.
If your habitus is finely tuned to fit within your field, you have what Bourdieu would call cultural capital.
How we Develop Habitus
According to the theory of habitus, we act a certain way because of our “lived experience”, and not solely by the “force of external social structures” (Atkinson, 2021, p. 196).
In other words, we speak, think, and act how we do not because of clearly-defined cultural rules or punishments, but because we slowly developed cultural competency through socialization.
We’re not compelled to behave in certain ways – we just learn it through exposure.
Bourdieu (1977) believes that it is the past, and the repeated actions of people before us that influence what we choose to do.
He states, “it is yesterday’s man who inevitably predominates in us, since the present amounts to little compared with the long past in the course of which we were formed and from which we result” (p. 78).
Examples of Habitus
- The way we dress is often a reflection of our habitus, it can be a way of fitting in or standing out.
- The way we speak: our accent, vocabulary and tone are also shaped by our habitus.
- Our posture and body language are often determined by our habitus.
- The way we interact with others: whether we are shy or outgoing, reserved, or confident is influenced by our habitus.
- The way we perceive the world around us
- Our values and beliefs
- The way we use our time: whether we are punctual or lax about being on time
- The way we spend our money: whether we are frugal or extravagant
- Our level of education often reflects our habitus.
- Our occupation is often a reflection of our habitus.
1. The way we perceive the world around us
Norris (2005) points out that the identity of an individual is continually constructed on a micro level, where this identity is asserted, debated, and re-constructed in various interactions with other participants.
For example, your perception of gender and gender roles might be shaped by how your father speaks to your mother, your culture’s representations of women in media, and so on.
Over time, you might come to internalize that way of perceiving gender, and that perception becomes part of your habitus. You believe it to be true and natural, largely because it seems natural within your sociocultural context.
See Also: Gender Socialization
2. The way we speak
The way you speak – the accent, choice of phrases, slang, and so forth – represents part of your habitus. You got those intonations and phrases from somewhere, and your re-use of them reveal a lot about who you are and where you come from.
At any moment, our ability to use language reflects our position in larger social and economic landscapes, and shape the way we understand the world and each other.
For example, a working-class person using language that the upper class might consider crass reveals the working-class person’s habitus to the upper-class person. In the same way, posh language and phrases might give clues to the working-class person about who they are speaking with. The habitus of each differs.
Hanks (2005) suggests that a certain symbolic domination can occur in many societies due to language. Namely, a group who speak the standard language fluently might come to view themselves more cultured or more intelligent than those who cannot.
Conversely, people who do not speak the dominant language might come to view themselves as inferior (p. 75-77).
3. Our values and beliefs
Religion is another example of habitus. It is an enduring set of values, attitudes, and behaviors that shapes how people interact with their environment.
It includes everything from the rituals people observe to the influence they have on others through their beliefs and actions.
The idea that religion is a habitus was first proposed by sociologist Émile Durkheim in his foundational work The Elementary Forms of Religious Life in 1912. Durkheim argued that religion is not just a set of beliefs; it is also the social context in which those beliefs are enacted.
He believed that religion is passed down by example and ritual rather than taught by text. Thus, he argued that religion can be seen as an “organic” phenomenon that exists across generations (Durkheim & Ward, 2022).
Despite the fact that Bourdieu’s social theory is indebted to social scientists of religion (Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Marcel Mauss, among others), he wrote only a few texts on religion in general. Bourdieuan social theory did not gain the kind of academic praise within religious studies that it held in many other fields of study.
However, he did state that both “laymen and specialists alike act religiously based on what they believe – know in their bodies – to be right, not open calculation. Moreover, belief in supernatural powers and the salvation goods connected to them can actually generate both altruistic and self-interested behavior”(Kupari, 2016, p. 15).
4. Our level of education is a reflection of our habitus
An individual’s educational habitus can be defined by things like the type of school they attended as a child and the support they received there, what kind of work experience they have had, or how much effort they put into their education.
For example, if we compare a child who went to a working-class public school versus an elite private school, we can see that they each have a very different habitus (Drew, 2013).
The elite schoolboy will have learned to speak with a posh accent, dress in business attire, brush his hair in a certain way, and follow elite sports like rugby and rowing.
The working-class schoolboy will likely have had far less training in upper-class behaviors and attitudes. He might value a sport of the masses like boxing or soccer. He might speak with a more working-class accent (because likely his teachers and parents have that accent, too). The working-class boy might value manual labor, wear more relaxed clothing that is more comfortable when working outdoors, and he might be into working-class punk music.
