According to Bourdieu, habitus comprises a set of dispositions acquired through one’s inculcation into any social milieu. Habitus marks the site of a socially inscribed subjectivity: a space that defines a person’s sense of place in the world; a space that influences a person’s sense of value in the fields or markets that define all aspects of exchange and interaction. The habitus is strongly shaped by one’s experiences growing up, a time when we acquire not only language, but also a sense of our particular and potential value in the markets we (and our families) inhabit. The dispositions we acquire through our history-how we talk, how we deport ourselves, how we dress, how we look at the world-become structuring systems that determine how we act in the world, either with a degree of comfort or discomfort. Habitus becomes second nature, but not in a deterministic way. The dispositions that we acquire certainly can and do reproduce existing structures and are therefore durable, but they also have the capacity to generate new behaviours and responses on the part of an agent. This generative potential is particularly evident as people experience new social contexts or fields, such as school, social groupings, and institutions.
Just as Bourdieu sees subjectivity as socially conditioned, he also sees language as operating within a market, exchanged by agents who, themselves, are characterized by their position within society. While anyone might have the ability or competence to utter a sentence, not everyone has the authority to compel others to listen, and it is the authority that is imposed by those who define legitimate language within the social milieu that ultimately determines what space we occupy, and the value we (and society) place on our own utterances. Bourdieu defines a subset of habitus, called linguistic habitus, a set of dispositions that we acquire as we learn to speak within particular contexts. This linguistic sense of place strongly influences how we consume the symbolic signs of wealth and authority that set the market conditions for how we price ourselves and our own acts of production.
My own habitus has been defined by my experience growing up in a white-collar family in a predominantly blue-collar neighbourhood. Both of my parents were professionals who strongly valued education and took great efforts to reinforce the value of learning within our home. My father’s experience was particularly influential on me in this regard. He grew up in Zehner, Saskatchewan, and became known as quite a smart kid because he completed his grade 8 within 4 years, read every book in the library, and seemed to have a vast capacity to learn. Unfortunately, his family was quite poor, so instead of continuing on to high school, he had to work in the family’s store and then, ended up enlisting in the navy during the Second World War. After the war, he wanted to go on to university (which was being offered to those who had returned from service overseas) but was prevented from doing so because he did not have his matriculation. Financial circumstances again dictated that he go to work instead, so he began to work in a warehouse and in the course of his career moved up from being a dispatcher to being a buyer for the province. My father loved words and constantly pursued new words as well as challenged his kids to develop their vocabulary. He was also an avid crossword puzzler, working on increasingly difficult puzzles and acrostics. What I remember so well about my father at those moments is how excited he became when he had managed to decode a particularly devilish acrostic.
While I was a typically kid in most ways, not paying a lot of attention to school, and generally not seeing the direct relevance of why I needed to spend time trying to build up my vocabulary, I did become a voracious reader and quickly stood out in terms of my reading abilities amongst my classmates. I assume that I did learn a thing or two from my teachers in terms of formal grammar, spelling and such, but I don’t think that those lessons had nearly as much influence on me as did my family’s influence on developing my perception that I could learn anything I wanted to learn. This disposition gave me a lot of confidence, particularly in certain areas of study, though it also meant that I was not too patient (and often quite stubborn) when I faced a teacher whose style or approach did not allow me a considerable amount of flexibility or responsibility in how I approached my work. The Catholic school system was not renowned for such approaches. In most of the educational contexts I found myself in, in primary and secondary years, I typically had sufficient skills to get through.
It was not until I entered university that I encountered any serious challenges to my perception of myself as capable agent able to manage social interactions with my dispositions. Suddenly, I found myself failing in an Engineering program and this concrete reality did not align very well with the perception of myself that I had been nurturing from the time I was quite young. This situation also created a lot of tension with my father who couldn’t quite fathom how his son could be failing Calculus so many times, and when I found myself also working in my father’s warehouse for a year after being offered an early sabbatical from my university, I realized that I was in a very different social milieu, one in which my ability to shift weight was valued much more highly than anything that I might say or write. It took me a bit of time to re-orient myself to my new circumstances, and as I took on new skills relating to the tasks at hand, I had to deploy new strategies to get along with the people I was working with, as well as find ways to re-considered my sense of myself as a member of that community. The physical labour of the job dominated most of my energy, so I can’t say that I learned much new about language other than the value of economy in its use. I also gained considerable knowledge of swearing, refined skills in spitting, a new sense of fashion (torn and patched clothing) and various other dispositions that seemed to fit in better within the particular market I now inhabited. Ironically, the experience of working in the warehouse gave me some credibility when applying for an academic teaching job at a college a few years back, as it was considered to be a “real job”. The distinction of having rough hands and the smooth tongue of an academic seemed the right mix for the hiring committee!
After a year, I returned to university and, once again, had to re-orient myself, this time inscribed with my experiences having failed on a previous attempt at post-secondary, and also having a certain amount of shyness and awkwardness due to suddenly being around so many people again. My confidence in my ability to succeed in the academic environment did not seem to be part of my habitus, at least initially. It took several years of interacting within that community before I started to feel more comfortable that I actually belonged in that space. Of course, my first year of graduate school did a lot to undermine that confidence once again, but as before, I found that the previous radical changes in my environments (and therefore in my habitus) had equipped me with practices and perceptions to help me to find and recreate my space within this institution.