The concept of Habitus was made popular by French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu in his book Outline of a Theory of Practice (1977). He used the concept to address the sociological conundrum between structure and agency and explained that habitus was shaped by structural position, but also generated action. According to Bourdieu, when people exhibit agency they unconsciously refer to social structures, thus reflecting on and reproducing them. Individual actions are thus reflected by the socialisation and habitus of the individual.
Though the concept of habitus was first known to be used by Aristotle, it was Pierre Bourdieu who transformed it into a vital concept in social theory. The term habitus refers to a collective entity by and into which dominant social and cultural conditions of a society are established and reproduced. It is a subjective and yet not an individual system of structures, concepts, schemes of perception, actions and norms that are internalised by individuals in the same group. Habitus helps instill a sense of the world in individuals by attributing cultural value to material or immaterial objects. Even at a very intimate level, habitus postulates specific properties. What one considers, ‘natural’, ‘taboo’, ‘neutral’ and ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is constructed by one’s habitus. For instance, while certain social classes appreciate Bollywood music, certain other social classes only consider Carnatic or Hindustani music to be worthy of appreciation.
The sense of habitus or our understanding of the things valued within the habitus is conferred through various institutions or fields. It begins with the family, where one gets attuned to one’s surroundings and culture and is reinforced through institutions like schools and offices. Yet, these institutions may also help restructure and amend one’s original templates of culture and society.
The connection to capital
Though not considered a Marxist sociologist, Bourdieu was influenced by Karl Marx’s work. Both argued that capital formed the foundation of social life and dictated one’s position within society. Bourdieu took this idea of capital beyond the economic and into the more symbolic realm of culture. In sociology, ‘capital’ refers to a person or group’s accumulated status within a stratified society. There are different forms of capital.
Economic capital refers to a person’s wealth which determines his economic class in society. Cultural capital refers to a person’s cultural competencies. A person’s accent, their knowledge about dressing according to occasions, their knowledge of etiquette, taboos and manners, their understanding of cultural objects such as artwork or music, and the books they read are a few examples of cultural capital. Cultural capital can be translated to other forms of capital as it helps in gaining access to social groups like prestigious colleges. This in turn helps with economic capital as they have better job prospects due to associations and networks.
Social capital refers to the social networks and relationships that a person has developed and can call upon to achieve social advantages or mobility. The network connection one’s family has in a company, which helps them get the job easier than others, or gaining membership to an exclusive club because the person knows the club owner’s son, are a few examples of social capital. It also includes ethnic capital which refers to the advantages of belonging to a specific ethnic group, linguistic capital which refers to one’s linguistic skills that help in gaining more acceptance in a field, and intellectual capital which refers to the value that one’s knowledge, capabilities, and relationships bring to an organisation.
Society is a multi-dimensional space with various sub-spaces. Under different contexts, an individual enters these sub-spaces referred to as fields by Bourdieu. Fields include institutions like schools, colleges, universities, or social groups like one’s friend circles and social clubs or even workspaces.
While entering a new field, individuals carry their habitus, a combination of the economic, social and cultural capital that they were introduced to and accustomed to, along with them. The combination of different capitals is automatically transformed into symbolic capital when they enter the field and help in determining their legitimate position in the given field according to the doxa or rules of the field.
Let’s take, for instance, A and B as two students who recently graduated from college and are looking for jobs. A is an upper caste and upper-class male student from a top-ranking university in India. His parents are both professors in social sciences who teach in top ranking colleges in the country. B is a Dalit male student, from a middle-class family and was a topper in a college in his hometown. His father is a government employee while his mother is a teacher in a government high school. Due to their grades and good performance in interviews, both are employed as research assistants at a college in Delhi, wherein their performance would determine a permanent position. A, due to his network with professors from different colleges, and his understanding of classical music and ancient art and culture is able to mingle well and have better conversations with his new colleagues resulting in him becoming popular, while B despite earning the same as A struggles to gel well with his cosmopolitan colleagues as his cultural and social capital is very different from the rest in his field. Though both are equally competent at their work, by the end of the term, A because of his social and cultural capital becomes a permanent employee at the college, while B loses the opportunity as he cannot relate to the doxa of the field.
This example shows how cultural and social capital play an equally important role in determining one's future. It is not only economic class but also social class that one inherits from one’s family. Thus, habitus and capital not only determine one’s position in society but also result in the reproduction of inequality.