Loïc Wacquant
University of California, Berkeley
Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique, Paris
In this response to my critics, I amplify the conceptual clarification and methodological stipulation of
habitus begun in “Homines in Extremis” to help us move from a sociology of the body as socially
construc-ted object to a sociology from the body as socially construc-ting vector of knowledge, power,
and practice. The specification of habitus by membership in collectives, attachment to institutions, and
analytic purpose makes it a flexible multiscalar notion with which to construct the epistemic individual
and account for both reproduction and change, conformity and creativity, as well as self-revision. For this,
we must reject theological interpretations that rigidly lock habitus into Bourdieu‟s framework; avoid
conflating the formal properties of the notion with its concrete features in specific settings and cases; and
distinguish between the rhetorical invocation of his concepts (“speaking Bourdieuese”) and their effective
deployment in the construction of the empirical object. As embodied and embedded capacity, habitus
brings temporality, depth, and desire to the analytic epicenter. It reminds us that the social world is not
transparent, open-ended, and instantaneous, but endowed with gravity, opacity, and asymmetry. Treating
the sentient and skilled organism as fount of both social intelligence and sociological acumen can help
historical social science connect with enactive psychology and recover the carnality of action that
conventional accounts of social life routinely erase.
KEYWORDS: habitus, Bourdieu, body, time, desire, social gravity, epistemic individual, construction of
the object, enactive ethnography, carnal sociology
I thank the contributors to this symposium for their stimulative comments, which give me an
opportunity to clarify, specify, and amplify the arguments put forth in “Homines in Extremis”
(Wacquant 2014a). Let me restate briefly the three main purposes of that essay. I use a set of
apprentice-based studies of the practical logics of combat sports and martial arts inspired by my
book on prizefighting, Body and Soul, as an empirical springboard (i) to correct prevalent
mistakes and misunderstandings about habitus; (ii) to characterize its three components,
cognitive, conative, and emotive, and spotlight its diverse modes of acquisition and malleability;
and (iii) to adumbrate the broader mission and promise of carnal sociology as a distinctive mode
of inquiry that fruitfully deploys habitus as both object and means of investigation. My article is
an exercise in conceptual specification, methodological solicitation and theoretical petition
intended to help move us from a social science of the body as socially construc-ted object to a
social science from the body as socially construc-ting vector of knowledge, power, and practice:
the fount of both social intelligence and sociological acumen that investigators should practically
mobilize rather than ritually deny and discursively paralyze.
My four commentators do not take issue with my aims so much as with the means I
recommend to realize them. I respond to their main concerns and criticisms in seriatim, and turn
some of their questions back to them, with the aim of improving our collective grasp of habitus,
in the twofold sense of intellectual understanding and practical handling. A common thread will
run through my responses: that, more so than any other “theorist,” one must studiously avoid
theoreticist readings of Bourdieu’s concepts and attend instead to their pragmatic deployment in
empirical research. Most of the troubles that scholars experience with habitus will instantly
vanish or get gradually resolved as soon as they abandon the scholastic posture that they
typically adopt toward it.1
While sympathetic to an approach to which he has himself contributed both theoretically and
empirically (see, in particular, Crossley 1996, 2001a and 2006), Crossley (2014: *) is concerned
that habitus has become “confusing and confused, given its internal complexity and range of
application.” But complexity and range need not breed confusion. The fact that habitus is indeed
a multi-scalar concept that one can employ at several different levels of social activity (from the
individual to the civilizational), and across degrees and types of aggregation (settings,
collectives, institutions) depending on one‟s research question is precisely what allows us to
make clear distinctions as well as connections between these.
There is an individual habitus, the idiosyncratic product of a singular social trajectory and
set of life experiences (even monozygotic twins always differ in their relation to their parents and
reaction to one another) that is nonetheless the combination of shared constituents. This is what
makes possible a clinical sociology, that is, the sociological study of particular personalities and
their troubles (Bourdieu and Maître 1994). These individual experiences are selected and
stamped by membership in collectives and attachment to institutions. On the side of collectives,
we find the major principles of social vision and division, in particular those that anchor
strategies of group-making (Bourdieu 1987/1989, Wacquant 2013). Thus there is a gender(ed)
habitus since all humans are fitted and attuned to the masculine/feminine binary, even those who
challenge its implications or cross its boundary. There is likewise a class habitus since all social
agents are located in a hierarchical distribution of forms of capital rooted in or derived from the
economic structure; this class habitus can be further declensed by class fraction (Bourdieu
1979/1984: 283-295, 339-346). There is an ethnic (local, regional, ethnolinguistic,
ethnoreligious, ethnoracial, national, civilizational, etc.) habitus since each of these prevalent
“containers” of social action making claim to collective honor tends to produce joint ways of
thinking, feeling and acting, and common sets of expectations. And so on with other operative
markers of social classification and stratification. On the side of institutions, we have bundles of
durable dispositions specific to definite organizations (fraternities, prisons, firms, political
parties, etc.) and specialized microcosms or fields: academic, artistic, political, pugilistic,
juridical, scientific, etc. Settings that inculcate, cultivate and reward distinct but transposable sets
of categories, skills, and desires among their participants can be fruitfully analyzed as sites of
production and operation of habitus (Bourdieu 1989/1998: 71-127 and 1999).
