Outline the concepts of habitus and social field in Bourdieu’s Sociology. How valuable are these concepts for the sociological analysis of social life?

       According to Reed-Danahay, Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) is noted as being one of the most influential sociologists of the 20th century.  For Bourdieu the concept of  habitus is intricately linked with the social structures within a specific field and essential to sociological analysis of society. Reality according to Bourdieu is a social concept, to exist is to exist socially and what is real is relational to those around us. This essay will break down Bourdieu’s concepts of social field and habitus alongside his concepts of species capital and reflexivity which are intricately linked to his theory and understanding as a whole. I will then assess the value of habitus and social field to contemporary sociological analysis of society drawing  from Bourdieu’s primary writings and Deborah Reed- Danahay’s book, Locating Bourdieu (2004). 

     Bourdieu defines habitus as “A structuring structure, which organises practices and the perception of practices.”(Bourdieu, P. 1984: 170). Habitus  is the cognitive / mental system of structures which are embedded within an individual (and/or a collective consciousness) which are the internal representations of external structures. Habitus consists of our thoughts, tastes, beliefs, interests and our understanding of the world around us and is created through primary socialisation into the world through family, culture and the mileu of education. According to Bourdieu habitus has the potential to influence our actions and to construct our social world as well as being influenced by the external. The internal and external worlds are viewed by Bourdieu as interdependent spheres and because of the fluid nature of habitus (changing with age, travel, education, parenthood etc.) no two individual’s habitus will be the same. A key point within Bourdieu’s theory is that habitus constrains but does not determine thought and action (Ibid), if an individual is both reflective and aware of their own habitus they possess the potential to observe social fields with relative objectivity. Bourdieu claimed that the ability to reflect upon ones habitus is essential to social theoretical discourse and research by the premise that all fields are interdependent and not separate from the ‘other’. Bourdieu outlines four species of capital which are linked with habitus and key to understanding field theory. Bourdieu locates species capital as part of the structuring process of habitus and used by individuals within the relative field as a tool for gaining dominance and power. Bourdieu breaks species capital down into:

  1. Social capital which can be defined as the circles of friends, groups, memberships and social networks (also virtual within online communities).
  2. Cultural capital which is an individual’s knowledge, experience and connections. (Academic background, creudentials and work life).
  3. Economic capital is the economic assets held (property owned, earning ability).
  4. Symbolic capital is the honour, prestige and recognition relative to the individual (a war hero for example or pioneer or research in a certain field).

Bourdieu argued that cultural and economic capital are closely linked with education and the middle classes stating that the majority of university graduates are of middle-class educated parents who know from experience how the institution of education works and have the economic capital to send their children to college. (Bourdieu, P. 1994, 179). Middle class economic and cultural capital which has been accumulated can be effectively used as a tool to navigate and gain entry into the field of academia. For someone from working class parentage with no prior understanding of the academic social field the economic and cultural difficulties would potentially be far more difficult. Bourdieu’s essay The Racism of Intelligence (1994) goes into depth on the relationship between the two modes of capital within education. Based on IQ testing, education in itself is according to Bourdieu inherently elitist. Born from Alfred Binet’s (1857-1911) psychological test, known as the Simon–Binet Intelligence Scale the IQ test only measures one mode of intelligence and does not take into account kinaesthetic ability, emotional or social aptitude. However, Binet himself did not believe that his psychometric instruments could be used to measure a single, permanent and inborn level of intelligence. Binet stressed the limitations of the test, suggesting that intelligence is far too broad a concept to quantify with a single number. Instead, he insisted that intelligence is influenced by a number of factors, changes over time and can only be compared among children with similar backgrounds (Siegler, R.S. 181: 1992). Bourdieu  points out that these are racist tests which are still used today. He argues that they serve to keep the majority of college students within the middle and upper classes based upon the transmission of cultural capital down the generations, used as a mode of social control.

     Society, according to Bourdieu is split up into spheres of actions which he terms ‘fields’. As we have seen within these fields power relations play out, each with a specific power structure relational to the specific field, habitus and species capital. The social field whether it’s scientific, religious, academic, political, medical or judicial has its own structure of internal power relations which are defined and maintained by habitus which is both individual and collective. Bourdieu describes a field as:

“a field of forces, whose necessity is imposed on agents who are engaged in it, and a field of struggles within which agents confront each other, with differentiated means and ends according to their position in the structure of the field of forces, thus contributing to conserving or transforming its structure.” (Reed-Danahay, D : 32).