This isn’t to say that all boys of their upbringings necessarily match those stereotypes, but it is to say that there is a set of cultural norms that nudge each of them toward a certain class-based habitus.
In total, these two stereotypes reflect boys who are products of their culture, and each boy’s habitus has been formed within class-based cultural contexts.
Case Study: Chinese Class-Based Habitus
Researchers Hong & Zhao (2015) studied Chinese social classes using Bourdieu’s theories on habitus. They looked at social classes and family education patterns in urban areas by collecting data on Chinese household incomes. They then recorded statistics from surveys conducted about how Chinese parents raised their children.
They found that “Bourdieu’s theory of capital and habitus provides a useful perspective for inspecting the formation and changes in the class structure of Chinese society. By analyzing the differences in the dimensions of capital and habitus of the current classes, we can get a glimpse of the current stage of the formation of Chinese class structure”(p. 6).
Criticism of Bourdieu’s theories
Bourdieu faces criticism for two main reasons:
- His theories lack sufficient acknowledgment of human agency
- His theories often fail to be intersectional
1. Lack of Interest in the Role of Human Agency
Agency in sociology refers to the ability of people to make their own decisions. For example, a person has choice about their favorite sports, their taste in fashion, and so on.
When we look at Bourdieu’s theory of habitus, we can see that Bourdieu does an excellent job at exploring social structures in a broad sense. It is true that we learn how to behave and think through cultural immersion, and that’s how coherent cultural worldviews, behaviors, accents, and attitudes are transmitted from generation to generation.
But from an individual perspective, there are plenty of examples of individuals whose habitus does not match their field. In other words, they didn’t perfectly and uncritically absorb their culture (King, 2000).
Take the example of a working-class boy in a working-class school who loves opera and watches rugby rather than boxing. This boy exercised his agency and didn’t uncritically absorb his class culture into his habitus.
Therefore, the concepts of field and habitus can fail to understand how individuals have agency and can shape their own lives through their own freewill (King, 2000).
Bourdieu would respond by arguing that both objective forces (social structures) and subjective forces (individual agency) shaped a person’s habitus. Nevertheless, many contemporary scholars – and particularly the postmodernists like Foucault and Ranciere – found his focus on structure over agency to be a flaw in his ideas.
2. Lack of Intersectionality
Bourdieu was very concerned with social class – and to some, too concerned with social class.
Heading into the 1990s, scholars were increasingly concerned with the concept of intersectionality – how gender, race, and class intersect.
However, Bourdieu for much of his career was overly concerned with social class rather than gender, race, disability, and other aspects of identity.
To address the concern that his work didn’t address gender issues (McCall, 1992), Bourdieu did write his text Masculine Domination (2001) later in his career, where he explored how his theories of reproduction, habitus, field, and capital can be applied from a feminist lens.
Nevertheless, looking at the span of his career, he rarely looked holistically at how reproduction and domination was inherently intersectional. Rather, he was an old-school class theorist who saw class as the key social struggle in society.
Origins of Habitus
While Bourdieu is seen as the most influential sociological theorist describing habitus, he was not the first.
In the context of philosophical history, habitus, a Latin verb meaning to have, was coined in the sixth century in a translation of Aristotle’s ‘hexis,’ which stands for ‘habit’.
Thomas Aquinas would then reappropriate this it in the thirteenth century in his Summa Theologiae, particularly in his examination of the ways of obtaining faith (Sapiro, 2015, p. 484).
The concept of habitus, though interpreted in different ways by different scholars and philosophers, is present throughout modern philosophy, from Rationalism, to materialist, to the British Empiricism, to French Spiritualism, to German Idealism.
However, the ideas of 19th and 20th century sociologists Emile Durkheim, Marcel Mauss, Max Weber, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty were particularly influential to Bourdieu (Wacquant, 2016, p.63-65).
Habitus refers to our embodied traits and behaviors. It is the way in which we situate ourselves in our environment, the set of characteristics that make us who we are, the position we occupy in our relationships with others, and the cultural ideas that structure the way we see ourselves.
Piere Bourdieu’s theory of habitus continues to be an influential concept that helps to explain the reproduction of class and, to a lesser extent, gender, within a culture. His ideas of habitus, field, and capital continue to be essential sociological concepts.
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