In Which I Nitpick Mark Bahnisch’s Post

Especially this paragraph:

I disagree with the parallel between Merleau-Ponty’s dispositions towards the world with Bourdieu’s habitus. I think a more relevant comparison here is Alfred Schütz’s concepts of natural attitude and common sense atittude toward the lifeworld. Let me explain.

Bourdieu’s concept of habitus can be defined as such:

"The habitus is a structure of dispositions to action, but also of thought, perception and understanding which the actor acquires as a member of a social group or class. It is something like a mental or behavioral set (as psychologists would say), which the actor takes for granted and which structures the way he or she experiences the world and responds to it." (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 2006, p. 322)

[Disclaimer: Wes Sharrock was my dissertation advisor, so, yeah, it’s a shameless plug for one of the best introduction to sociological theory). The key to Bourdieu’s habitus is the way it (literally) embodies and incorporates social hierarchies that are then reproduced in actors practices. In this sense, habitus is a structuring structure (it structures practices) and a structured structure (it embodies the past social history of dominance and disadvantage). Power and social dominance are key to habitus.

Or, as I wrote myself in the Bourdieu entry of the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology:

"For Bourdieu, the major determinant of practices is habitus: the set of dispositions actors acquire in their social milieu that generate and organize practices and representations. Habitus is the source of many types of ordinary behaviors, shaping artistic tastes (distinction), table manners, speech patterns (language and symbolic power), body language (masculine domination), writing styles, food and drink preferences, educational success (reproduction in education, the state nobility), etc. In all these practices are embodied a social hierarchy. For instance, not all artistic tastes are equally valued in the field of cultural production, and not just any writing style is valued in the educational field. To prefer Hollywood blockbusters to avant-garde cinema is to display a lower-class habitus; to be at ease in select restaurants and know how to choose the right wine reveals a high-class habitus."

In this sense, again, the concept of habitus is a very post-structuralist notion and even though Bourdieu was aware of Merleau-Ponty’s work, I just don’t think the concept applies here or that a clear parallel can be drawn.

What about Alfred Schütz then? Alfred Schütz is considered the main representative of phenomenological sociology. I think what Mark is talking about above is more akin to Schütz’s natural attitude:

"As they go about their lives, people do not doubt the reality of everything that could possibly be called into questions. They take most things for granted. However, to notice this attitude is not to point to a failing on the part of people going about their daily lives. Of course, people in the natural attitude do doubt, but do not, in practical terms could not, make doubting anything like their first priority. They only doubt when they have need to, when something goes wrong in their practical affairs." (Cuff, Sharrock and Francis, 2006, pp. 146)

[One can see how this constituted one pillar of ethnomethodology as Garfinkel’s Studies in Ethnomethodology tell of the experiments of disrupting these commonsense background assumptions that we take for granted to see what happens when the natural attitude is no longer an option.]

Moreover, this practical orientation of members of society is grounded in one subset of the natural attitude: the common-sense attitude (as opposed to the scientific attitude):

"The argument is that:

  • it is an inescapable feature of the organisation [sic] of actions that their course depends upon what people take for granted;
  • among any given set of people there is a vast multitude of things that they will take for granted, that between themselves they treat as obvious, apparent, as going without need of comment or explanation, as transparently and without question plainly the case, and readily known to anyone and everyone, i.e. common sense." (147)

In a sense, the common-sense atittude is a broader concept than habitus, and one less sensitive to issues of power and social dominance. I think it applies better here.

But as the title of this post indicates: I’m nitpicking.

Happy 100th Birthday, Claude Levi-Strauss

And Le Nouvel Observateur marks the occasion with a great special issue on Levi-Strauss.

There is no disputing the fact that Levi-Strauss is the last of the great post-War public intellectuals that France has produced and an enormous influence on the social sciences. His structuralism revolutionized anthropology and sociology and is still considered a foundation for the social sciences. Structuralism is the first course I taught at the University of Nice in 1997 along with structural linguistics as part of a course on language and society. His analysis of myths was truly a revelation of the power of structural analysis that definitely made all other approaches seem childish. And of course, his influence on the rest of the French intellectual scene, from Foucault to Bourdieu is undeniable even as both men criticized structuralism for its underestimation of power (something that will be at the heart of the post-structuralist movement.