Habit, place and value: utilizing Bourdieusian theory Andrew Branch Some thoughts on the relevance of Pierre Bourdieu’s work to an understanding of how Southend-‐on-‐Sea and its surrounding areas are demarcated along class lines.
Club Critical Theory, Railway Hotel, 17 April
Bourdieu’s work is challenging, both because of the rigour with which he expressed his theoretical insights, acquired through the systematic evaluation of phenomena -‐ often by utilizing an ethnographic methodology and in doing so addressing the epis-‐ temological questions such a methodology gives rise to -‐ and because of the breadth of its ambition: this son of a French rural postal worker wanted his philosophically-‐, sociologically-‐ and anthropologically-‐informed research to resonate with a wider audience, beyond the confines of academia. This seems a rather old-‐fashioned aspi-‐ ration in the contemporary moment, not least because a retreat into theoreticism has become arguably a safer option at a time when funding for research concerned to investigate social injustice, rather than sustain careers, is under threat. But divorc-‐ ing theory from practice is to risk a descent into subjective idealism, to de-‐ contextualize individual bodies by forgetting that one of the most important legacies of Marx is his recognition that people make their own history but not in conditions of their own choosing. Bourdieu's appeal, then, rests on what you want critical theory to achieve. This means that Bourdieu is a materialist, understood in the Marxian tradition to mean that our starting point in making sense of social relations between humans is to think about the ways in which such relations are structured in a profit-‐oriented market economy, such that the basic resources required for sustaining life are differ-‐ entially allocated, are fought over. Thus people differentially experience inequalities
in provision, with their worldview consequently informed by their embodied experi-‐ ence: I am therefore I think. Thus, ‘[F]or philosophers, one of the most difficult tasks is to descend from the world of thought to the actual world.' (Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, 1845). If Bourdieu’s work is in dialogue with Marx’s, it is also in dialogue with Weber’s and in this respect both sociologists shared an interest in the symbolic forms group status-‐seeking takes: the economy of culture is therefore also of importance, with social class, as one example of social stratification, being made through both the competitive struggle for resources and through cultural practices which accrue sym-‐ bolic status through the acquisition and exchange of legitimated value. This means that our starting point must be to understand how the human body acquires its hab-‐ its in a particular environment at a particular historical juncture. Bourdieu, in this sense, shares Deleuze’s distaste for the subject as a consciously motivated, rational actor; a rejection of the liberal fantasy of the universal ‘family of man’. For Bourdieu, the subject (or the posthuman body without organs for Deleuzians) is always struc-‐ turally positioned but their engagement with the world, their contingent and contex-‐ tualized being, although habitually framed as a result of inheriting particular struc-‐ tural inequalities, is not determined: agency here -‐ the ability to self-‐reflexively act and resist -‐ is necessarily embodied. If you’re into labels, it makes no sense to iden-‐ tify Bourdieu as a structuralist or post-‐structuralist; his work confounds the limita-‐ tions each category gives rise to. His nuanced reading of how class is formed and embodied confounds, too, those who see such a categorizing category only as lin-‐ guistically constituted. Such relations at this juncture are, I think we’d all agree, antagonistic. We need to acknowledge, for example, the logical resentment of the economically dominated towards those in possession of excessive wealth (especially when inherited) and mo-‐ bile enough to evade their societal obligations. There is class-‐derived resentment and incomprehension, too, in the embodied process of experiencing how value is either conferred or withheld in our culture -‐ how it is legitimated -‐ beyond its mone-‐ tary manifestation: how our tastes, cultural preferences and educational ‘choices’ are enacted such that this enactment is less the consequence of conscious choice but rather second-‐nature habit. Here culture plays an important role in dividing so-‐ cial groups, as it is the sphere in which our status and value-‐claims are exercised. This is Bourdieu in dialogue with Weber as he wants to recognize that each of us are not voluntary subjects in which our phenomenological engagement with the world takes place outside of specific social relations that are both material and symbolic in form. Let me try to examine a little further this theory of the body as the starting point for understanding how we affectively experience the world by summarizing Bourdieu’s three linked concepts -‐ habitus, field and capital -‐ and illustrating their relevance by thinking about how we inhabit and experience Southend and its sur-‐ rounding areas. Habitus For Bourdieu, we acquire dispositions, regulating how we act, through our inherited practice. Because they are embodied dispositions -‐ acquired in specific environments
