Some Thoughts on Habitus
I’m planning on having some work done to my house, and I had three companies come out and give estimates. I liked the representative from one of the companies much more than the other two. And by “like” I mean found him to be competent and trust him to do a good job.
All three companies sent a white male; their ages ranged from mid-thirties to late-fifties or early-sixties. Perhaps they were all male and white because this industry in my area is predominately male and white? Maybe there are women or African-Americans who work for these companies but who are not trusted to represent the company for the purpose of giving estimates? (Try doing a Google image search for “repairman” and see if you can find any black repairmen. Or Google “repair woman” and see what you get.)
I don’t think I would have distrusted a black male in the slightest—my conservative upbringing didn’t breed much racial bias into me and what little that was there has been largely overcome. But would I have fully trusted a woman, or would my conservative upbringing have rendered me (unconsciously) biased against her? Would I have been able to see her as “competent” as the men in a male dominated industry? I hope so.
But about the three who did come: why did I trust one of the white males over the other two?
One wore a uniform polo and work pants, one wore dress pants and a dressy polo, and one wore khakis and a polo. The first struck me as “blue collar.” The second struck me as pretentious (in part because he was young and his habitus didn’t match his clothes). The third struck me as “normal”: white, middle class, and white collar—i.e., just like my father dresses.
The first individual had a habitus that matched his clothes: he dressed “blue collar” and spoke and carried his body like a “blue collar” person. The second individual behaved like a nuevo riche who was trying to dress “above” the level of his habitus: he sounded “rough around the edges” but was dressed in nicer clothes. He reminded me of the teenager kid whose parents make him dress up in his best clothes for a wedding or a funeral, but the kid still stands out because they are wrinkled. The last person seemed “normal”: he both dressed like and sounded like my white, middle class, white collar father.
This is how habitus works to reproduce class divisions over time. People are raised with a particular habitus, and see other people with the same habitus as “normal.” In addition, we also see them as more competent and trustworthy. I’m more likely to go with the one most like me for the job. “Birds of a feather flock together,” as they say. The wealth of one group is not largely passed to other groups but passed along inside the same group. This is obviously not always the case, but the effect is not negligible.
I try to tell myself that I like the guy who most reminds me of my dad not for that reason, but because he spent the most time looking at the work that needed to be done, explaining to me the reasons why it needed to be done one way and not the other, and so on. I took these to be signs of competence. But is that right? I’m not in that industry; what grounds do I have for judging competence in an alien field? Maybe he took the longest looking over the details because he has the least experience and is therefore slow figuring stuff out.
Can we ever overcome our habitus? Or is it the best we can do to keep an eye on it, so to speak, in order to attenuate its power?
I bet if I asked I would find out that the guy is a Protestant too.