Reading Guide to: Bourdieu, P (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

by Dave Harris

This is a very detailed and dense piece of work containing some theoretical generalisations and some detailed ethnographic data arising from the study of Kabylia (Algeria). As usual, I have tried to extract some of the basic points from some of the arguments, and I can only recommend that you try and read the entire book.

Chapter 1

[Bourdieu is arguing against the notion that social life can be understood as applying a set of rules. An early example describes the rules of honour among Kabylian males, and how these rules are really tightly bound to a whole practice -- 'playing the game of honour'. Thus 'What is called the sense of honour is nothing other than the cultivated disposition, inscribed in the body schema and in the schemes of thought, which enables each agent to engender all the practices consistent with the logic of challenge and riposte... [such practices produce]... countless inventions, which the stereotyped unfolding of a ritual would in no way demand... even the most strictly ritualised exchanges... have room for strategies... [such as managing] the interval between the obligatory moments... we know that returning a gift at once, i e doing away with the interval, amounts to breaking off the exchange' (15)].

We can now move on to the point where rules are seen as 'themselves the product of a small batch of schemes enabling agents to generate an infinity of practices adapted to endlessly changing situations, without those schemes ever having been considered as explicit principles' (16). The same 'schemes' produce customary law and its application to diverse cases. Explicit rules emerge only in rare circumstances, such as where extenuating circumstances are dismissed in very serious crimes [still in Kabylia]. It is possible, however, for theorists to work on the structure of schemes of practice 'to produce the complete universe of all the acts of jurisprudence conforming to the "sense of justice" in its Kabyle form' (17) [much as a structuralist might].

But these would not be transcendent rules as in our notion of a legal code. People could not cite them from memory, although they can reproduce them in practice. What happens is that 'holders of authority... "awaken"... the schemes of perception and appreciation deposited, in their incorporated state, in every member of the group, ie the dispositions of the habitus' (17). Rules are unnecessary in homogeneous societies, and are replaced by the 'orchestrated improvisation of common dispositions' (17).

There are implications for anthropology. In answer to questions about practice [ by researchers], informants are being invited to offer a codified account of practice. What actually is produced is a peculiar discourse. It is a 'discourse of familiarity', which includes all those 'presuppositions taken for granted by the historical agent', which are themselves provided by the habitus and are therefore not capable of being rationalised. At the same time, informants can produce an 'outsider-oriented discourse', which generalises and excludes all particular cases which would make no sense to observers. Anthropologists sometimes confuse this discourse with actual native experience. Finally, informants learn from questions and from contact with anthropologists, and developed a 'semi-theoretical disposition' for themselves. Informants are groomed to provide suitable answers, such as mentioning the most remarkable practices, or learning to describe actions in terms of rules. The explanations they give can therefore appear as 'learned ignorance... a mode of practical knowledge not comprising knowledge of its own principles' (19).

Such 'native theories' can only reinforce the 'intellectualist tendency', or 'academicism' of objectivist anthropology. Examples here are 'the impositions and inculcation of... structures', or other objectifications (19). An habitus really appears only in 'the whole art of performance' (20). Of course, an habitus can be operationalised as 'semi-learned grammars of practice -- sayings, proverbs, gnomic poems, spontaneous "theories"' (20). These can be used to overcome any 'misfirings' of practice, and supply any necessary reflection on practice. Thus the habitus is not 'the exclusive principle of all practice' since various codifications exist as well.

Implications arise here for Schutz's view of the constructs of social sciences as 'constructs of the second degree', or for Garfinkel's similar notion that social science provides accounts of accounts which agents produce. Such second-order accounts are perfectly acceptable, as long as we realise that they do not offer an immediate science of the social world. Ideally, social science should describe 'the structures which govern both practices and the concomitant representations'-- that is it needs to construct objective structures and establish the relation with actual practices, rather than impose some relationship in terms of rules or causes. It also should take into account the way in which a particular group intervenes in ordinary language, for example to develop official language in order to maintain 'the symbolic order from which it draws its authority' (21). There are several other objectifying processes (which include formulating rules ) which do the same things. For example, it is common to attempt to claim authority while 'ostentatiously honouring the values the group honours' (22). Thus a knowledge of the rules alone needs to be accompanied by a study in how they are used to advantage, to put oneself in the right, to appear to be 'motivated by nothing other than pure, disinterested respect for the rule' (22). This covers the pursuit of self-interest with a cloak of 'ethical implacability' (22).

