Last Updated on March 12, 2017 by Karl Thompson
Bourdieu didn’t like the label ‘social theorist’ because he insisted that there was a fundamentally important relationship between empirical data, research methods and ‘theory’.
He was not interested in making grand theoretical claims, but rather was engaged in examining particular substantive areas (fields) of social life that existed at particular times and places, such as fields of education.
Drawing inspiration from Marx and Weber, Bourdieu argued that all aspects of social life must be examined in terms of the power relations they embody – the main aim of sociology is to expose the power of elite groups, which would normally not be visible without sociological analysis.
This ‘exposure’ element is different to Giddens’ structuration theory, who generally assumes the knowledgeability of subjects, while for Bourdieu actors are not necessarily conscious of the operation of power. Bourdieu also focused more on the group, rather than the individual agent.
Bourdieu has been criticise as just being a Marxist, for seemingly analysing power relations in terms of how structure and ideology reproduce individuals. However, Bourdieu saw his position as successfully mediating between objectivism and subjectivism. He claimed these are transcended by his key concept of habitus – a term meant to describe how social conditions act upon and shape individuals’ actions and how also people are –within certain limits – capable of creative responses to the situations they find themselves in (Reay 2004).
A habitus is the characteristic ways of thinking, feeling, acting and experiencing shared by all members of a certain group. It describes how social structures act on individuals in a group and how individuals actively respond to the social situations created by those structures – a person’s practices can either maintain or transform the social situations people operate within.
For Bourdieu the primary groups in society are social class groups. He understands power as the domination of one class over another, via attempts at legitimising their world view.
For Bourdieu, the habitus encompasses both objective and subjective, passive and active, material and ideal elements.
The more objective elements concern wealth and power, and the socialisation processes – socialisation happens at a mental as well as a bodily level — the tiniest details of how we walk, or blow are knows signify aspects of our socialisation, mostly our class background, and for Bourdieu we are not fully aware that everything we do is expressive of the habitus into which we’ve been socialised. Instead the habits disguises itself by making people see the world in common sense ways, and these do not allow critical attention to be paid to it. People just experience what they experience as ‘common sense’.
We do not even realise we have a habitus until we step outside it, into a different context – e.g. a working class person going to a society wedding, realising their ordinary ways of being just don’t fit.
The habitus ‘adjusts expectations to reality’ – so that our subjective outlook meshes with our objective conditions – thus a working class person would just not expect to eat caviar for breakfast, we just accept this.
Bourdieu maintains that habitus does not simply constrain individuals – it also allows action to take place, but it always provides a limited set of possibilities, most of this happens within the realm of practical consciousness.
Bourdieu has been criticised for understating the extent to which people are reflexive today – i.e. it appears that people do increasingly reflect on themselves and their habitus and consciously seek to change what they are.
More to follow>>>