Category Archives: LLED601A

Bourdieu – Habitus

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.

The Incredible Book Eating Boy

Every second evening, sometime between seven and eight, I engage in one of my favourite acts of parenting: reading bedtime stories to my son.   Cozy and warm in a strategically darkened room, surrounded by toys that have been smuggled into bed, my five-year-old son listens to me read.  I read one, two or three books or, now that we have progressed into the world of chapter books, multiple chapters before the light goes out.  Then he has to endure the stories I weave together for him in the dark as I try to lull him to sleep while doing my best to keep myself awake and on the path of a coherent and not too boring story.  These sessions-which can last from a matter of minutes to well over an hour-represent some of the most wonderful, calm and rewarding moments of being a parent, but they also represent subtle battles of will between an all to wakeful child and a tired parent.  Through the materiality of the books that I read to him, a host of cultural values and power positions are played.

On one recent night, I read to him a picture book by Oliver Jeffers called The Incredible Book Eating Boy, about Henry, a young boy who absolutely devours books, literally.     Henry begins by nibbling on single words and sentences before eating whole books, and then multiple books at a sitting.  As he eats the books, he gets smarter and smarter until he begins to feel that if he just keeps eating books, he will be the smartest person in the world.  Things go wrong, however, when he starts to have trouble properly digesting the books he is eating, and soon he has to give up eating books entirely.  That is when he discovers another way to consume books, through his eyes by reading.   He can’t devour the books as quickly, but he has no further problems with indigestion.  The book does have one corner bitten out of the bottom of it (with what appears to be Henry’s teeth marks), so it is clear that Henry still tucks into his books from time to time.  The book itself is multi-modal in its presentation, with typewritten text and handwritten script mixed in with wonderful illustrations of Henry consuming books.  The pages are a pastiche of literate culture: fragments of book covers and torn pages; old office forms and ledger pages with various remnants of writing on them; ruled note pages and graphing paper; snippets of newspapers and index cards.  The visual space of the book is instantly recognizable to an adult as containing elements of the world of literacy, but from the perspective of a pre-literate child (born long after many of these artifacts of literacy have ceased to be in common use), it is likely that the images merely form interesting textures and surfaces upon which the story unfolds.

Jeffers’ children’s book is a productive site for considering the concept of mediated action in that the act of reading a book (particularly in the charged relationship with one’s child) nicely illustrates the dynamic relationship between an acting agent and the meditational means, in this case a significant cultural tool, a book.   As well, significantly, at the same time as I use the book as a means to achieve multiple goals (such as strengthening my relationship with my son, entertaining him with fun and interesting stories and getting him to go to sleep!), with this cultural tool, I am inculcating him with values of literate culture, which includes the regular consumption of delicious texts.  In defining the characteristics of mediated action, Wertsche (1998) asserts that meditational means are always material and that their use results in changes in the agents that use them.  I long ago gained mastery in the use of the cultural tools associated with literacy (in part thanks to my own experience of being read to by my parents who undoubtedly were trying to get me to go to sleep), and my own skill in using this cultural tool resulted in changes in how I conceive of the world.  The impact of the materiality of this mediating means is also evident in my son as he learns to recognize the importance of the codex as a container of words, sentences and narratives: structures that will influence how he organizes the world he is increasingly able to explore; structures which also will influence how his brain organizes itself in relation to the world.

I was particularly intrigued by Wertsche’s point that the material nature of meditational means plays an important role in determining how internal processes develop in agents as evident by the skills that they develop in using cultural tools. Wertsche cautions those who want to apply a sociocultural approach that they need to be careful about how they use the term internal or internalization, since most mediating means (like the pole vault example he offers) rarely make it to an internal plane.  The materiality of the book may not, itself, be interiorized, though the process of reading or literacy is more likely to be a skill that is internalized and by being internalized, forever alters how the brain processes information.  I am influenced in this matter in part by Maryanne Wolf’s (2007) book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain.  Wolf, a cognitive neuroscientist, uses data from brain imaging of people who are dyslexic in comparison to people who are able to read and asserts that the scans reveal that the brain creates specific pathways or neuronal circuits that assist in the pattern matching processes between what people see and what they hear (in those who can read), and in pathways that are less efficient in doing so (in those who cannot read).   Certainly imaging technologies establish a particular focus on what is important for study (being an apparatus of cognitive neuroscience), but some of Wolf’s research seems to provide support for some of the earlier conceptions of differences between oral and literate cultures in the work of people like Walter Ong, in Orality and Literacy.

My own son has not yet internalized literacy, though I am seeing more and more evidence that he is able to decode words that he encounters in his daily life (as he has now cracked the alphabetic code).  Perhaps the best evidence that he has not yet mastered the skill of literacy is the fact that alongside the teeth marks of the fictional Henry, who took a bite out of the book we were reading, are some rather recent teeth marks of my own son, who couldn’t resist taking a nibble of the book.  I still have a bit of time before he stops eating books whole.