[There are implications for structural linguistics as well, developed best in the next subsection. Briefly, Saussure assumes that because speech can be understood as the logical operation of a language structure, the latter really does determine the former. This is an objectivist error, though, which 'privileges the structure of signs... at the expense of their practical functions' (24). Functionalist constructions of culture make a similar mistake, and are forced to defend their view of apparently determinant links between cultures and practices by referring to unconscious determinants, or even 'the all too famous "collective consciousness"' (25). In fact, practical meaning of linguistic interactions involve extra-linguistic factors as well, such as context and situations, and 'objective positions in the social structure' (25). Practice depends on 'a practical spotting of cues which... [enables]... speakers to situate others in the hierarchies of age, wealth, power, or culture' (26). Attempts to investigate the situation objectively still follows the flawed logic of rule and exception.

Chapter 2

We need to break the hold of structural analysis and study instead 'the principle of the production of... observed order... to construct... the theory of the mode of generation of practices' (72). Structures such as the 'material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition' produce an habitus --'systems and durable, transposable dispositions,... principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively "regulated"... collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor' (72). Individual agents may plan actions specifically, but the habitus still reproduces the conditions of planning, such as past practices. The habitus is the source of strategies. Practice is never merely a mechanical reaction to roles or other mechanisms. Nor should we insist on the other extreme, that individuals are fully creative and act with full free will -- dispositions affect action, and they are durable. Sartre gets this wrong [see pages 74 - 75]. It is possible for elements of the habitus to come to consciousness, as when one estimates the chances of success of the action, but even here, we make these estimates against a background of 'objective potentialities... things to do or not to do', and recognise the effects of social structures in defining our interests (76).

The habitus is 'the durably installed generative principle of regulated improvisations' (78). It is made up of 'cognitive and motivating structures' which enable people to generate suitable practices in response to demands placed on them by the 'objective potentialities in the situation'. The specific states of the habitus can be described in terms of the social conditions of its production, and how this is affected by the conditions in which it operates. It appears as second nature, however, to participants and practitioners. They act 'unconsciously, since the history of the habitus is concealed under its subjective nature'. This 'genesis amnesia' (79) is also encouraged by the objectifying trends we have described above. Action and work appear as objective to actors, because no single actor can grasp the effects of the habitus in consciousness. Instead, 'schemes of thought and expression he has acquired' produce improvisations which are consistent and which thus appear sensible and valid: 'It is because subjects do not, strictly speaking, know what they are doing that what they do has more meaning than they know' (79).

The orchestration of the habitus produces an objective-looking commonsense world and taken for granted practices. Among other implications, it becomes 'automatic and impersonal' to be able to understand the actions of others enough to co-ordinate personal actions with them. There is no need to puzzle hard about the intentions of the other, since the 'objective homogenising of group or class habitus which results from the homogeneity of the conditions of existence is what enables practices to be objectively harmonised without any intentional calculation or conscious reference to a norm' (80). This homogenising is produced by collective dispositions, which are themselves 'internalisations of the same objective structures' (81), and it lends an appearance of objectification and orchestration. Interaction always takes place within such an objective structure, which is embodied in the competence of actors. Thus '"interpersonal" relations are never, except in appearance, limited to individual relationships, and ' ... the truth of the interaction is never entirely contained in the interaction [alone]. This is what social psychology and interactionism or ethnomethodology forget' (81). We carry with us dispositions, which commonly reflect our social positions and which guide our interactions with others -- for example, we 'know our place' socially. These dispositions affect even the most personal relationships, such as sympathy or love. We harmonise our expectations and our habitus, sometimes even relying on 'the imperceptible cues of bodily hexis' (82), but we misunderstand this as some natural affinity. That we achieve harmony only helps to reproduce these dispositions into the future.

