Habitus (sociology)

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Habitus described as “a system of structure, structuring dispositions…which is constituted in practice and is always oriented towards practical functions” In other words, the habitus could be understood as a structure of the mind and emotions characterized by a set of acquired schemata, sensibilities, dispositions and taste.[1] The particular contents of the habitus are a complex result of embodying social structures—such as the gender, race, and class discrimination embedded in welfare reforms—that are then reproduced through tastes, preferences, and actions for future embodiment.[2] The habitus can be seen as counterpoint to the notions of rationality that are prevalent within other disciplines of social science research, as it relativizes the notion of an actor's 'best interest' through attention to the cultural definition of 'best'.[3] It is perhaps best understood in relation to the notion 'field', which describes the dialectical relationship between individual agents (habitus) and the contextual environment (field).

Habitus is one’s physical and psychological demeanor as a result of habits developed over a period of time. It develops a person’s attitudes towards society and influences the way that an individual reacts to the world around them. Habitus is a structuring feature of life and is determined by a series of influences on the individual, such as one’s socio-economic status, family, religion, education and ethnicity. That is, the attitudes, mannerisms, ideologies, actions and habits that a person has been subjected to in their life manifests to create the person that they are today. Therefore, an individual is a result of the internalised influences throughout their life.

Habitus is produced by an individual’s position in the social structure. As a result of understanding their place in the social structure, an individual is able to determine what is achievable or possible in their life. The consequences of the development of habitus are large: Bourdieu argued that the reproduction of the social structure results from the habitus of individuals (Bourdieu, 1987).


The concept of habitus has been used as early as Aristotle but in contemporary usage was introduced by Marcel Mauss and later re-elaborated by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu elaborates on the notion of Habitus by explaining its dependency on history and human memory. For instance, a certain behaviour or belief becomes part of a society's structure when the original purpose of that behaviour or belief can no longer be recalled and becomes socialized into individuals of that culture.[citation needed]

Loïc Wacquant wrote that habitus is an old philosophical notion, originating in the thought of Aristotle, whose notion of hexis ("state") was translated into habitus by the Medieval Scholastics. Bourdieu first adapted the term in his 1967 postface to Erwin Panofsky's Gothic Architecture and Scholasticism.[4] The term was earlier used in sociology by Norbert Elias in The Civilizing Process (1939) and in Marcel Mauss's account of "body techniques" (techniques du corps). The concept is also present in the work of Max Weber, Gilles Deleuze, and Edmund Husserl.

Mauss defined habitus as those aspects of culture that are anchored in the body or daily practices of individuals, groups, societies, and nations. It includes the totality of learned habits, bodily skills, styles, tastes, and other non-discursive knowledges that might be said to "go without saying" for a specific group (Bourdieu 1990:66-67) — in that way it can be said to operate beneath the level of rational ideology.

According to Bourdieu, habitus is composed of:

[s]ystems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to function as structuring structures, that is, as principles which generate and organize practices and representations that can be objectively adapted to their outcomes without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary in order to attain them.[5]

Literary criticism

The term has also been adopted in literary criticism, adapting from Bourdieu's usage of the term. For example, Joe Moran's examination of authorial identities in Star Authors: Literary Celebrity in America uses the term in discussion of how authors develop a habitus formed around their own celebrity and status as authors, which manifests in their writing.

The Use of Habitus in Literary Theory

Bourdieu’s principle of habitus is interwoven with the concept of structuralism in literary theory. Peter Barry explains, "in the structuralist approach to literature there is a constant movement away from interpretation of the individual literary work and a parallel drive towards understanding the larger structures which contain them" (2009, p. 39). There is therefore a strong desire to understand the larger influencing factors which makes an individual literary work. As Bourdieu explains, habitus "are structured structures, generative principles of distinct and distinctive practices – what the worker eats, and especially the way he eats it, the sport he practices and the way he practices it, his political opinions and the way he expresses them are systematically different from the industrial proprietor’s corresponding activities / habitus are also structuring structures, different classifying schemes classification principles, different principles of vision and division, different tastes. Habitus make different differences; they implement distinctions between what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong, between what is distinguished and what is vulgar, and so on, but they are not the same. Thus, for instance, the same behaviour or even the same good can appear distinguished to one person, pretentious to someone else, and cheap or showy to yet another" (Bourdieu, 1996). As a result, habitus may be employed in literary theory in order to understand those larger, external structures which influence individual theories and works of literature.

