Conservative, progressive and the habitus

I am reading out of field again, struggling through the complex syntax of Pierre Bourdieu’s Outline of a Theory of Practice from 1977. He is an anthropologist-sociologist-philosopher; I saw a brief reference to him a few weeks back, specifically his concept of a habitus, and thought I would like to read about this from the source. The habitus is his anthropological take on culture; it is a group’s set of shared predispositions on how to handle socially defined situations through practiced actions. Now he formulates this concept through his study of marital arrangements in, I think, an Arab culture, where ‘important’ marriages are arranged through a careful process of intermediaries by males and ‘lesser’ marriages by females talking with one another. Of course, the important marriages are made so because they either consolidate property and material within the family or they increase political capital through alliances with other families. All very interesting, I am sure, and I can better appreciate finding myself in a culture where the marital couple determines their own match. We find our way over a landscape of love more than a political terrain, but all humans have their habitus to steer their practices into socially defined and acceptable channels according to their cultural tribe.

While Bourdieu does not, so far as I have read at least, relate habitus to a biological frame other than control of kinship, resources, and genetic pool, he does speak in terms I understand as easily translatable to neuroscientific ones. He says, “The habitus, durably installed generation of principles of regulated improvisations, produces practices which tend to reproduce the regularities immanent in [the performance in context]. Translated to BRoH speak, culture is an acquired set of learned invariable proclivities, that operate to guide our actions in key situations according to social mores and traditions. Remember the previous post about the natural history human morality and consider how we come to act in accord with our conventional notions of ethics and honor, e.g., sometimes we act humanely according to the golden rule and sometimes we abrogate that rule for strategic purpose and act disregarding the common good. The habitus, Bourdieu asserts, “harmonizes” our experiences and thus our attitudes and actions whether these are marital arrangements, workplace etiquette, hospitality towards strangers, the inclusion-exclusion of the ingroup, the mores of authority, etc.

Remember, now, a couple of things I have often mentioned here before:

  • Susanne Langer posited that society changed through a dialectic between the individual and society, sometimes learning and following the conservative traditions and sometimes creating new ways but always, one hopes, preserving the coherence and integrity of the culture. The individual also experiences a dialectic between the imaginative and practical; again balance is necessary.
  • Since the early days of psychology with Freud and James steady progress has been made in understanding that much of what we think may come from conscious deliberations actually comes about from unconscious processes. See, for a recent and most cogent example, the book, The Undoing Project, about the collaborative work between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on human decision making that found our conscious heuristics riddled with biases and errors.
  • Taking this further, several scientists, like Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, have found that our political leanings and judgments stem from unconscious automatic processes, i.e., that political attitudes derive from deeper in human nature than from well-considered deliberations.
  • Mind is embodied through the soma, its brain and the MEMBRAIN. We acquire and develop our special competence, e.g., linguistic and cultural, through largely incidental experiences, a largely unremembered history of learning the cultural and linguistic invariant forms needed to act and interact effectively in the social domain.


All of these ideas are commensurate with Bourdieu’s concept of the habitus. He makes a statement that seemingly takes all these factors into account, that generational changes in the habitus, culture if you will, come about because each generation finds different “conditions of experience” and these impose “different definitions of the impossible, the possible, and the probable” and these differences lead one group to “experience as natural or reasonable practices or aspirations which another group finds unthinkable or scandalous, or vice versa”. (For some reason John Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’ comes to mind). Our parents’ habitus initiated our acculturation, we developed our own habitus as our own current experiences led to different practices and predispositions, and we brought this newly rejuvenated habitus to acculturate our children, and so on into the future.

As I read this I wondered about the changes in visual art affected by photography or scientific progress or in what constitutes ‘appropriate’ content from religious images to natural scenes to abstracted experiences to what some consider obscene. (Oh my, Joyce’s Ulysses is such a case in point). I also remembered something I read long ago in Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is that a change in paradigm, say from the Aristotelian solar system to the Copernican universe, is never a simple progression based upon consideration of data and the revolution is never complete until the practitioners who maintained the old paradigm have died off. And of course I wondered about my youth in the 60s growing up with the possibility of nuclear war, the upsurge in consciousness resulting from the civil rights struggle, and the changes in the workforce and gender roles engendered by females working more in WWII and then reproductive freedom helped along by birth control pills. Then what about my daughter’s habitus now with computers, internet, rapid cultural change, gender equality and the degradation of our politics along with the earth itself?

So cultural change occurs as each generation encounters new “conditions of experience”, and what one generation finds natural and reasonable is rejected by another, e.g., Elvis and rock and roll, divorce, abortion, the right of all to medical care, the equality of opportunity and justice to all groups regardless of race and gender, or what constitutes an acceptable gap between the rich and the rest of us. While our activities will change the conditions the next generation experiences, our activities are rarely done with that strategic purpose in mind; our actions are rarely that powerful in isolation, and much change comes incidentally or as unintended consequences. That gives me pause as to how I understand human intelligence and action in all domains, e.g., marriage, justice, economic, political, etc.

Finally I have been thinking a good deal most recently about how our minds handle temporal parameters, especially the loops, you know, like feedback, feedforward or feedsideways. Our different political biases, being based more in our human nature than our conscious deliberations, also show the importance of how we handle time and change. The basic division for so very long has been conservative, i.e., slow change and preserve old values, and progressive, embrace change and improve values. We also have reactionary, i.e., go backwards (and sorry that is a strategy of failure), and revolutionary, i.e., enact drastic change (and sorry, that is often a strategy of chaos at least in the short term and a process liable to be hijacked by charismatic miscreants or ruthless reprobates). Cultural change, i.e., change in the predispositions composing the habitus, happens incrementally through an astoundingly large exchange of social quanta that sometimes organizes into social movement. The dialectic underlying human society and culture bespeaks the importance of maintaining integrity and coherence of past practices while developing and incorporating the creativity that serves human progress. In vol. 3 of Mind: An essay on human feeling Langer details many cultures that have failed to sustain this dialectic and so passed out of existence. Somehow, to this ole man, weaving conservative and progressive threads into the social fabric used to seem easier. How and why have our predispositions changed so that pragmatic, grounded action feels so alien? And will our next generation form a habitus that is more viable and if so, how? Travel on.

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