An habitus 'functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations, and actions' (83). These enable practices to run smoothly, and events to appear as objective. Objective events confirm their force in a dialectic relationship, as do discourses that partially symbolise them. However, 'they are engendered by the objective structures that is, in the last analysis, by the economic bases of the social formation in question' (83). Objectivist analysis can sometimes see how different sub-systems might be integrated, but fails to see that this arises from the habitus and instead invokes 'structural homologies' or 'relations of transformation' (83). Objectivism seems to have developed in a dialectical opposition to subjectivism, as in the splits between humanist and structuralist readings of Marx -- but both traditions remain united in the error of not seeing the 'dialectical relationship between the structure and the dispositions making up the habitus' (83).

As an example, it is a mistake to understand social class as a matter of a population of individuals, structured by statistical regularities: the key issue is a relation to the class habitus, the common system of dispositions that provides frequent and common experience. A class habitus is 'a subjective but not individual system of internalised structures, schemes of perception, conception and action common to all members of the same group or class and constituting the precondition for all objectification and apperception' (86). Individuals may not have identical experiences, but they do share homologous ones, and 'each individual system of dispositions may be seen as a structural variant of all the other group or class habitus[es], expressing the difference between trajectories and positions inside or outside the class' (86). Personal and individual differences arise simply because the habitus can bring about a unique integration of common experiences, as individuals pass through families, and then diversified schooling, the Culture Industry, work and so on. The habitus is essential to unite these individual experiences into some coherent position -- and in class societies, class overdetermines the others.

A great deal of informal education goes on, in a practical form, 'without attaining the level of discourse' (87). Children imitate actions and learn via bodily hexis, 'a pattern of postures that is both individual and systematic... and charged with a host of social meanings and values' (87). Children learn gestures and postures that they will need when they become adults, but this is no mere mechanical learning -- principles have to be grasped. [Here, some learning theory is cited to show how people can 'achieve a practical mastery of classificatory schemes which in no way implies symbolic mastery... of the processes practically applied' (88).] There may be explicit teaching too, but much is done through games and rituals, and play [and a series of examples based on Algerian field work follow].

The 'dialectical relationship between the body and a [socially structured] space' is important in the 'embodying of the structures of the world' (89). The Kabylian house is arranged symbolically, as a 'tangible classifying system' separating right and left, man and woman, religion and magic, male space and female space. The organisation of internal space is understood as one of these objectifications of dispositions, and thus can be deciphered. [A detailed example of Kabylian interiors follows, page 90. Thus houses are divided into upper and lower parts, and some parts are high, light-filled, and noble, while others are darker and the place of 'natural beings [animals] ... and.... natural activities [sex]'. The placing of the fire and of gendered objects offer another classification. The system is reproduced in terms of relations between houses and external public spaces -- thus 'whereas for the man, the house is not so much a place he enters as a place he comes out of, movement inwards properly befits the woman' (91)].

Thus practices take on objective meanings, and classification schemes are embodied in the world of objects -- it is not that one causes the other, but that both are structured by dispositions. Movements integrate 'body space with cosmic space' (91), grasping both in terms of the same concepts. There is a symbolic correspondence between male bodies, outward movements, the production and circulation of goods, and female bodies' self-enclosed and inward movements. This metaphor is carried on to explain differences in sexuality, so that men sublimate their sexual feelings in favour of manly honour, and see themselves as potent through repetition, while women get their own back through intimate inward gossip. We should avoid psychoanalytic reduction of practice to sexuality, though, since the relationships between the body and the world express far more.