Scholars researching habitus

  • Philippe Bourgois - an anthropologist who incorporates the concept of "habitus" into much of his work with injection drug users in the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • Saba Mahmood - USA
  • Loïc Wacquant - United States scholar who studies the construction of the "pugilistic habitus" in a boxing gym of the black ghetto of Chicago in Body and Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer (2004) and in "Habitus as Topic and Tool" (2009).
  • Stephen Parkin - United Kingdom sociologist who considers the "habitus" construct as an explanatory mechanism for the production of drug related harm in drug using environments located in public settings in "Habitus and Drug Using Environments: Health Place and Lived-Experience" (published by Ashgate in August 2013)
  • Heinrich Wilhelm Schäfer - Center for the interdisciplinary research on religion and society (CIRRuS) at Bielefeld University (Germany)
  • Malcolm Dunn UK - doctoral thesis that applies habitus theory to proto-chivalric Honour codes.
  • Loren Ludwig, USA - musicologist researching the way that instrumental chamber music allows for the cultivation and experience of habitus by its players.
  • Norbert Elias - In The Civilizing Process, Elias illstrates how the habitus is determined on our culturally accepted manners. His theory is also extended to a 'national habitus' of Germans, used to justify the Holocaust.[6]
  • Dov Cohen and Hans IJzerman, who studied the habitus in social psychology, examining how Latinos and Anglos embody honor differently.

Non-sociological uses

Body habitus

Body habitus (or "bodily habitus") is the medical term for physique, and is defined as either endomorphic (overweight), ectomorphic (underweight) or mesomorphic (normal weight). In this sense, habitus can be understood as the physical and constitutional characteristics of an individual, especially as related to the tendency to develop a certain disease.[7] For example, "Marfanoid bodily habitus".


  1. Scott, John & Marshall, Gordon (eds) A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press, 1998
  2. Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman (eds). Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture
  3. Mudge, SL (2007). Precarious Progressivism: The Struggle Over the Social in the Neoliberal Era. Michigan: ProQuest.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Review of Holsinger, The Premodern Condition, in Bryn Mawr Review of Comparative Literature 6:1 (Winter 2007).
  5. Bourdieu, Pierre (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Elias, Norbit (1939). The Civilizing Process (5 ed.). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell. Retrieved 3 May 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th Ed) Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003

Further reading

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. 1977. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Cambridge University Press.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre and Loïc J.D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Elias, Norbert. The Civilizing Process.
  • Hilgers, Mathieu. 2009. Habitus, Freedom and Reflexivity 'Theory and Psychology' Vol. 19 (6), pp. 728–755
  • MacLeod, Jay. 1995. Ain't No Makin' It. Colorado: Westview Press, Inc.
  • Maton, Karl. 2012 'Habitus', in Grenfell, M. (ed) Pierre Bourdieu: Key concepts. London: Acumen Press, revised edition.
  • Mauss, Marcel. 1934. "Les Techniques du corps", Journal de Psychologie 32 (3-4). Reprinted in Mauss, Sociologie et anthropologie, 1936, Paris: PUF.
  • Rimmer. Mark. 2010. Listening to the monkey: Class, youth and the formation of a musical habitus 'Ethnography' Vol. 11 (2), pp. 255–283
  • Wacquant, Loïc. 2004. Body and Soul. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Wacquant, Loïc. 2004. "Habitus." pp. 315–319 in International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology. Edited by Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski. London: Routledge.he:הביטוס