-‐ they are by definition unknown to us through consciousness; taken-‐for-‐granted. At best, we become only semi-‐aware of them (the enactment of a kind of proto-‐ consciousness) when we are located in new, alien environments. Try to recall how you first felt and reacted when you found yourself in a new environment (a new school or university; a new town or new job; a new social circle) and particularly how you felt when those new environments were imbued with an authority unfamiliar to you but which framed what seemed plausible to you. I have italicized ‘felt’ here be-‐ cause I want to move away from the idea of feeling as conscious reflection (emotions in this sense might be viewed as the social coding of feelings) to feeling understood as embodied reaction: how we feel in these situations is important and in this sense ‘being’ is an affective social experience between actors. Habitual behaviour, then, is felt as such only when it is made known as a consequence of it being interrupted. Here, Bourdieu is in dialogue with the work of the phenomenologist, Merleau-‐Ponty. My own experience of this sense of disorientation is mirrored in the unease of some of the students I teach, for whom being located in a new environment (a university) is unsettling and troubling given the absence of familiar markers: a different ‘lan-‐ guage’ is spoken; new codes of communication are expected; entitlements are pre-‐ sumed and different values are presumed and valorized. How do students express this embodied unease? They are often tongue-‐tied; they stick to patterns of behav-‐ iour they are more familiar with and their general comportment signals an unsettled disposition. Of course, perhaps I am alert to these dispositional practices because at some deep level they resonate with me: I can locate my own residual class habitus in them. Habitus then, for Bourdieu, is both a structured structure (our habitual behav-‐ iour is embodied history) and a structuring structure (our inherited dispositions frame our practice). It is generated and generative. Habitual comportment; out of place A clip from Mathieu Kassovitz’s film, La Haine (1995)
Field For Bourdieu, the social field (think of field as a metaphor for space and place) is made up of overlapping sub-‐fields: of education (and the disciplines within it); of forms of media production; of popular culture; of formal politics etc. and these sub-‐ fields are in turn constituted by their own sub-‐fields. This mapping recognizes that although the social world is organized in terms of the unequal distribution of power, it is also a dynamic, ever-‐changing world and thus potentially politically unstable. Marx defined Western modernity as a moment in which ‘all that is solid melts into air’ and this insight is useful in terms of making sense of the dynamism and states of flux that constitute the neo-‐liberal epoch we are currently living through. But within this social world there are forms of privilege and inequality -‐ forms of social injustice -‐ that seem to be rather effective at reproducing themselves. How can this be so? Why do certain bodies habituate themselves such that particular forms of injustice (starvation, homelessness, poverty, economic insecurity and violence, both physical
and symbolic in form) are tolerated? For Bourdieu, the metaphor of field allows us to understand how hierarchies are able to establish themselves and seek reproduction: but ‘orthodox’ fields were heterodox at their moment of inception and thus sites of competing interests and consequently struggle (think about how the field of British higher education is hierarchically structured in order to sustain privilege and per-‐ petuate disadvantage to those for whom the natural habitus best disposed to em-‐ bodying its values and codes is alien; think too about how media studies as a rela-‐ tively new field of inquiry is derided by dominant ‘traditional’ academic fields seek-‐ ing to maintain their own privilege). I have written about these tensions using British first-‐wave punk as a case study if you’re interested in a more detailed account (see my website for details). Perhaps the best way, then, to conceptualize the Bourdieusian field is to envisage the spaces and places in your own life where your membership is either assumed as a given or from which you have self-‐excluded on the basis that such spaces and places are ‘not suitable’ or ‘not for people like me’. This can be a painful process, re-‐ quiring as it does recognition of forms of resentment towards the dominant. I’m re-‐ minded of the mother who told me in passing -‐ it was a self-‐evident truth to her -‐ that her three-‐year old daughter was not ‘academically-‐minded’ and just needed a school where she could be happy. Perhaps at an intuitive level she had this form of self-‐exclusion in mind. Diane Reay has written extensively about the class-‐bias of the British education system. And perhaps those working-‐class people who infiltrated, for example, the established fields of academia (Richard Hoggart and Raymond Wil-‐ liams) of literature (James Kelman) of avant-‐garde film (Lynne Ramsay) of popular journalism (Julie Burchill) of television drama (Dennis Potter) managed to do so be-‐ cause they learned through the acquisition of new habits, through education and circumstance, to resist such forms of exclusion and thus challenged what was natu-‐ rally expected of them.