As usual, we find links between social definitions of maleness and a broader political ideology -- thus 'Bodily hexis is political mythology realised, em-bodied, turned into a permanent disposition, a durable manner of standing, speaking, and thereby of feeling and thinking' (94). This close bodily attention is reproduced in our own totalitarian institutions, as Goffman shows us -- here too the body is treated 'as a memory... [taking as its]... form the fundamental principles of the arbitrary content of culture' (94). In this way, everything is made natural and unconscious, whole principles are recalled by instruction such as 'stand up straight'. Respect for form and detail involve submission to the established order -- 'The concessions of politeness always contain political concessions' (95). Requirements involved are always trivial, but refusal to conform is seen as a serious matter.

We have to abandon notions of simple freedom or determinism. The habitus is a system of generative schemes which permits a great deal of individual innovation. It sets the limits for particular practical expressions, but it is far from being simply a 'mechanical reproduction of the initial conditions' (95).

Chapter 3

Objectivism requires a detached observer: this in turn assumes a high position in the social structure. Emphasising practice as a process that constructs objects of knowledge breaks with this 'sovereign point of view' (96). Observers need to situate themselves within real activity, taking on a practical relation to the world themselves, rather than try to represent practice.

It is a mistake to see classificatory systems as just having cognitive functions. They have practical functions as well, serving to reproduce in practice 'the objective structures of which they are the product' (97). No abstracted analysis can understand this social function, nor can an analysis which just analyses symbolic relations alone.

[An extended analysis of the Kabylian calendar ensues. Briefly, the calendar plays an important role in Kabylian society, and it is heavily codified and made explicit as a system of rules to govern social life -- when to plant, when to hold religious festivities and so on. There are some variants among the members of society over matters such as when the year starts, and when exactly different periods start and finish, and this has puzzled anthropologists interested in getting the 'true' picture. But attention to the practical functions of the calendar should serve to wean us away from tasks like trying to construct its logic alone. Calendars construct 'practical time' which organises work and various social functions (105). The variations in opinion shown by different informants about the details are not simple logical mistakes, but reflect different in statuses, and anthropologists ignore practical implications in the interests of some theoretical totalisation. The ways in which specific practices lead to other practices is missed -- the strictly logical and theoretical relations between the periods in question are irrelevant for practice. The principles which the calendar embodies also have to have practical value, at the expense, if necessary of logical rigour. A kind of polythetic understanding is on offer rather than one which separates off different logical categories. The lack of rigorous logic means that the principles can remain implicit and a kind of fuzzy logic deployed instead. Incoherence is managed by practical forms of co-ordination rather than logical ones.

These practical co-ordinations also involve political structures. Bans on certain activities at some times are enforced by fines for disobedience, for example. It is open to the more powerful groups to impose their interpretations to suit their own interests. Men are able to manage the regulation of women and girls by co-ordinating their actions through the calendar. It is impossible to summarise the immense detail of Bourdieu's description here, but it is clear that such regulation is deeply interwoven with the regulation of agricultural products or domestic labour, since we have seen that sexual divisions are the basis of much broader forms of classification. Status differences among men are involved in matters such as making decisions at different times of day or at different times of year, or claiming particular times of the day, such as noon. Generational differences are mapped on to the cycle of the seasons. The signs provided by the natural environment do not lead to passivity, since 'a man will try to remake the future announced in the present by making a new present' (152) ]

Neither external observation, nor an uncritical 'participant' nor humanist anthropology can disentangle the connections lying behind practical activity, such as arranging a marriage ceremony: there may be universal functions such as social reproduction, and common 'eternal questions' of this significance of marriage, but there are also important specifics embodied in practice. Such practices involve 'a logic made to dispense with concepts' (116). An attempt to express practice as a logical process must distort it [and colonial notions of 'primitive' mentality are not far beneath the surface]. We should examine not abstract logic but body movements, actual performance, investigate the way which nearly all important categories, such as ritual, are 'based on movements or postures of the human body, such as going up and coming down... going to the left then going to the right, going in, coming out... sitting and standing...' inversions, reversions and so on (119). The 'language of the body' is always 'more ambiguous and more overdetermined' than ordinary language (120), and thus rituals are always more complex and more creatively vague (polysemic) than descriptions of them [and many detailed examples ensue, page 121]. People use this fuzzy logic only by actually operating in practice. Actual linguistic schemes are only one aspect of such practice. 'Logical criticism inevitably misses its target: because it can only challenge the relationships that are consciously established between words, it cannot bring out the incoherent coherence of a discourse which, springing from underlying mythic or ideological schemes, has the capacity to survive every reductio ad absurdum' (158).

