Posted by: Johan Normark | May 20, 2009

PA 8 – Habits instead of habitus

Earlier today I debated Sokal’s critique of Deleuze on Aardvarchaeology. Åsa from Ting och tankar also joined the debate. At the end of the debate she brought up Bourdieu which she uses in her research. I have a profound respect for Bourdieu’s theory of practice but there is a major problem with it, a problem that lies at its core and that is the idea of habitus. The following discussion is slightly modified from my dissertation.

Habitus is a so-called quasi-object in Stephen Turner’s terminology. Quasi-objects need to be both within and between people, otherwise it is not shared. The problem is that these quasi-objects are all believed to be collectively shared, that everyone possesses the same thing. A quasi-object, such as practice, is often interchangeable, or is at least affined, with tradition, tacit knowledge, paradigm, ideology, framework and presupposition. In such cases there must be a transmitting process where these collective quasi-objects become internalized into mind and body. This process is never explained properly (Turner 1997:345-347). The fairly easy way here is to use a theory like Bourdieu’s theory of practice (1977) since it, on the surface, seems to bridge the gap between macro-structures and the single individual. Bourdieu’s concept of reproduction means that habitus is copied inside new people. However, Bourdieu never explains how habitus relates to such psychological processes. Habitus just comes and goes in history (Turner 1994:47-50). If there is variation in people’s experience of the world, then the model of sharing and reproduction of non-public collective objects falls apart. It would be the same case with the non-individual notion of difference, since there would not be any tacit thing that one group shared to compare it to another group (ibid).

A quasi-object exists without human agents and thus acts as an external and transcendent cause to explain changes. The external models seek invisible entities to explain what is visible (Pickering 2003:105). A practice is invisible. It can only be reached through inference and it is often indirect. Our access to practices, to be able to acquire shared tacit knowledge, must be done through other means. Sociologists have therefore extended the individual presuppositions to everyone in the collective. Since people share some beliefs or activities, they must also share some tacit beliefs. It is the tacit beliefs that are the causes for various actions. Turner wonders where the transmission takes place. Are presuppositions transmitted by imitation or do they pass through a medium of collective ether, which we call the culture, the social or the discourse? The most common way is to locate this medium in some sort of shared object which the individual internalizes. Another approach is to locate the practice in individual habits. However, since habits are individual, they are not shared. A third approach is to see the shared objects as having two kinds of causal powers, both individual and collective (Turner 1994:34-50).

Turner (1994:14) disregards the shared quasi-objects and wishes to reduce human beings to individuals with habits. Habituation is the result of individual psychology and it is an individual possession. If an external performance becomes habitualized, it does not mean that the habits are the same but the externals must be the same. They have been trimmed to look the same externally. In terms of habits, similarity in external performance is not dependent on similar internal structures or external quasi-objects. There is no external structure that is internalized to become the same for all. People need to learn and acquire habits to be able to act in the world. These habits are often fairly consistent and predictable and can therefore be manipulated (Turner 1994:14, 58, 112).

The mental habits are different for each person. They have been trimmed to look the same externally. People understand the same thing in different ways depending on past experience and feedback. However, this understanding may be similar to that of others. Turner does not believe that public objects (texts and materiality) are the place for what is shared, since in this way mysterious causal powers are attributed to these objects (ibid:19, 57, 74). This final point is, however, what archaeologists have to rely upon. But we need not attribute them with “mysterious” causal powers.

Turner could in this case be seen as a British empiricist, such as David Hume (1711-1776). Deleuze (1991b) has characterized Hume as a philosopher of subjectivity since he wished to focus on how the subject is formed without any transcendent explanations and therefore he could only rely on habit. Deleuze’s reading suggests that the human being is habitual and creative at the same time. All relations are external to the terms that define them, so there is no unified transcendent human nature. Deleuze sees subjectivity as a practical and empiricist concept.

What I suggest then is that there are no shared practices to detect in the archaeological record. There was no shared habitus, just individual habits that all related to materialities, organisms, iconography, texts, etc. The reason why we still have similarities between us is because these habits are being sorted and territorialized by greater assemblages often beyond our control such as socio-political organizations, religious constellations, cityscapes, internet, etc. We cannot find the habits, but we can study the parts that created habits and at the same time created greater assemblages.



  1. Interesting thoughts.
    I have some issues with Bourdieu as well, though it has more to do with the fact that I think he seriously under represents the role of (culturally constructed) family and kinship ties as a form of social capital. He mentions it but spends remarkable little time on the subject considering he is an anthropologist basically.

    For me the way people ascribe kinship and connectedness with both living and dead people is of paramount importance to understand the creation and structuration of social institutions and in a wide sense, and also how they come to view themselves and their place in the world. Its not that this is the only important stucturating mechanism, just a very important one that feeds into ideas of physical connections between people.

    The problem with B’s theories were in many ways synonymous with Darwin’s. Darwin saw that natural slection occured and that it drives speciation. But he could not actually describe the mechanism in details because there was no concept of genes and DNA at that time. Habitus seemed to be a good concept, but what made it tick? This is where I think the cognitive sciences have been able to shed some light lately, in the relation between the biological body and intellectual constructs/perceptions.

    Its not a magic formula of course, but it does shed some light upon the basic tenents of phenomenology (even if B didn’t like to call himself that). More importantly it really helps us understand the issues discussed by Mauss, Merleau-Ponty and other similar theorists about embodiment and the intimate relationship between person and object – the give and take between material and biology and mind. Lakoff and Johnson have also added some interesting contributions on the philosophy side with their discussions about embodied metaphors.

    As always – no one thinker will ever solve all our woes. We can only keep pulling at strings. I do not think of my farourite theorists as prophets – only people with ideas worty to pursue.

    • I briefly discuss kinship (descent, lineage) and alliance (Levi-Strauss’ house society) in my upcoming article in World Archaeology:

      In this article I make an “assemblage” interpretation of social organization of a household at a small site called Nohcacab. World Archaeology only allows 5000 words so there is not much space to develop the ideas, I’ll save that for another article. I particularly focus on these “traditional anthropological” forms of organizations since DeLanda is far more interested in contemporary industrial organizations and federations, and totally skip the issues you mention. I therefore agree that the social organizations affect other structures. In assemblage terms, a social organization affects its components (human subjects, buildings people live in, agricultural lands, cattle, etc.) but a particular social organization also becomes part of other assemblages (communities, polities, empires, etc).

      I would not call my (current) favourite theorist a prophet, there is always a need to adjust them to the context you are studying. The positive point with Deleuze is that he gives tools rather than fixed concepts (that is one reason why people are confused by his writing, he constantly changed the terms from book to book).


%d bloggers like this: