Thursday 18 December 2014

Bourdieu and Social Integration

This from an extract of a longer conversation between Les Back and Bev Skeggs about what the sociological imagination looks like today is a curious piece. See for yourself:
Les: It [the sociological imagination] can be about discomfort. I think sometimes often people come to sociology with an incredible sense of discomfort or dislocation. I have something within myself, you know, a discomfort, a disquiet sense of not quite fitting in place or being out of place, or even being confined or suffocated by the place in the world that one occupies, you know.

Bev: So it’s about a complete lack of ontological security?

Les: It can be–, sometimes students are absolutely suffocated by that lack of ontology. Of a sense of, you know, ‘I just don’t fit in this world’…

Bev: Or know how to? On a tangent, this is very interesting in terms of Bourdieu’s habitus, because he had the model of subjectivity, which is about fitting dispositions to positions, and I’ve always thought it was highly problematic because I think most people just do not fit the fields into which they are positioned. It’s a theory of adaption that does not work for me.

Les: And in a sense he was betrayed in his own biography. It is a sense of being displaced; being displaced not only from the world he enters in the Ecole Normale and all that whole world that he described in Homo Academicus, but he also doesn’t fit in the world in which he identifies so strongly
This is a very peculiar observation of Bev's. This is because she knows Bourdieu's work very well and authored a classic study using his concepts to make sense of how class and gender mutually constitute themselves in the formation of working class women's subjectivity. If memory serves (it's been a good while since I read it), she identifies a tension between the two. The femininity that is explicitly marketed and subtly reinforced in everyday interactions appears classless. Or, rather, this is a femininity without effort. The latest beauty treatments, fashions, and free time dedicated to leisurely pursuits conceals the bourgeois character of this hegemonic way women are supposed to do gender. See Sex and the City, for example. As women without the material resources to perform this effortless femininity, Bev locates an ontological angst among her interviewees. They risk being seen as less than women, as outcasts from their gender and objects of ridicule within their own communities. One possible strategy resulting from the lack of fit between the gendered and the classed habitus is the adoption of a hyperfeminine trajectory - over use of make up, frequent trips to the hairdressers, laborious beauty rituals, an overly judgemental attitude to the feminine performances of others, and so on. None of these observations contradict Bourdieu. They provide foil for the explanatory power of his concepts.

Bourdieu is an interesting and comparatively easy social theorist to understand, especially when you put him alongside his poststructuralist contemporaries (more here and here). His basic ideas are that each of us are endowed with a set of dispositions and preferences acquired throughout our lives (the habitus), and this acquisition is always overlaced by patterns of domination and (relative) privilege. My working class Tory background, for example, is part of my being and conditions my interests, dispositions and position-takings in ways I am aware and not aware of. And it will always be the case. More obvious examples are how the physicalities of our bodies, the genders, ethnicities, and disabilities condition and shape the habitus. The habitus is socially acquired and is irreducibly social. Bourdieu also argued that societies can be understood as if they are great meshes of overlapping fields. All human endeavour, from the operation of culture, through to the internal doings of institutions and right down to the pecking order in the local bowling club can be understood as if they were economies. The marketplace is typically a scene of competition (and collusion) between actors to secure market share, hence profits, hence economic capital for themselves. Other human activities can be understood the same way. Education systems see pupils compete through a battery of assessments for grades, i.e. cultural capital. Literary fiction is a competition among authors for the cultural capital specific to that field - prizes, critical acclaim, recognition. Politics the acquisition of political capital, and so on. What Bourdieu does is to link up habitus and field. Through socialisation, education, extra-curricular interests, work and so on one's habitus acquires social and cultural capital, and the more one possesses the better fit there is between the individual and a greater number of fields. It's not that Oxbridge graduates are especially brainy, it's that their acculturation and networks disproportionately favours their chances of succeeding across a greater range of social fields. They have the strategies and know how to get on that puts them at an advantage vis a vis the rest of the graduate population.

This, however, is not a theory of unproblematic social integration. It's a theory of best fit. Take schooling. When infants make the passage from pre-school to primary, already they have acquired sets of dispositions and preferences that will affect their performance in formal education. Some children will take pride in reading, writing and maths. Another group will have a more hands on approach, and excel at practical tasks such as craft activities and sports. Others will have problems adapting themselves to the expected behavioural norms and will find the tasks expected of them difficult, frustrating and downright boring. There is at this stage a relationship between the already acquired social and cultural capital of the habitus and the social and cultural capital of the children's background. Nevertheless, whether our infants go on and play by the rules, or pursue their emerging academic interests or not doesn't matter. The schools system treats them according to universalised assessment criteria. Whether they like it or abide by those rules, that is the backdrop against which they are judged and their life chances more or less set.

The same is true with the rest of society. If we understand it as a series of overlapping fields, as individuals pursuing various trajectories through social space we are constantly evaluated and positioned as participants in them, even if we are unaware of being so. First time protesters opposed to the council's closure of their SureStart centre will be interpreted and positioned by political insiders as opponents/allies, electoral opportunities or threats. There might be little fit between field and their individual/collective habitus, but participants they remain. Women in public spaces, regardless of what they're doing, are seen and assessed according to dominant standards of feminine conformity and deviance. There might or might not be fit, and some women adopt strategies as per above to pass through it. But if they don't, women are still treated as players bound by the rules of woman. Regardless of what I think, when this piece is posted up it will be a moment, an intervention (albeit a minor, inconsequential one) within the fields of political blogging, sociology blogging, and therefore politics and sociology more generally. It sets me up as someone whose ideas and language, and facility with a particular thinker typifies a certain kind of habitus that acts within and is concerned with acquiring the capital of certain specific fields. That's not why I'm writing this post. But it is how it is perceived within the fields it cannot but avoid impinging on. And that is true of each and every post made on this site. And of your blogs, comments, Facebook updates and so on too. We are always and at all times acquiring social and cultural capital, because our society is set up to treat with social and cultural capital-bearing individuals.

Returning to Bev's criticism of Bourdieu then, most of the time people do not fit the fields they drift in and out of. Such is the character of social space. What Bourdieu did was to provide us with tools to understand how social integration is performed in societies made up of individual and individuated social beings. This is not the vertically integrated, constructively aligned organisational process Bev's musings imply about Bourdieu, but a much messier patterning of unwieldy social dynamics that can nevertheless be analysed and understood.


Phil said...

It is a bizarre exchange - reads more like a comment on a neo-functionalist like Althusser than on Bourdieu.

Phil said...

Which is why I find it so puzzling, seeing as Bev is a Bourdieu scholar and has explicitly used him to address problems of lack of fit. To people lose their capacity for nuanced understanding the longer they spend in academia?