Chapter 4

The change of the seasons mark important social changes in Kabyle life. [A great deal of detail ensues on the mechanisms of practice that enforce conformity in matters such as the proper way that a man should behave. Much has to do with apparent submission to the proper rhythms of social and natural life, which gives an important synchronising role to the Kabylian calendar again.]

Social order depends on being able to naturalise 'its own arbitrariness' (164) Systems of classification do this important work, but they may not always correspond fully to 'the objective order'. If they do, we have a state called doxa, where the world of tradition maps directly onto the natural world, so that it can be taken for granted. This enables reproduction of that social world, without disputes. Even those who are disadvantaged 'such as women and the young' (164) recognise the legitimacy of the classification system. Classification of rights according to age is just as widespread as that of gender. This political basis is as essential as the purely cognitive one identified by people like Durkheim --'The theory of knowledge is a dimension of political theory because... symbolic power... is a major dimension of political power' (165). In particular, subjective experiences are fully integrated into socially approved categorisation, and 'What is essential goes without saying because it comes without saying: the tradition is silent, not least about itself as a tradition' (167). There is no place for opinion, the doxa is unanimous.

The doxa can weaken and undergo practical questioning as a result of contact with other cultures or via various political and economic crises 'correlative with class division' (168). Self evidence is destroyed, and the social world ceases to be a natural phenomenon. However, the crisis may not lead to schism. In particular, dominant groups may impose orthodoxy, a weaker version of doxa, because it has to be consciously managed, and it implies alternatives, heterodoxy. An important activity here is to try and preserve a 'universe of that which is taken for granted' (170), but again this can be maintained only by censorship and exclusion. It is always open to excluded groups to develop heretical discourses in turn.

[An analysis of the importance of gift-giving ensues, pages 171f. Much of this involves the needs to conceal acts of exchange as disinterested gifts, which leads Bourdieu to make an interesting point about marxist analysis of agricultural labour -- briefly, the long production period appears to involve little productive work, which helps blur the distinction between work and its product. Bourdieu argues that this is commonly socially repressed, and it would be considered vulgar to reassert it. I was reminded myself of the mythologies surrounding the designation of academic work as 'professional', and how disappointed our employers are if we insist on calculating our actual work and relating it to our wages. The point of this is to demonstrate the relationships between economic capital and symbolic capital, the way which economic activities have to be grasped as symbolic ones as well. However, even in non-industrial societies, 'practice never ceases to conform to economic calculation even when it gives every appearance of disinterestedness by departing from the logic of interested calculation (in the narrow sense) and playing for stakes that are non-material and not easily quantified' (177). Thus economic analysis should be extended to discuss practices involving any kind of goods, including 'smiles, handshakes or shrugs, compliments or attention, challenges or insults, honour or honours, powers or pleasures, gossip or scientific information, distinction or distinctions, etc' (178). Economic and symbolic capital are interconnected, even though they cannot be precisely related in quantitative terms.]

However, symbolic capital -- prestige and renown -- is ultimately convertible back to economic capital. In some societies, like Kabylia, it is the most valuable form of capital to accumulate, because it enables the 'great families' to call upon additional labour at busy times a year, in exchange for certain services 'such as protection, the loan of animals, etc' (179). Such conduct is 'intrinsically equivocal, ambiguous', and not straightforward and contractual. It must take place in disguise, posing as voluntary assistance. Symbolic capital is acquired only as a result of considerable symbolic labour, making investments, especially of time. But it conveys political power as well as economic potential, and the great families spend much time in conspicuous displays, including giving gifts. Symbolic capital is a form of credit.

