French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu popularized the notion of the habitus. The term refers to both the knowledges and physicalities that maintain distinctions between groups (examples in a sec). It’s a great concept for helping us understand the reproduction of class differences without relying strictly on economics. It takes more than money to make money, it also takes knowing the right things, the right people, and the right way to act.
The habitus, then, is one way to show that you “belong” to the group. Imagine being on a really fancy job interview for a really fancy job. Can you talk knowledgably about what vintage of which wine was really excellent in any given year? Do you know which fork is the salad fork? What parts of your body are allowed on the table? When? How quickly do you eat? What is the sign that you are finished with your food?
People who grow up in wealthy families that prioritize these things tend to absorb this knowledge naturally while growing up, just as a kid who grows up on a farm knows how to wrassle a lamb for fixin,’ mend a barbed wire fence, and spot a good steer at the auction. Both of these types of knowledges are useful, but they don’t transfer; my colleagues, for example, are forever unimpressed that I can tell the breed of most horses just by looking.
In any case, while these examples refer to class and rural or urban upbringings, Missives from Marx offered a great example of the habitus as a marker of religious belonging.
In the video below, made by evangelicals, the evangelical habitus is satirized. “Lost at an evangelical meeting?” the video asks, “Here’s how to do evangelicalism!”
* Title, post idea, and video stolen from Missives From Marx.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Vidya — April 20, 2010
This is wonderful, and totally true!
I've always thought 'habitus' doesn't get used nearly enough. It's one of the most useful sociological concepts, IMHO.
Kunoichi — April 20, 2010
I know people who talk like that. As a christian, I find it... bizarre.
phoquess — April 20, 2010
The whole time I watched the video, I was thinking, "They should make one for Mormons!" When I was Mormon, we even joked a lot about our weird, specialized vocabulary.
squizzlenut — April 20, 2010
Haha, I could genuinely use something like that! I grew up in a traditional Anglican church, but at university almost everyone is from Evangelical, Pentecostal, or Evangelical-style Anglican churches. There's little bible study groups that are quite fun to go to, but half the time I have NO idea what anyone's talking about.
It's really interesting how nervous it makes me, even though we all belong to the same religion. I feel like the others will judge me for not putting my hands in the air when I sing, or using a King James Bible instead of the NIV Bible. Not to mention praying! Group prayer is so awkward when you've grown up in a church that's almost Catholic. It's intriguing how specific the group is. It's not like I'm from an insular denomination, or a branch church like LDS or Quakers, but I feel like I've wandered in from another country.
Cats — April 20, 2010
Oh, I love it when christians can actually giggle at themselves.
And yeah, if you didn't grow up in that environment, the rhetoric and phrasing sounds bizarre if not outright disturbing.
I grew up in an extremely evangelical environment while my husband is Jewish and grew up in Israel. Neither of us are particularly religious now, but it makes for some very humorous cultural moments. It's especially funny when it comes to entertainment. When we were watching Saved, I had to pause the movie every five minutes to explain something someone had said or done. Likewise, he wanted me to watch the Hebrew Hammer and had to keep explaining the jokes to me.
You don't realize how many truly strange concepts we're able to casually absorb until you're stuck trying to awkwardly explain them to someone looking at you like you're explaining the social customs of Neptune rather than your childhood.
Jennifer — April 20, 2010
Don't mean to derail, but I find it really offensive that at 1:25 there is a line that sounds like an attempt at Spanish, but it does not actually make any sense. "Me combate con estes" is NOT "I struggle with that."
Did anyone else notice or was that in another language?
Carolyn Dougherty — April 20, 2010
This is really interesting--I'm currently writing about the idea of teaching and learning as 'communicating habitus', which to me explains the reluctance of people to do either in some situations.
b — April 20, 2010
"Mi combate con estes" definitely made me giggle. I just hope they didn't mean for it to be an accurate translation.
This really hit home for me - my husband is Lutheran and I was not raised going to church and don't currently consider myself Christian. I've been going to church with him for several years now, and there have been SO MANY things that seem totally natural to him that either confused me or even mildly creeped me out at first.