The double specification of habitus, by arena of production-activation and by analytic
purpose, clears up ambiguities and prevents mixups. Similarly, the use of the latin, habitus (past
participle of habere, to possess and be in a certain state) need not worry Crossley (2014: *). It is
Bourdieu‟s constant and urgent warnings about the dangerous delusions of the logocentric conception of action
associated with the spectatorial stance of the scholar apply directly to the social (mis)uses of his work in the
academy. “The Three Forms of the Scholastic Fallacy” (Bourdieu 1997/2000: chapter 4) is mandatory reading on
this point for anyone aiming to appropriate his work for purposes other than professorial erudition and pedagogical
routinization (as displayed, for example, by the recitation of fictitious dialogues between Bourdieu and other
theorists). (I thank Tom Medvetz for his sharp comments on this article which made me see this point clearly
enough to express it).
a help and not a hindrance, as it prods the reader to interrupt the train of conventional thinking
and to reflect on the meaning and features of the notion --this is the virtue of foreign language
when it is not interjected for show. It reminds us that we must beware of falling for the illusory
realism of the concrete person or empirical individual, and for the naïve phraseology of the
“actor” and related metaphors drawn from theater, such as “roles,” “scripts” and “kits” (Bourdieu
1984/1988, 2013: *). Habitus is a proven vaccine against these common diseases as it invites us
to construct the epistemic individual, characterized by those properties (including dispositions)
active in the setting under investigation and pertinent to the question pursued.2
The Latin also establishes a clean break with the notion of habit, from which habitus was
separated at its birth some twenty-three centuries ago: the Greek word for habit in Aristotle, the
originator of habitus as hexis, is ethos; the Latin term for habit in the work of Thomas Aquinas
and the medieval Scholastics is consuetudo. Not only does habitus carry over the whole
sedimented (and ongoing) social history, individual and collective, of the agent, thus enabling us
to construe the body as an “ongoing practical achievement” (to use the language of Garfinkel)
and an evolving matrix of capacities, which the notion of habit does not. As a dynamic system
articulating multiple dispositions, it is a principle of invention via the transfer of schemata and
the skewed search for rough practical coherence, which habit is not. And it can generate
different, even opposite, practices, depending on the solicitations and possibilities of the social
space it encounters, which habit cannot, as Crossley (2013) obliquely concedes in his
comparative discussion of these two notions.
It follows that it is incorrect to assert that “habitus do not revise themselves, however,
and cannot be regarded as a source of creativity” (Crossley 2014: *). Quite the opposite: the
habitus of the great innovators in art, music, science, or politics is precisely the precipitate of
their mastery of the gamut of strategic possibilities in their field and the principle of their
capacity to actualize options pregnant in it--as Bourdieu (2013) demonstrates in great detail in
the case of Manet‟s “symbolic revolution” in painting, the same reasoning applying to Bourdieu
in the social scientific field. Moreover, to the degree that it incorporates reflexive dispositions
(nurtured by scholastic microcosms such as the religious or the academic field) and that these
dispositions are applied to the agent‟s own thoughts, feelings, actions and surroundings, habitus
can guide a form of self-work. Indeed, religious ascesis and psychoanalysis may be regarded as
two professionally assisted work of habitus-revision, and Bourdieu himself clearly assigns such a
wisdom-inducing mission to his brand of socioanalysis.3 More generally, it bears repeating that
habitus can be a source of creativity whenever it is composed of disparate dispositions in tension
or contradiction with one another; whenever it encounters settings that challenge its active
proclivities; and when agents enter rationalized worlds that encourage the methodical reshaping
of their dispositions in conformity with the dictates of “greedy institutions” (Coser 1974). Thus
Bourdieu (2004/2008) supplies a compact model for this analytic move in his Sketch for a Self-Analysis, which
does not vivisect the private person Pierre Bourdieu in his innumerable idiosyncrasies (the foods he savors, the
novelists he reads, the color of his shirts, his relations to his sons and his car mechanic, etc.) but reports on those
social properties issuing from his childhood, intellectual training, and academic position that together account for the
structure and proclivities of his scientific habitus --and for that part of his social being alone.
