For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2012.
Pierre Bourdieu was an amazingly influential thinker who, among other things, theorized a concept called “the habitus.” The term refers to our often unconscious bodily knowledges and habits. According to Bourdieu, our habits reflect where and how we grow up. The kid of a rancher, in other words, will have a very different habitus than the kid of a New York finance elite.
I thought of the habitus when I saw this quick video of people in New York, exiting a subway platform, tripping — one after the other — on the same step. Brooklyn Filmmaker Dean Peterson, who recorded this for us, remarks that the step in question is just a fraction of an inch taller than all the others. But that’s all it takes.
What is striking is how perfectly calibrated are bodies are. Most stair heights (correct me if I’m wrong) are standardized and, when we grow up in this environment, our habitus becomes tuned to that standard. We come to learn exactly how high to lift our foot to be able to climb each step, and we learn to lift it no higher. Our habitus allows us, then, to climb stairs throughout each day with minimal effort and without having to individually gauge each step, but it also makes us easy to “trip up.”
Thanks to Thomas G. for the tip!Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the co-author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.