Just as one example - the first couple of times I went, the fact that EVERYBODY knows what to do and say at every moment kind of creeped me out, until he pointed out that a) it's all written down and b) if you do this once a week all your life, you're going to memorize it eventually. Now when I see a bumper sticker that says "And also with you" (which I saw last week), I get it!
NancyP — April 20, 2010
Lisa, *I* am impressed that you can ID horse breeds on sight. I'd be especially impressed if you can ID half-bred horse parentage on sight.
Squizzlenut, I sympathise. I wasn't even raised in the most extreme "smells 'n bells" churches, and I feel odd in services with the hand-raising and improptu shout-outs crowd.
I was just over at www.womanist-musings.org in a discussion of a book by a healthy young white male college graduate (business admin. major) whofor an experiment played poor, starting out on the streets with 25 bucks and the clothes on his back (and a resume that didn't list his college education but did list that he had graduated from high school), ending up 10 months later with $5,000.00 in savings, a car, an apartment, and a decent wardrobe. Well, duh! He gets a job promptly, because his speech tones and rhythms, vocabulary, general knowledge, and healthy appearance (previous access to health care and good nutrition) all resemble those of the son of the small business owner.
habitus: a common-sense concept
Travis — April 20, 2010
Oh my God, that video is perfect!
plashingvole — April 21, 2010
He may have invented the term, but the concept comes from traditional Marxist sociology/cultural studies: see Raymond Williams' discussion of the 'tea shop' ritual he encountered when attending Oxford University, coming from a Welsh, working-class background.It's in 'Culture is Ordinary'.
KarenS — April 21, 2010
I'm impressed you can tell horse breeds by looking! Much more impressive than the fork thing, which is simple to learn--start on the outside and work your way in. If the people you're dining with are snobby enough to care, they're snobby enough to know how to set the table properly. And you can always, in a pinch, mimick other people's behavior. (If you're still seriously stumped, pretend you're allergic to that particular food.)
I grew up post-Vatican II Catholic; our church was rather liberal (for Catholicism, anyway). My dad's second wife comes from an hard-core evangelical Lutheran family. Whenever my brother and I see her family for holidays or whatever, yep, it's exactly like that confused woman in the video. (Only there were two of us, so we can exchange confused looks.) I'd buy that product, just for the laughs.
Oh, and LOL @ "Why do some people pray to Mary?" What a well done parody--they were able to hit the right notes without being nasty.
Village Idiot — April 21, 2010
I didn't know there was a word to describe the specifics of the jargon-infested in-jokes that most group scenes embody. That's handy. Too bad almost no one else will know what I mean if I use it.
Anyway, among groups that tend to be exclusionary or hierarchical I've found it's better to claim total ignorance of a group's habitus; in competitive situations or where there's a pecking order that is strictly enforced, being clued in to it's habitus marked me as a potential competitor and efforts were made to exclude me. On the other hand, when I approach such a group claiming total ignorance then its leaders tend to take the clueless rookie under their wing and let me right on in, partly to ensure a loyal supporter later ("If it wasn't for me you wouldn't be here!") and partly to stroke their own egos and reaffirm their status as leaders by passing on their version of the group's purpose and dynamics.
I'd guess scam artists and social chameleons would be experts at determining and then imitating a habitus well enough to fool the in-crowd of a given group, so if making sure that someone embodies the correct habitus is the only way their trustworthiness is vetted then I'd expect such a group to suffer problems with numerous rip-offs. How many victims of scam artists say things like "He seemed so nice! Very clean-cut and professional looking; I had no idea!" or "But she goes to my Church! How could she DO this?!?" or something equally inane?
Social chameleons (like me) do the same thing but are not in it to scam anyone; we just like to wander around checking things out without being bothered. The best way to do that is to be invisible, and the best way to be invisible is appear to conform seamlessly with people's arbitrary notions of "proper" appearance, speech, and mannerisms. I'd say something about fish and water at this point but don't like to quote Mao if I can help it.
For a great example of someone using a group's habitus to take their money, watch the documentary Marjoe (Marjoe Gortner was an evangelical preacher who took a film crew behind the evangelical scenes and explained to them how to adopt the evangelical habitus so as to blend in during the shoot; "just say you're bathed in the same blood of the Lamb as they are! And don't let them catch you smoking!" It's an amazing, jaw-dropping film).
