In short, habitus, the product of history, produces individualPierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice
and collective practices, and hence history, in accordance with the schemes engendered by history.” [i]
Everyday life is the arena of our work and play, struggles and successes, as well as our joys and disappointments. Everything of value and meaning occurs within it. But despite its encompassing presence, any prolong look at everyday life is bound to leave us with the feeling of coming up short. Are we the shapers of everyday life or does it shape us? Truly, our daily experiences provoke many vexing and challenging questions—with few of these having anything approaching a clear resolution. Indeed, we devote an entire discipline of thought—the social sciences—to understanding everyday life and the components (culture, work, beliefs, etc.) that comprise it. And though we’ve made great strides in understanding it, everyday life continues to baffle and perplex us in new and unexpected ways. Thus, the greatest mystery of all remains the mystery of human encounter, which all too often “goes without saying because it comes without saying“[ii].
One of the best at exploring the power of everyday practices was French sociologist and philosopher Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). Concerned about power and social dynamics within society, Bourdieu sought to better understand how the social functions. Refusing to paint society under the structuralist and mechanistic social theories of the day, Bourdieu instead framed society as a dynamic play involving the accumulation of cultural, social, and symbolic capital. Moreover, Bourdieu helped to highlight how we are shaped by and help to shape the complex social spaces we find ourselves. Thus, much of Bourdieu’s work can be characterized as relational—emphasizing the key role individuals and groups have in shaping society. This was an important contrast to structuralism, which placed more importance on the power and influence of institutions rather than human action. It’s a subtle difference to be sure, but one that offered an important corrective to the inflexibility inherent within structuralism. Arguably, Bourdieu’s work helped to move intellectual social thought—in all its iterations—toward a healthy acknowledgement and appreciation of human action and behavior. Simply put, human beings aren’t empty vessels waiting to be filled with whatever they’re told by powerful institutions (governments, corporations, church hierarchy, and so on).
Many of Bourdieu’s theories found new homes in fields outside sociology. His work brought about a wealth of new conceptions and ideas to anthropology, politics, philosophy, and religion (to name a few). But it’s his most famous theory, the habitus, that would make Bourdieu famous beyond academia. In Bourdieu’s words, the habitus is
a system of lasting, transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions. [iii]
In other words, the habitus is a shared reservoir—much like a storehouse— of the actions, behavior, customs, and tastes of a community. Thus, rather than determining behavior, the communal storehouse offers a selection of possible reactions, choices, and cultural preferences that we may choose from. Consequently, how we weigh options, make decisions, and respond is largely due by what habitus (storehouse) we are working within. Similarly, the habitus includes our cultural decisions and habits. The movies we like, our music preferences, and food choices largely stem from the overall habitus we operate within. As such, this means that there’s never a decision or preference made in total independence of our storehouse. What we are is a blending of both independent and personal preference, choosing some things while rejecting others—but always within the shared habitus.
Let’s take a step back and explore what the habitus means for us practically. Consider the habitus as the lenses, or filter, we wear each day. It predisposes what foods we enjoy, the genres of movies and television we watch, and the everyday practices we engage in (to name a few). For example, we’re more likely to watch the NFL in the United States than Soccer (Football), while in the United Kingdom the opposite would be true. What sports we watch have a lot to do with cultural exposure, youth sport programs, media, and everyday conversation—so called “water cooler” talk is more likely to include a chat about the past weekend’s NFL scores than the UK’s Premier League results. Certainly, such a predisposition doesn’t mean that we will like either. And yet, other predispositions within the habitus affect a variety of our cultural tastes and judgments. Our habitus might be the difference between being predisposed toward liking Eastern North Carolina or Kansas City BBQ, watching Doctor Who or Star Trek, drinking Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts coffee, voting for Republicans or Democrats, and so on. Again, we retain the freedom to choose, but those predispositions are frequently hard to shake—especially when it comes to religion and politics. Politically, there’s a dominating habitus within “Red States” and “Blue States.” And often the only way to counter the effects of such a habitus is to leave or clash against it. However, the habitus usually works deep in the background of our experience. So much so, that it’s often indeterminable for most (if not all of us). Republicans and Democrats may be operating within different habitus, but both remain bound within the American ethos. As such, that hidden ethos, the storehouse we call the habitus, ultimately sets our predispositions.
Of course, this sounds very deterministic, and it is to a certain degree. Working within a fixed parameter of choices and preferences doesn’t sound all that free. We like to think of ourselves as autonomous agents, acting in accordance with our own desires rather than societies. Yet, this is exactly Bourdieu’s point. We are autonomous, and remain so, despite the overall influence of the surrounding culture. The choices and decisions we make within that culture—and even the rejection of certain aspects of that culture—remain ours. Which of course stands in stark contrast to views that ignore or outright reject our ability to make autonomous decisions. For Bourdieu, the beauty of the habitus lies in its rejection of structural power. Ultimately, it’s culture—not institutions—that drive human behavior and belief. In part, this is a relief. The habitus offers the hope that collective action, not institutional power, conditions our behavior. The habitus suggests a degree of freedom that’s simply not present within more deterministic theories. The habitus continually changes based upon our decisions and actions. The wider culture rarely remains stagnant, and as it changes so do we. Still, the drivers of this change are the everyday choices and decisions of regular people.