The marking of space and place: graffiti daubed on the exterior of The Grand Hotel, Leigh-‐on-‐Sea in response to its acquisition by Michael Norcross, cast member of scripted reality show, The Only Way is Essex (Lime Pictures, 2010-‐). Who’s being marginalized here and why?
Fields are important and dynamic, then, because they constitute the space in which we are able to either naturalize our inherited privilege or, more optimistically, ac-‐ quire some limited forms of entitlement through the rupturing and re-‐constituting of our habitus. How might we understand entitlement here?
The Expulsion from No. 8 Eden Close (2012) Grayson Perry’s visualization of the reculturation of habitus
Capital If the concepts of habitus and field are inextricably linked for Bourdieu, the acquisi-‐ tion of capital is the way in which we can make best sense of how value might be ex-‐ tracted from our habitual behaviour in particular fields. Here capital is defined as the forms of familiar knowledge which are legitimated as holding value: there’s a lovely moment when Bourdieu talks about how skillfully cutting a hedge or executing a beautiful rugby manoeuvre are of equal complexity to the solving of a mathematical equation: all three require field-‐specific forms of knowledge, which may be func-‐ tional or aesthetic in form, but only the latter might be recognized as holding legiti-‐ mated value; an aestheticized aesthetic.
A functional aesthetic: Dennis Bergkamp’s ‘feel for the game’
Capital can take many forms: linguistic, educational, cultural, social and, ultimately, economic. The first four forms can be subsumed under ‘symbolic capital’ and thus exchanged for economic capital. Think here about how Southend manages its educa-‐ tional provision (grammar versus catchment); how cultural capital is divided largely along class lines in the town (particular clubs are seen as either ‘alternative’ and ‘bo-‐ hemian/artistic’ or ‘chavvy’ and ‘tacky’) or how social capital -‐ whom you know and how such contacts may prove useful (‘networking’) -‐ is exercised time and again as a way of managing and containing privileged access. Competing for educational capital An unintended illustration of the resentment of middle-‐class parents fearful of losing their claim on educational privilege. At no point in the local media coverage were parents at Friars School asked about their views.
Youth tribes, (sub)cultural capital and status-‐seeking: Junk Club, Southend-‐on-‐Sea, mid-‐nineties (left) and Talk of the South nightclub, same period (right)
'Cool' Leigh-‐on-‐Sea, BBC Essex, March 2013 The exercising of social capital and marking of space
A bleak picture? In conclusion, Bourdieu’s work makes for sober reading. Whilst it recognizes the agency of individuals -‐ the ability to ‘speak’ back to power -‐ it insists that the mo-‐ ments in which such resistance is made known are necessarily localized as any claim to universal interest presupposes the rational, self-‐knowing subject (Marx’s proletar-‐ iat achieving class-‐consciousness). Thus those who operate across a number of le-‐ gitimated fields are invariably those who have the best ‘feel for the game’ and are thus best placed to win it. Our habitual behaviour is inclined to negate change until our fields of practice are disrupted. But perhaps this is increasingly what is happen-‐ ing in our contemporary social relations: the upheavals that mark our practice may just offer the possibility that the resentment dominated subjects embody is made
known to them through the disruptions that they experience to their habitual com-‐ portment. In this sense, resistance through the acquisition of new habits -‐ symboli-‐ cally realized through novel forms of cultural practice -‐ always has a localized and group-‐specific dimension but it is at this moment of resistance that perhaps those already displaced and disorientated through their marginalization, might intervene. Not as leaders ready to establish new hierarchies but as out-‐of-‐place subjects com-‐ pelled to make history collectively, motivated by an ethical commitment to eradicate all forms of symbolic violence and economic injustice.
Heterodox space: where new habits might be embodied
Further reading Bourdieu was a prolific writer, but these publications are a good place to start… Bourdieu, P. (1977), Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Bourdieu, P. (1984), Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge. Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power, Cambridge: Polity. Bourdieu, P. (1993a), Sociology in Question, trans. R. Nice, London: Sage. Bourdieu, P. (1996), The Rules of Art, trans. S. Emmanuel, Cambridge: Polity.
If you want more of an overview, Jeremy Lane’s Bourdieu’s politics: problems and possibilities (London, Routledge) and Pierre Bourdieu: a critical introduction (London, Pluto) are excellent resources. Note: URLs will work once PDF is downloaded.
Published on May 15, 2014
Published on May 15, 2014
Here's the text to support my talk at the inaugural Club Critical Theory event at the Railway Hotel, Southend-on-Sea. If you're interested...