A — April 21, 2010
KarenS, I understand where people are coming from in terms of identifying proper table manners as snobby and unimportant, but I wouldn't be so quick to paint it like that. Sure, there are some people who use it that way, but there are people who will use ANY habitus they're familiar with as an exclusionary tool (I grew up with a friend who used her knowledge of horses to make me feel stupid every chance she got!). However, my mom raised my sisters and me to know a lot of the ins and outs of etiquette, and she always explained that it was a really good way to show respect to a host or your guests. You may set a fancy dinner up with all the forks in a row, and you do it to make your guests feel special. If a guest is overwhelmed and just grabs a fork, well, there's nothing wrong with that. Etiquette (as I was taught) is intended to put people at ease, and in the end, if it's used for anything else... well, that's just not good manners!
I hope that gives some new perspective on what might just seem like a classist tendency (and I understand that it can be used as such).
Also, I am really impressed about the horses, too.
A — April 21, 2010
Oh definitely. And I was pretty sure you weren't just hatin' on the manners, but I thought I'd just present another POV. (I am also really paranoid about commenting, myself, because I am convinced that no matter how much I try to sound nice in my comment, somebody will think I am angry about things... oh no, I've become what I hate most!!)
Also, I'm using "double foul on the incompetent judgers" from now on. Nice. (:
Lemmons998 — April 21, 2010
Alright, did anyone else notice how wonderfully hilarious the lists were too?
Learn why other Christians:
Pray to Mary
Yet ignore Joseph
Ask for a Hallelujah
Ask for a ride home
Speak in tounges
Refuse to laugh
deenie — April 21, 2010
A facebook friend recently posted something about "finally understanding how Jesus feels when someone grieves His Spirit" -- can anyone explain what that actually means?
Charles R — April 23, 2010
'Grieving the Spirit' is committing any kind of intentional sin and then externalizing the guilt-process directly into God, rather than some tangible and vocal authority figure. This, of course, just makes the process that much more internal. How that process feels internally becomes further associated with some perceived sadness or frowning on the part of Jesus, who still has some hope the sinner will turn from wickedness and repent. So, to understand how Jesus feels is to understand how Jesus is upset with some agent for having sinned against God but still hopeful the agent will come around.
A friend attended a Wesleyan/Methodist college, where they joked about this idealized frowning Jesus by recreating a fake, emotionally-charged skit. In the skit, the guy does all the usual things to resist temptation but fails, and goes drinking/watching porn/being resentful/being angry/&c. The entire time, a sad Jesus will follow the guy around and make sad faces. Finally, the skit ends with the guy overcome by being followed around with sad Jesus, so he grabs sad Jesus' hands, then mocks nailing them to a Cross, while yelling out in mock anger, "Leave! Me! Alone!"
It's both a joke about evangelical subculture and also a reiteration of it, since some of these guys actually had to do skits such as this as part of their ministry tours.
I don't know if anyone here reads Žižek, but he occasionally dabbles with this idea of how ideology is not merely the duplication of these things we situate in habitus, but also our ironic stand towards it. Joking about it as a way of saying, "But this isn't really me; I can laugh at myself," is a signal for who really is in the in-group. BADD can get away with this, but landover baptist, for example, cannot. With this is also the idea that merely acting or performing these gestures, clothing choices, language selections isn't enough, and the more a stranger mimics these things without this sense of irony, the more alien they become. You might say such a person is "trying too hard to fit in."
Kalani — May 2, 2010
Totally loved this video. As a Christian, I am sometimes annoyed by shows like South Park or Family guy making fun of Christians in the way that they do, but this video is different-- I think because it is done "from the inside", so to speak, is very tongue-in-cheek and doesn't put people down. It's like how geek humor is always funnier if it is from other geeks rather than non-geeks making fun of some guy who is smart. Humor about a group is always better from within the group-- I wonder if this thought translates to humor about other groups (gender, race, age) discussed on this site. Hmmmm.
Place holder « 53 degrees — December 14, 2010
[...] Imagination put the following two short pieces in front of me. The first is amusing; the second rather creepy. Developing a religious habitus, having completed [...]