Assisted logotherapy or sociotherapy aimed at altering the structures and proclivities of the embodied (social)
unconscious may be regarded as an upgraded version of the strategy advocated by seventeenth-century philosophers
to manage the passions, chief among them Baruch Spinoza: use the one to counter the others and thereby achieve
happiness. For a provocative Spinozist reading of Bourdieu‟s theory of action, see Lordon (2006).
the selfsame dispositional theory of action is capacious enough to account for both regularity and
deviation, conformity and innovation, reproduction and change.4
Finally I must disagree with Crossley‟s reading of my work as diverging from Bourdieu
to bridge with the Chicago School. Although I did my doctoral research in Chicago and I grew
quite familiar with the particular tradition of field research associated with it (it is not a school in
any meaningful sense of the term), I was not trained by Chicago, if only for the simple reason
that no one was teaching in that vein at that time. I have registered my serious reservations
regarding the built-in flaws of Chicago-style “moral empiricism” in “Scrutinizing the Street”
(Wacquant 2002): among them, the naïve adoption of folk concepts, the constitutive inability to
root action and cognition in social structures, the elision of embodied and objectified history, and
the stubborn blindness to power. A single concern suffices to demarcate my approach from that
codified by E.C. Hughes and illustrated by his erstwhile students: to lay out the structured
forging and situated flowing of pugilistic desire, a notion epicentral to habitus and incompatible
with the Chicago vision of the agent as disembodied animal symbolicum (notwithstanding
George Herbert Mead‟s brilliant insights about the “biologic individual”). My work fits squarely
in the lineage of French rationalism, running from Condorcet and Comte to Durkheim and LéviStrauss, to Mauss and Bourdieu, and it introduces the incarnate agent as suffering and desiring
being at the intersection between historical structures and situated interaction.5
Now, Crossley (2014: *) is right to point to the dangers of rigidifying, reifying and
anthropomorphizing the concept, but this warning applies to every social scientific construct.
This is as true for habitus as for, say, petty bourgeoisie, the state, and patriarchical
countertransference. Every concept is liable to be deformed, misused, and even abused, for
concepts are our instruments of reasoning and observation: the work they do depends on how we
work with them, that is, what we make them do in our analyses. What I do in Body & Soul
(Wacquant 2004a) is to apply habitus as method to tap into the casting of the pugilistic habitus as
object. Apprenticeship is the technical means, not of a solipsistic return onto the knowing subject
(the person of the sociologist), but to get us closer to the phenomenon and probe its immanent
makeup. The difference with auto-ethnography is very clear: the analyst is one among several
sensate, suffering, and situated agents undergoing a particular “experiment,” namely, the
grafting and meshing of pugilistic schemata of cognition, cathexis, and action (see Wacquant
2005: esp. 469-471 for an elaboration). Habitus-driven sociology enables us to swim in the
stream of action and filter out its composition, rather than scope it from the bank. It propels us to
traverse the multiple layers that mesh into the fabric of the everyday lifeworld --the forte of
phenomenology as instigated by Husserl and Merleau-Ponty-- and to net the carnality of action
that ordinary social science --including the Chicago school-- steadfastly erases from its accounts.
Numerous critics of Bourdieu, from Sewell (1992) and King (2000) to Crossley (2001b), Dalton (2004), and
Hammoudi (2007), have purported to supplement Bourdieu‟s alleged “reproduction theory” with a theory of creative
action. But this resolves a problem that they artificially created by truncating the capacities of habitus and portraying
it as a miniature replica of a single coherent social structure condemned to perpetuate its pattern mechanically.
Contrary to Crossley‟s (2014: *) view, there is no opposition between “real” and “empirical” relations in Bourdieu.
As I demonstrate elsewhere (Wacquant 2014b), his concepts allow us to travel with ease across scales to capture in
one and the same analytic framework the most intimate of micro-experiences (say, the smell and noise of jail living),
the socially determined capacities and proclivities of agents (boxers, convicts, street hustlers), meso-level containers
of action (the ghetto), and the grandest of macro-structures (the penal state as component of the political project
labelled neoliberalism).
Like Crossley, Paradis (2014: * ) situates herself within Bourdieu‟s approach but avers that I am
not “relational” in my “treatment of habitus.” She objects that I “undersell” that approach and
even “obscure” its heuristic power by not juggling with the full conceptual triplet (not “trilogy”)
of “habitus, capital, and field.” In sum, I am not Bourdieusian enough for her taste. This is the
first time that I encounter this argument and I find it perplexing --all the more so when Paradis
repeatedly cites my work to illustrate what she deems to be the proper handling of the notion. It
stems from a theological and shallow reading of Bourdieu; this reading is quite common,
especially among students of the body, and we must strive to avoid it.