In short, the habitus, the product of history, produces individual and collective practices, and hence history, in accordance with the schemes engendered by history. The system of dispositions—a past which survives in the present and tends to perpetuate itself into the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles . . . is the principle of the continuity and regularity which objectivism discerns in the social world without being able to give them a rational basis. [iv]
Through the habitus, the structure which has produced it governs practice, not by the processes of a mechanical determinism, but through the mediation of the orientations and limits it assigns to the habitus’ operations of invention. [v]
Operating within a habitus may make us feel uncomfortable, and perhaps it should, nevertheless it helpfully offers an important glimpse into the ways everyday life molds and shapes our individual identities. Ultimately, we’re all the result of the collective actions and decisions of history. It’s a history we all share, shape, and propagate into the future. Our choices and actions add to the collective storehouse we all draw from. We are thus shaped by and the shapers of history. We are as much the creators of the habitus as created by it. The choices we make, while to a certain degree conditioned, are nevertheless meaningful in shaping the character of our community and society. James K. A. Smith (1970-), philosopher and Bourdieu scholar, suggests,
The habitus is a condition of possibility: like horizons of expectation, a habitus circumscribes just how we’ll be inclined to constitute the world. However, a habitus is also a condition of possibility: rather than being some limit on my range of possible experiences, it’s what makes any experience possible. The habitus both governs and enables perception. [vi].
It’s this “condition of possibility” that makes the habitus so remarkable. For it suggests that it remains within our realm of possibility to make beneficial and positive changes within our everyday lives and the surrounding culture. Smith suggests that Bourdieu’s habitus isn’t so much about limitations, but rather opportunity. Because we’re largely predisposed rather than prescribed, there remains the ever present opportunity to improve the habitus—to make it better and hopefully more equitable. The habitus informs our experience of a given situation, but it doesn’t prevent us from acting on that experience.
Bourdieu considers that the “habitus, like every ‘art of inventing’, is what makes it possible to produce an infinite number of practices that are relatively unpredictable” [vii]. Even a determined set of choices can offer an infinite array of outcomes due to the unpredictability of human nature. The habitus we create can either be good or bad given the decisions that we make. Our everyday experience is just as likely to bring terror as it does joy. And herein lies an important point for consideration. The habitus isn’t always equal in how possibility is distributed. Quite frankly, some people have more possibilities, better opportunities, than others. Furthermore, a habitus can feel downright oppressive. Yet, this isn’t the fault of the habitus—we shouldn’t chalk things up to the “luck of the draw.” Instead, the fault rests squarely upon the shoulders of the actors who make up that habitus, i.e. human beings. The structures of oppression begin from below, not above.
Thus, we can begin to see how obvious evils such as racism, sexism, income inequality, and poverty can continue to persist nearly twenty years into the current century. We have not adequately confronted our own biases and predispositions. Consequently, when we persist in certain actions and behaviors without reflection or examination, we unwittingly allow the persistence of evil to endure. Everyday actions that continue evil, even unknowingly, can create a habitus that’s oppressive, dangerous, and devoid of opportunity. What Bourdieu shows us is that small everyday actions can have an enormous impact on our future. Each day we act, we’re teaching our bodies and our minds about what is or is not acceptable. The acceptance of the status quo, turning a blind eye to injustice, or perpetuating stereotypical judgments about the “other” can reinforce old behavior as well as create new ones. Socially speaking, we learn from others about what is and is not acceptable. And it’s the actions that we’re least aware of that can cause the most harm—especially to youth. According to Bourdieu,
The essential part of the modus operandi [habits of working] which defines practical mastery is transmitted in practice, in its practical state, without attaining the level of discourse. The child imitates not ‘models’ but other people’s actions. [viii]
Smith reiterates this sentiment stating,
Our bodies are students even when we don’t realize it, and because we are so fundamentally oriented by this habitus, this incarnate education ends up being the more powerful. [ix]
Today, I believe that the value of Bourdieu’s idea of the habitus can’t be understated. If anything, the idea that there is a cultural storehouse of behaviors, beliefs, and actions we draw from should bring pause for consideration. It should force us to consider what things we share within that storehouse and what negative habits we’ve “transmitted” to others.
Theologically speaking, the habitus offers a unique insight into both the failure and possibility of the Christian community. Historically speaking, the Christian community has often failed to create that loving and equitable habitus Christ sought to initiate. Where Christ called us to love we’ve practiced hate, where Christ called us to serve we’ve sought to be served, and where Christ called us to care we’ve practiced indifference. Indeed, the work of Christ was—and continues to be—the calling out and challenging the habitus we unknowingly sustain. I believe that Christ calls us to remake the everyday. For the habitus is also a place of opportunity. Each day we carry the opportunity to extend kindness instead of hate, charity instead of selfishness, acceptance instead of fear, and love instead of hate. Christ calls us to remake our habitus, helping us clear out our social storehouse and make room for those behaviors, beliefs, and actions that are worthy for us to continue and others to imitate.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me—practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you. [x]
In conclusion, Bourdieu’s work helps us to better understand everyday practices and how these practices shape the world around us. Much of what we do goes without reflection or consideration, and yet, these things are hugely significant. Remaking the everyday means remaking our habitus into one where love, kindness, and charity operate effortlessly. Describing the importance of human action, Smith reminds us of the importance of habitual love. He writes,
The driving center of human action and behavior is a nexus of loves, longings, and habits that hums along under the hood, so to speak, without needing to be thought about. These loves, longings, and habits orient and propel our being-in-the-world. The focus on formation is holistic because its end is Christian action. [xi]
Let’s begin remaking the everyday.
[i] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 82.
[ii] Bourdieu, 167.
[iii] Bourdieu, 82-83.
[iv] Bourdieu, 82.
[v] Bourdieu, 95.
[vi] James K.A. Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 84 (emphasis original).
[vii] Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, 55.
[viii] Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, 87.
[ix] Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 97.
[x] Philippians 4:8-9 (ESV).
[xi] Smith, 12.