Bourdieu used the football field to stand as a metaphor for field theory of which I will use here also. The players on the field each have a position which either attacks or defends and a set of rules (termed ‘Doxa’ by Bourdieu) to adhere which according to Bourdieu are generally conformed to. Each position within the field is determined by the individual’s habitus; their past performance, skills, education, social class and upbringing all asserting influence. When the habitus of an individual matches the social field everything runs smoothly and instinctually (working together to score the goals and win the game). However if one of the players decides they want to change the rules and play with their hands a struggle ensues and this is when a species capital is used to regain equilibrium. In the case of the football match we could for see cultural capital being used as the referee will determine the course of action needed (knowledge), of which the individual would most likely be sent off. Likewise if a rugby player found his way onto a football pitch he would be out of his familiar social field and the habitus wouldn’t match, causing frustration and delayed response to the game, a fish out of water so to speak. However when habitus does match the field in which it has evolved the situation will be intuited and the response will be instantaneous. Bourdieu called this ‘cohesion without concept’ (Reed-Danahay, D. 2004) or likewise,‘a fish in water’.

     Returning to Bourdieu’s Racism of Intelligence essay we can make the example that within the social field of academia individuals are employed to do specific jobs, holding their positions due to their habitus (crudentials, past performance as well as interests both socially and culturally). When money and jobs become threatened the competition hot’s up and cultural, social, symbolic and economic capital gets brought into the field to be used as a tool to get ‘on top’. Each employee has a personal stake in the field and whichever capital is relevant is the card that gets played (be it age, cruedentials, past performance etc). Thus we see how according to Bourdieu the field and therefore society as a whole (made up of many fields) is relational to a living, breathing organism which is fluid and ever changing. The distribution of capital within the respective fields serve to modify the field at given points in time. For example, social capital may compete with cultural capital making the power relations diversify depending on the given external situation in relation to the individual’s internal habitus.  Bourdieu described the concept of the field similar to a magnet with no origin and no ending (Ibid) and in this way he steps outside of the traditional structuralist, top down approach of observing society. Therefore these relatively autonomous fields of play cannot be collapsed by any overall societal logic like capitalism, modernity or post modernity as within a field the very shape, division and structure becomes a stake to these agents. By altering the division of capital within the field the structure is able to be modified and capitalism therefore is only an element within the fields and not a central controlling force.

For Bourdieu, in order to conduct a critique on society one needs to have an in depth understanding and working reflexive process of themselves; their habitus, what types of species capital is relational to them, how they use them, what their own intentions, values, prejudices are and above all how these effect the social field they are attempting to critique. So according to Bourdieu it is nearly impossible to be truly objective when conducting research because we are intricately linked with our surroundings. If we look visually at Bourdieu’s theory of society as an analogy of an onion we can say that the social field is the outer layer with habitus at the next layer alongside species capital and at the heart is the individual with their ability to reflect with the understanding that they are intricately linked to the external surrounding layers. We see from this visual understanding that the individual is never separate from the whole.

Bourdieu’s concepts of social field and habitus has had a significant influence on sociological analysis of contemporary society. Rather than looking at the subject of research as objects Bourdieu’s theories have included the individual as an intrinsic part of the whole and not as separate. Bourdieu’s reflexivity (which we only touched on) focuses on the importance of reflection on the self. Each researcher comes to the research with their individual habitus which will to some extent govern or direct the course of inquiry and the lens in which they look through (determining which theorists they use, methodologies etc). Unless there is a practical method where individuals can first recognise and transcend their habitus (especially the most hidden) the research has the potential to simply become another social field critiquing another as an outsider and this is where Bourdieu’s theory has had most influence on contemporary thought.


 Work Cited.

Bourdieu, P. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Massachussets; Harvard University Press,1984. Print.

Bourdieu, P. Sociology in Question. 1994. Print.

Reed-Danahay, D. Locating Bourdieu. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2004. Print.

Siegler, R. S. “The Other Alfred Binet.” Developmental Psychology, 28, 179-190. 1992. Print.




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