We have to take symbolic capital into account in order to grasp the whole picture of economic activity which can appear to be irrational otherwise. Thus additional oxen may be acquired to increase symbolic capital, even if they have to be rapidly sold off as too costly to maintain. Acquiring symbolic capital permits valuable marriages, and guarantees the honour of families -- hence the need to guard it against the slightest challenge. Land can be acquired for its symbolic value. Blood vengeance and marriage become perfectly understandable economic activities.

Pre-industrial societies do not have permanent institutions to enforce a form of domination. Social capital and personal relations are used instead, again in the form of objectified systems such as titles of nobility. Objectification means that people can dispense with explicit strategies to dominate others. Strictly personal qualities provide a way of overcoming economic logic -- thus personal symbolic capital serves as another kind of objectification.

In industrial societies, academic qualifications express objectified versions of cultural capital, free from personal qualities. They establish a 'single market for all cultural capacities... guaranteeing the convertibility of cultural capital into money' (188). Such objectification parallels the objectification of positions which are distinct from individuals. An objective system can then be established between 'socially guaranteed qualifications and socially defined positions' (188), a form of harmonisation between the mechanisms [of class domination, ultimately] that reproduce both.

The law is also a form of symbolic force, but not the only one. Thus 'The educational system helps to provide the dominant class with what Max Weber terms "a theodicy of its own privilege"' (188). It is not so much the ideologies actually produced, but the connections achieved between qualifications and jobs, which appears so neutral, even equal. Any ideologies ought to be analysed in conjunction with their institutional mechanisms: the latter are important for the reproductions of class relations, and the former can serve merely as camouflage. In this way, social relations are embedded in a social world that seems to require no work on the part of agents. The ways in which institutions reproduce the power of particular groups needs to be hidden in order to avoid contestation -- and objectivist social sciences assists by studying 'the pre-constructed object which reality foisted upon it' (189).

Objectivist mechanisms now perform the task of reproducing domination. Elite individuals can even afford to be nice to their subordinates, while leaving the mechanisms to do their work. '... elementary forms of domination' still exist between persons, but this requires considerable work, involving, in Kabylia, either physical or economic violence, or symbolic violence, the former explicit, the latter disguised. Such disguise conceals the personal element, which explains its widespread occurrence in pre-capitalist societies. Capitalist societies depend on the 'implacable, hidden violence of objective mechanisms' (191). However, the two forms of violence are interchangeable, and often co-exist, although it would be wrong to reduce one to the other. Elaborate gift-giving is a common form of 'gentle violence' and is common wherever overt violence is socially forbidden. But it is not entirely cynical or one-sided, since there are obligations as well, in particular in that the values of the group have to be adhered to, as the 'source of all symbolic value' (194).

[An interesting insight is provided by this analysis of gift-giving in pre-capitalist societies. Since the giver must be seen to invest a great deal of time, the gift itself is often imbued with unusual artistic value -- hence the appeal of pre-industrial art.] Of course, gift-giving binds the receiver to indebtedness, and it demands repayment, such as honour, respect or free labour. This is the rational basis for what can seem to be so irrational: what is involved is the 'social alchemy, the transformation of arbitrary relations into legitimate relations, de facto differences into officially recognised distinctions' (195). The whole social group takes part in this alchemy, as a form of self deception, a 'collective work of euphemization' (196). Yet this is still a true description of behaviour, and a necessary one.

It has been replaced by objective mechanisms of domination, which require no euphemization (producing a process of 'disenchantment'). As these mechanisms have become subject to critique, so forms of symbolic violence have returned, sometimes in the form of gift-giving again -- 'legitimacy-giving redistribution' by both state and private bodies. There is also the accumulation of luxury goods to demonstrate good taste and distinction, and the whole growth of the 'world of art'. Art appears so separate to the profane world of production, so disinterested, but it 'offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy' (197).

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