READING GUIDED:Bourdieu, P. (2000) 'Making the economic habitus. Algerian workers revisited', in Ethnography, Vol 1, No 1: 17 - 41.
by Dave Harris
This is an account of early fieldwork in Algeria (Kabylia) in the 1960s, focused on the growing impacts of modern forms of economic organisation on traditional society, via colonisation. The main finding is that 'access to most elementary economic behaviours (working for a wage, saving, credit, birth control, etc) is in no way axiomatic and that the so-called "rational" economic agent is the product of quite particular historical conditions' (18). Economic theory completely ignores this possibility by assuming that economic rationality is universal and has no social origin. Bourdieu encountered this problem by studying social reactions to the new economic order and 'statistically analysing the conditions of possibility of these historically constituted dispositions' (18).
The pre-capitalist order operated on quite different principles. For example, exchanges 'obeyed the logic of the gift and counter-gift' (19). Thus milk would not be sold among relatives or neighbours, but shared. There was a 'mythico-ritual logic' which meant that people could never actually empty a receptacle of all the goods it contains, so that the residue had to be given back to the supplier. Forms that look like modern exchange tended to be confined to relations between strangers, and they were still so socially uncomfortable that there needed to be 'all kinds of dissimulation and euphemizations intended to mask or repress... mercantile potentialities', for example by both parties simply pretending that the transaction was not taking place (19). Self-interest and calculation is not something done among friends and intimates: such relations are seen as the equivalent of war. Actually buying goods from a market trader, for example, is seen as a matter of 'trickery and bluff... a war without quarter' (19). It is also common to try to dilute this relationship by imposing all sorts of extra social obligations on vendors, such as requiring guarantees. In some cases, relations of honour still persist, as when a vendor will return 'a relatively large portion of the sum to the purchaser "to buy meat for his children"' (20). Anyone who simply engages in economic transactions is just despised.
Some economic transactions were still dictated by 'the logic of the social relations in which... [they were]... immersed' (20). Thus customary laws govern relations with blacksmiths or millers: for example, small loads of grain were ground for nothing and right away, on the grounds that very poor people in need must be given such treatment. Only when mechanised mills became common did a strictly cash relation between miller and customer develop, since millers need a return on their investment.
The whole notion of having a craft, trade, or occupation was embedded in social relations too. Farming was the main work, so that other occupations could only ever be supplementary. Full-time occupations such as shopkeeping would be seen as simply idling: shops were opened and run according to the needs of farm workers, based in ordinary houses, and subject to the rules of gift exchange. In the 1960s, full-time shopkeeping finally emerged as a permanent occupation, but it still attracted scorn. French colonialism was seen as responsible for codifying a number of traditional activities as separate occupations or trades. Particularly marginalized were the landless farmworkers (fellah). Even after working in France, however, the concept of having an occupation is still regarded with considerable scepticism, especially as occupational categories are used to describe people abstractly [on their identity cards for example] even if they are actually retired or disabled.
The Kabylia were eventually converted to French economic practices, but it would be a mistake to see this as straightforward, natural or rational. For example, the practice of purchasing an object with money and receiving change was long seen as 'contingent and arbitrary', compared with the traditional practice of tendering the exact price (23). Similarly, the practice of lending animals could be seen as involving the lender feeling obliged to the borrower (because the animal had to be fed and looked after). Returning migrants, bringing French colonial ways -- expecting to be paid in cash rather than being fed in exchange for building work, for example -- created social outrage.
Bourdieu himself had difficulty in understanding these practices at first, simply taking his own categories as naturalistic, and not recognising that working was 'a socially recognised social occupation' (24), based on an injunction that a man should not waste his time, and not on market forces. [There is also an interesting example of a technique he used involving making deliberate mistakes so that the participants could correct him and therefore clarify procedures in a practical context]. The practical logic of Kabylian economic activity could only really be finally understood following statistical analysis. His own childhood in the country also helped [where a similar kind of relation to shopkeepers existed].
[General implications are drawn. That it takes generations of social life to be able to perform modern economics as if it were natural and rational, for example -- aimed particularly at Utilitarians, and John Stuart Mill specifically. What is familiar to us is rendered strange, in the classic manner -- by a newspaper story of a group of public school boys setting up an insurance scheme to compensate them if they suffered corporal punishment, which led to them deliberately incurring corporal punishment in order to benefit financially. Later, there is a sideswipe at attempts to render all human action in terms of rational choice, presumably as in 'rational choice theory' or in applied economics.]
Kabylian society was penetrated by the 'spirit of calculation, which one should be careful not to confuse with the universal capacity to calculate' (25). All behaviours were subject to calculating reason. The family ceased to be the site for social life and the model for exchanges. However, economic rationality was never totally successful, so that family obligations are still felt even by the socially mobile [in France as well?]. Old practices also remain, for example the view that one only borrows from people one trusts, or from people who are socially obliged to grant credit. It is socially impossible to refuse the poor, for example, since they are socially dishonoured enough. Bourdieu discovered the 'immersion of economic things in the universe of ultimate beliefs and values' (27).
He attempted to test his own ideas by examining statistical relations between, say certain economic and cultural levels and the existence of certain 'dispositions towards the future' (27). Below a certain level, actions cannot be directed towards any notion of the future, such as those involving the management of resources or birth control [compare with the later maxim that financial security is required for cultural security among the French bourgeoisie].
[The article ends with a substantial transcription from an interview with a Kabyle cook, pages 28 to 40. It is impossible to summarise this series of observations about the changes brought about by capitalism and colonialism, but it describes pretty well the impact upon the traditional ways of life. It is not entirely critical. It is also a tale of personal social mobility and rising ambitions connected to rising levels of economic fortune, and a story of being marginalised both in mainstream French society, and back home in Algeria.The cook is acting here as one of those participants who agrees to be a theoretician, in the terms of the later work]
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