image by Matthew Wilkinson

image by Matthew Wilkinson

Mark Murphy and Cristina Costa’s presentation on Bourdieu at the ECER conference last September was tokenly about the methodological implications of habitus, although their talk ended up being about far more than mere methods. The end of the talk in Budapest witnessed an extremely lively debate (a euphemism for a big argument) about the nature of habitus itself, hinging in particular on disagreements over the flexibility of habitus.

One delegate in ECER suggested that the habitus must only be applied to social class, and nothing else. Now, I understand the problem with ‘travelling theory’ and the problem of fashionable concepts, and of course Bourdieu can often appear to be everywhere, cropping up in fields where he is not wanted. But this is not because his concepts are always inappropriately applied, but simply because they offer such an amazing resource for researchers across a diverse number of fields.

In fact, I believe that the utilisation of the concept of habitus in other fields (i.e., beyond ‘class’) – even if they ‘stretch’ the concept to breaking point – can offer interesting insights into the  concept of habitus.

  • The nation as habitus

My research into national identity in South Wales supports the increasingly popular argument within studies of nationalism that national identity– our sense of belonging to the nation and understanding of what it means to be ‘properly national’- may be usefully conceptualized as a form of habitus. There are national dispositions and behaviours, talking, etc.

Moreover, the national habitus is never ‘neutral’ but always classed and gendered. In Wales, for example, ‘proper Welshness’ is understood to be a working class, masculine identity, signified by a particular classed ‘valleys’ accent; by certain dispositions (loudness, friendliness, ‘roughness’). The same goes for Englishness, which is similarly classed: simultaneously associated with ‘poshness’ on the one hand, and with the demonized images of football hooliganism and ‘white van man’ on the other.

In Shaun’s Story, Diane Reay (2004:436) calls for greater sensitivity to intersecting identities. In her work on ‘inscription’ and the embodiment of class, Bev Skeggs notes how ‘coolness’ is inscribed on the black male body, which is of course implicitly always also seen as working class. Many ‘ethnic’ stereotypes are, in reality, stereotypes of an ‘underclass’ but with ethnic labels grafted onto them. Similarly, Lisa McKenzie has noted how in certain areas, the habitus of working class white people is understood as being layered and  ‘permeated’  by negative ‘ethnic’ connotations- i.e. ‘white people talking black’ or what she calls ‘Jamaicanization’.

If we are to be ‘intersectional’, one cannot possibly focus on ‘class habitus’ in isolation from the interrelated issues of gender, race/ethnicity and nation, for class habitus and processes of distinction always intersect with other identities. Looking to other fields, particularly studies of national identity and critical race theory, can greatly improve our understanding of habitus.

  • The discursive construction of habitus

Second, studies of national identity have usefully concentrated on the discursive construction of the national habitus. The ‘common sense’ understanding of the nation, ‘what it means to be national’ is constantly made and remade through history, the media, and popular culture in particular. These discursive representations of the nation – very often constructed by ‘outsiders’ – are then ‘re-enchanted’ (Edensor, 2002) into the national imaginary, informing citizens’ understanding of the nation and their own standing within it. So for example, John Ford’s American idea of Wales in ‘How Green was my Valley’ influences dominant classed and gendered stereotypes of Wales and Welshness to this day; just as American designed ‘genuine Irish pubs’ and their imagery have filtered back to Ireland itself.

So might this all influence ‘proper’ discussions/applications of habitus (i.e., class habitus?).  Since the habitus evolves over one’s life course, and includes multiple layers of experiences, does it not makes sense that over time, dominant discursively constructed narratives about class and class behaviours may become internalised and reproduced in people’s habitus?  Extending Bourdieu’s concept of habitus as a set of dispositions, Judith Butler (1988; 1993) characterizes identity as a ‘performative’ concept: an iterative process of repetition of a particular discursively constructed set of norms and behaviours. She argues that the very act of repetition itself conceals the essentially hegemonic nature of identity. It is ‘a construction that conceals its genesis’, such that “the tacit collective agreement to perform, produce and sustain discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions is obscured by the credibility of those productions” (Butler, 1990: 140). For Butler, we thus rearticulate and reaffirm our identities through our performativities.

Our performativities are necessarily influenced by external forces. People rely at least in part on discursively constructed dominant notions of what it means to be national, what it means to be a man or a woman, and what it means to be working or middle class.

In particular, might the systematic demonization of the working classes as ‘chavs’- be re-internalized by particular classes or class fractions? Skeggs of course talks about the ‘normative performative’ whereby the classed nature of behaviours documented on reality television are internalised by viewers and can influence everyday behaviour.  These dominant narratives may influence reproduction of the habitus, or they may trigger a crisis within the reproduction of the habitus, as people may attempt to move away from the grotesque images and negative class stereotypes that they see on TV.

Conversely, dominant narratives about class can also be positive. Working class masculinities in particular are often portrayed as strong and heroic.  Depending on the ebbs and flows of popular culture – people may be more or less likely to align themselves and perform particular classed identities. The fleeting Britpop period gave us the ‘lad’ phenomenon, as bands like Oasis performed and encouraged a macho, working class male identity which was said to influence the behaviours of middle class fans of their music. Might these images of working class masculinity also be re-enchanted and contribute to the reproduction of working class habitus?

At present, these issues – the intersection of nationhood, ethnicity and class habitus and the discursive construction of identities- are far better developed in the study of national identity than they are in the field of social class analysis.

They are surely pertinent questions to consider when we study ‘class’.

(further blog posts on my study of habitus to follow soon …)



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