Thursday, February 10, 2005

On Institutions as Habitus

Hi Class,

I know that Matthew must be tired by now of hearing or reading during three semesters about habitus, however, since he and Briann are the only veterans of previous courses, I think it is necessary for me to provide some information on Habitus. It is important for us because institutions do play a key role in shaping (either by promoting or preventing) social change.

Originally, Pierre Bourdieu developed the concept of habitus as a way to address the poverty of concepts such as class to explain, as master variables, conflict and social change. He, as many others realized by the early 1950s that one of the main drawbacks of Marxist theory of society was its assumption that people will conduct themselves based on whether or not they were or were not the owners of the means of productions.

He certainly acknowledges the fact that our place within the larger economic structure has a significant impact in how we interact with others (the realm of sociology), how we interact with the political institutions (the realm of political science), and how we interact with other agents in the markets (the realm of economics).

He came to realize that such interactions were largely mediated by our experiences in what he calls habitus. A habitus is a STRUCTURED AND STRUCTURING STRUCTURE, behind such truism he is trying to emphasize the fact that structures have a key role in shaping interaction and that they seek to reproduce themselves by creating other institutions, practices, and even traditions of their own.

Examples of such structures are the school we are in, the church we attend, the market in which we exchange goods and services, the family we belong to, and even the formal and informal groups (soccer teams, political parties, etc.) in which we participate.

Those structures are structured in the sense that they exist way before us (think of the case of the Nation State or the Church or even the School) and they shape us as much as the shape other individuals. More over, as in the case of the Church or the Nation State, as institutions they shape other institutions that will also have an effect on us. Think of the case of your birth certificate and because of it with your very identity as a US citizen. Think also how it connects at some point with, as an example, your first passport, your registration at school or your Social Security Number, and how the SSN will be later in your life connected with your taxes, with your eligibility to claim benefits, and so forth and so on.

That is why at some point in his works Bourdieu explains the concept of habitus by using the metaphor of a train that builds its own track as it advances.

Usually in my Intro or my Sociology of Sports classes, I use the example of language to explain this. Spanish, English, and any other language can be assumed to be habituses in which we are raised. Moreover, if I use English here such use will force me to use more English. If I switch to Spanish at this point and being this a course on Latin America, chances are many of you will be able to continue reading what I am writing.

Pero si en lugar de cambiar a español decidiera yo cambiar a francés o alemán, entonces las posibilidades de que la comunicación continuara transcurriendo entre nosotros serían significativamente menores.

Möglicherweise lesen etwas von Ihnen französisch oder deutsches, aber ich bin sicher, daß nur ein kleiner Anteil der Gruppe sie tun kann.

(Perhaps some of you read French or German, but I am sure only a small share of the group can do it.)

With political and economic institutions, something similar happens. Once they are created, they prompt new needs directly associated with them. That is how is possible to understand how certain features of Latin American politics (presidentialism as one possible example) engenders more institutions and practices associated with the presidential institution.

You can see that happening here in the United States too. Look at the formal and informal powers of the President. Look at the secretaries, departments, committees, commissions, task forces, and the like created by or to satisfy the needs of the presidential system. Moreover, compare the presidential institution here in the United States with similar institutions like the Crown in Britain or Sweden, or with the presidency in Germany or France.

In Britain, as an example, the existence of the Crown as an institution and the Queen shapes from the national anthem (God Save the Queen or, when a male is in charge, God Save the King) to specific practices in the Parliament, the press, the courts, and other institutions.

In France, on the other hand, the coexistence of a strong presidency and a strong prime minister offers a striking contrast with the strong presidencies in US or Mexico (lacking a prime minister or something similar) and the German or Austrian presidencies (weak, ceremonial institutions that have little or no power).

The same can be said of international financial institutions such as the World Bank or the Inter-American Development Bank. They certainly impose not only specific conditions as lenders (rates, periods, payments, etc.). While doing so they also have a say in shaping financial and political institutions in the countries where they have operations. There is no agreement as far as how interventionist they really are. Evidence from Mexico and Argentina offers contradictory results. While in Mexico the IMF-WB were willing to accept a heterodox or unorthodox structural adjustment, in Argentina we can see traces of a rather orthodox program as far as the privatizations is concerned.

The problem, of course, is that for Argentinean politicians is also easier to put all the blame on the IMF-WB (institutions with very bad rankings in the Latin American public opinions) than to assume that they could have gone with a heterodox approach on privatizations and with a more realistic program on the monetary side of their structural adjustment program. Or, something that is even harder for any politician in Argentina, Mexico or the U.S.: to accept that they simply made mistakes.

As far as Bourdieu is concerned, he defines at some point a habitus as “a product of history” able to produce “the collective practices and hence history, in accordance with schemes engendered by that history”. As it is possible to figure out the presidential institution (to follow our example, although there are many others) is a product of history, able to produce collective practices and hence able to produce history in accordance to schemes engendered by that history.

You can find a more detailed discussion of the origin of habitus and how it relates to the sociological or political concept of institution in this article by Omar Lizardo.

Bourdieu himself connected at some point his concept of habitus with the concept of institution in his book Homo Academicus. You can read an analysis of that book here.

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