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Some Thoughts on Habitus

August 19, 2009

house_repair99I’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.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. August 19, 2009 10:39 am

    Great post on the daily influence of largely unconscious, socially instilled and habitual bias.

    No, I don’t think we can fully overcome our overlapping habitus (habiti?), but yes, I do think we can do a lot to counteract them.

    Are you sure you’ve fully overcome the racialized elements of yours? You wrote, for instance,

    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.

    “largely” overcome? So, you might then have the “slightest” distrust, no? And how could a conservative, white upbringing not breed much racial bias into you? Seems to me like a good thing to admit how in these matters, parts of yourself still do struggle with each other — I’d be amazed if they didn’t.

    You also wrote,

    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 feathr 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.

    Isn’t the wealth of some groups also siphoned away from some groups, at an increasing rate these past few decades, by the members of other groups higher in the socioeconomic rankings? (unless by “wealth” you mean other forms of “capital” besides money?).

  2. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    August 19, 2009 11:13 am

    Hey Macon!

    I had extended family that was more or less overtly racist, and I think my parents tried hard to counteract that. What racism seeped into me was probably through the invisible normalization of whiteness. Now I’m sensitive to it to the extent that I think I overcompensate—if such a thing is possible. I really look forward to having non-white students in my classes, and I would be surprised if I unconsciously give them more positive attention than the white students. I’m sure there is some racial bias there, but not anything like what I see, for instance, in my extended family.

    About wealth: yes, what I wrote was far too simplistic. I hesitate to say things like “the rich get richer while the poor get poorer,” since it seems that wealth has increased for all groups in the US, although it remains true that the gap between top and bottom has increased. That is, the poor get richer at the same time that the gap widens. Of course it’s not true across the board. But, in any case, you’re right. The relations of wealth are much more complicated than the idea that wealth simply circulates within each class.

  3. Chris Mowles permalink
    October 7, 2009 1:08 pm

    I don’t know if you have come across the work of GH Mead the American pragmatist? Mead thought that the process of human interaction is the patterning of gesture and response ie we gesture to others and call out a response in others at the same time that we call it out in ourselves. Without this ability to discern a generalised tendency to act in a particular way from having been socialised, we would not be able to anticipate/inform other people’s actions. However, the full meaning of the gesture cannot be discerned until the response has been made: ie the meaning arises in the cycle of gesture and response, not in just one or the other. We have, argued Mead, the ability to surprise ourselves and others in our spontaneous responses to ourselves and to others. In this way, then, it may be possible to overcome the habitus that you describe in small incremental ways in the practice of communicating with others.

    Mead was interested in micro-interactions in the way the Bourdieu was not (this was equally true of his friend and colleague Norbert Elias who writes in a similar way to Bourdieu about habitus. Elias, however, takes a longer term view). In his book An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology Bourdieu does try and set out his case again to rebut the critics who accused him of determinism, ie that there is no way of overcoming one’s habitus in Bourdieu’s scheme of thought. For me I think Bourdieu comes closest to describing novelty and spontaneity when he writes about excellence as being the ‘necesssary improvisation on the rules’.

    As for your empathy with the final workman, I guess Mead would say that he was gesturing and responding with and to you in a way that called out trust in you, just as you did in him. You were either right to trust him or he was a good Con man. Con men have developed the ‘necessary improvisation’ to call out trust in other people and probably believe themselves as they are doing it: it is their practice.

    A nice and thoughtful blog.

  4. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    October 7, 2009 1:38 pm

    Mind, Self, and Society has been on my wishlist for awhile—I just haven’t gotten to it yet. I imagine I would really like it.

    I think you’re basically right about Bourdieu’s determinism: the way he can account for innovation is through improvisation or, as he suggests at one point, reactivating old practices or combining them to make new ones. I think that that’s about all Foucault can say as well.

    However, I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s more than adequate to account for innovation and change in our world.

  5. missivesfrommarx permalink*
    October 7, 2009 1:41 pm

    I meant to add: along with “reactivating” old practices, I would suggest that we’re never socialized in a single way. Foucault insists that there are always multiple discourses at work at any given moment, for instance, and I can appeal to one to critique others. I was raised with really really conservative values. However, I was also taught to be sympathetic toward suffering. As I grew up the sympathy side of things acted against the conservative values part. I can be determinist and still account for how I turned out to be a leftist …

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