From the opus operatum to the modus operandi: habitus, a primer


Structuralism is viewed as a failed project. How could it not have failed? It desired the world entire, to render reality as a series of objective relationships that could be represented objectively—to stabilize the world’s fluidity in a diagram. In wanting to investigate and ultimately formalize society and its structures from a bird’s eye view, the distance inherent in looking at life from the outside of experience was never going to withstand the destabilizing force of perspectivism. Structuralism did a good job of diagramming how things are done, but it could never pierce the interior of why they’re done.

Enter Pierre Bourdieu and his concept of the habitus. It’s a solution to a problem he saw at the heart of structuralist anthropology: an emphasis on the results of a practice over the modes of a practice in trying to diagram a culture’s logic. In other words, confusing ends for means, using an action’s what’ to explain its why’. Bourdieu believed that was all wrong, that any framework trying to capture how a culture operates must incorporate the practical reasons that underlie our associations and actions, reasons that are often left unsaid. He theorized that our interactions with each other and social reality more generally are a product of the habitus, a model accounting for how we manage to have regular, efficacious responses to similarly structured situations across different contexts—responses common to a particular cultural set, too—that nonetheless are experienced as intuitive and natural, present and particular.

So what is the habitus? It’s the collection of dispositions that make up the field of possible ways that a person might read a situation and all the ways in which they might respond to that situation. The dispositions themselves are simultaneously frames and heuristics, lending consciousness its scope by gently nudging our interpretations and actions like a silent Virgil through life’s many turns. The habitus is the product of the structures that govern an environment, such as the educational opportunities afforded to members of a given class. While material conditions are integral in shaping one’s habitus, they aren’t deterministic. Two people growing up under the exact same economic conditions in the same city might not have the same family structure, a meaningful difference as far as the composition of the habitus is concerned. No single material condition will dictate the field of possibles—it’s about the totality of the conditions of one’s life, historically indexed and contextually sensitive. Habitus also isn’t deterministic as far as a particular interpretation or action is concerned; it’s not that you will necessarily have X-response to Y-situation, or that X-response was primed to be played before you entered into Y-situation. It’s akin to a deck of cards: the card pulled isn’t predetermined, but what is certain are the number and compositions of the cards that could have been pulled. Finally, the makeup of the field of possibles isn’t static—the habitus updates and changes as new situations are encountered, as old actions that once work fall flat or become outmoded.

Habitus is both structured and structuring: it is shaped by shared values and hierarchies, digesting the perspectives of others insofar as those perspectives reflect the relationships that shape society, and, conversely, the actions issued from the habitus mold the world to its past-in-present structuring. A product of the explicit and implicit statements that scaffold social reality; an organ that decodes and signals simultaneously.

We’ve learned that to be alive is to be in dialogue with the world, to be reading it and writing to it always. The habitus lends a new angle to the ecological perspective, one that allows for the objectivity of material conditions to exist alongside the subjective experience of how those conditions affect us. It admits that we are the product of our environments and that our actions and reactions are fit to past experiences, without tying the selection process to a mechanistic model of interaction that presupposes every move’s intent is to produce its explicit purpose. The habitus’ connective tissue is association, not unconditional reason or extra-rational biases. Through alignment and misalignment, through success and failure, through incentives and demoralization a sensitive, historical, and dynamic impression of the world is built through which information is processed, in which heuristics are stored, and from which actions are born. A response can be—in fact is—both conditioned and intuitive, pragmatic and spontaneous. Or it least it should be if you’re not a rock.