Mere Rhetoric


MOST mornings, I wake up, put on some stretchy pants and very bright t-shirt and strap on my phone for a run, because for some reason you need a phone to go running. Why do I do that? Is it because I am a master of my fate, and I choose my fate to be sweaty and singing along to Shakira through the wilderness trails near my home? Or is it because I am being influenced by the institutions of the beauty industry, the fitness industry, the nature industry and the Spandex industry to conform to a certain predictable type, which happens to include skipping over rocks and dirt while a GPS tracks my every step?




Pierre Broudieu—not to be confused with bourdoux—is convinced that it’s not about just my free will nor entirely just society structures that makes me go for a run, but  continuous give-and-take between them. What I think I want to do are shaped by past events and institutions that in turn are influenced by what I choose to do. Because choosing to wake up and run, I get feedback from structures that reinforce what I think of as my choice to wake up and run. This combination of choice and society stricture, Bourdieu calls habitus  and it’s his most famous contribution to rhetoric and to sociology.




Habitus is a combination of deep-rooted, even unconscious, desires and what we choose to desire, which has been formed from childhood. It is, as Bourdieu often described it, “the feel for the game.” I don’t know how to articulate how and why I run, but I know it’s something I do, because it’s also something that my society does.




Sometimes it’s hard to see how institutions support a habitus unless you see the opposite, something that happened to my sister when she was doing medical surveys in a very remote village in Tanzania. She woke up one morning and went for a run—and flummoxed the villagers. “What are you running from?” said one person, huffing up beside her. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m just running.” “Why?” “I don’t know—to burn calories maybe?” The villager, who had been working with her on, among other things, questions of nutrition, paused a moment and then asked incredulously, “You want to burn calories?”




The feel for the game that my sister had was for a totally different game than the one that made sense in a small fishing village struggling to get and keep calories rather than burn them. The feel for the game wasn’t something that my sister conscious set out to learn, and it was somewhat only when she bumped against a different rule that she noticed that she was doing something wrong.  Habitus is created and reproduced unconsciously, ‘without any deliberate pursuit of coherence,” as Bourdieu says “without any conscious concentration’ (ibid: 170).




Although our habitus can cause embarrassing mismatches when we’re in a different culture, it adept at taking us through our native environments, as we play the game around us like insiders.




Playing the game like an insider was a really important thing for young Pierre Bourdieu, who came from a working class family in southern France. Southern France is like, the sticks, for French people, and his family had a strong accent, both in the lilt to their speech and the things that they believed were important. Going to study in Paris certainly would have highlighted the differences between his home culture and the elite intellectual world. The Elite intellectual world became a sociological phenom to Bourdieu as exotic and interesting as the Algerian tribes he did his field work with. The ways that elite intellectual used language, used taste, used culture became the basis of his landmark book Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste, which was published in 1979. Distinction highlights the way that the elite create an insider habitus. As B says, “symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, [are] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction.” If you do or don’t like opera, if you do or don’t see running as recreation, if you do or don’t value certain food, cultures, presentation or any other type of distinction, creates the social class fracture that distinguishes the upper class from the middle, or the very upper. Are snails a pest or a delicacy? That sort of thing. People don’t even ask why they think opera is just good music or snails are just plain tastey, because it’s deeply engrained in their lives since almost birth.




 This so-called social capital is learned from a very young age as part of your habitus, and if you grow up thinking that You don't kick a dressage horse after a failed pas de deux, you live in a very different world than where you don’t kick a man when he’s done.




But none of this is to say that once you’re in (or out) you’re stuck.  According to one commentator on Bourdieu, habitus “is not fixed or permanent, and can be changed under unexpected situations or over a long historical period” (Navarro). Somewhere along the way, for example, the elite picked up jazz as the preferred music to opera, and snails gave way to craft beer and high end cupcakes and—going for runs? Not only can the cultures and institutions switch, but people can switch, too—Bourdieu, for all of his criticism of the elite, ended up in the in-group of often cited scholars in rhetoric, philosophy and sociology. And I used to hate running. But here I am, waking up most mornings to put on some stretchy pants and very bright t-shirt and strap on my phone for a run, because for some reason you need a phone to go running.




If you have a deeply engrained habitus, why not tell us about it at We’d love to hear from you and any other comments or ideas you may have, including distance running tips, because there seem to be a disproportionate number of distance runners in higher education. Must be something about the habitus…


Direct download: Habitus.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:21pm CDT