First, like every concept partaking of a flexible and open analytic framework, and
Bourdieu‟s is nothing if not that, habitus can perfectly be separated from the other notions that
compose that framework, provisionally or even permanently. Indeed Bourdieu himself used
every one of these notions independently on numerous occasions. First illustration: due to the
minimal differentiation of economic, political, and religious authority, there were no fields in the
peasant communities of late colonial Algeria that Bourdieu studied in his youthful forays into
kinship, honor and power, and revisited as a testing ground for his late theory of masculine
domination as paradigm of symbolic violence (Bourdieu and Sayad 1964, Bourdieu 1977/1979,
2008/2013 and 1998/2001). And yet it is on this very terrain that he first introduced and then
honed the concept of habitus. Second illustration: many if not most social settings, forces, or
practices in advanced society do not form fields in Bourdieu‟s sense. For instance, there is no
such thing as a “sexual field” or a “racial field” for the simple reason that desire and racialization
(as the naturalization of statutory gradations of honor) can and do invade and pervade multiple
domains of social action. Yet one can, in some societies and for some analytic purposes,
definitely speak of a sexual habitus and a racial habitus (see, Adkins and Skeggs 2004; Sallaz
2010 and Hancock 2013).6 The social scene of a stigmatized housing estate in the French urban
periphery and the wasteland of the American hyperghettto are not fields; this does not obviate
rolling out the notion of a “broken habitus” to account for the contradictory strategies and
representations of the subproletarian young men who roam or reside in them (Bourdieu
1993/1998, Wacquant 1993/1998). Third illustration: one of the most advanced studies of a field
carried out by Bourdieu retraces “A Conservative Revolution in Publishing” (Bourdieu
1999/2008) and it makes no use of habitus as it centers on the evolving morphology of positions
and the nesting of that sector of cultural production into the broader field of power. Habitus is a
capsule for a dispositional theory of action stressing that the agent carries her history inside of
her and actively shapes her world through socially constructed instruments of construction; it
may be adopted, elaborated, and criticized quite independently of Bourdieu‟s other concepts
covering structure, power, and history.7
For a pungent critique of the sterile multiplication of “fields,” see Érik Neveu‟s (2013) “Should the Social
Sciences Accumulate Capitals?” For a stimulating study of the production of the racial habitus of blacks and whites
in the Southern US between 1890 and 1950, see Ritterhouse‟s (2006) Growing Up Jim Crow. Ritterhouse does not
get the theoretical mileage her archival work promises due to the analytical confusion introduced by her loose usage
of “etiquette,” “code”, and “scripts” that the concept of habitus would have cleared up (see esp. pp. 3-6, 239-241).
For instance, one can combine habitus with an ecological conception of social structure or with a network-based
vision of the social world, or yet mate it to an economistic vision of history. Whether this is the optimal move from a
scientific standpoint is a different question from whether it is doable and desirable, and one that ultimately can be
settled only empirically across a range of objets and over the long run.
More generally, Bourdieu‟s own proclivity to pilfer concepts from antagonistic
theoretical strands and to selectively rework notions from paradigms he found flawed (neoKantian formalism and phenomenology, ordinary language philosophy and psychoanalysis, etc.)
reveals his ingrained disregard for scholastic convention and his distaste for sanctifying readings
of canonical authors. He was a tireless advocate of an epistemologically disciplined eclecticism
when it comes to theory and we should adopt the same attitude toward his writings, rather than
fall into the kind of “academicism” that he regularly excoriated. Paradis (2014: *) dutifully
recites the established scholarly catechism, but the formula [(habitus) x (capital)] + field =
practice that Bourdieu deliberately tucked away in a footnote of Distinction, so that it would not
get noticed and reified into a magic recipe for social analysis, skates on the surface of his
sociology. It is intended as a mnemotechnic device and not as an algebraic equation. Indeed, the
conventional triad of “habitus, capital, field” that she invokes rather mechanically --but this is
how Bourdieu is taught and used in a bookish mode-- is a simplified rendering of his framework.
A deeper reading of Bourdieu‟s oeuvre suggests that it rests not on three but on six conceptual
pillars (the triad plus doxa, symbolic power, and reflexivity), which can in turn be derived from
the more fundamental duet of social space and symbolic power.8
Paradis‟s comment flags a prevalent danger: the reduction of Bourdieu‟s theory to what
Kenneth Burke called “logology,” a play with words about words, if not a logomachy. Countless
invocations of habitus (field, capital, doxa, etc.), which have proliferated at blinding speed in the
wake of Bourdieu‟s academic canonization in the late 1990s, are merely rhetorical and play no
part in the scientific construction of the object. Far too many authors are fluent “speakers of
Bourdieuese” but routinely forget to effect the technical research operations that these concepts
mandate; as a result, they carry out the same empirical analyses that they would without them. Or
they erase the distinctiveness of Bourdieu‟s concepts by relying on secondary (tertiary,
quarternary, etc.) interpretations that dull their analytical angles and turn them into bland
synonyms for standard notions of the sociological vernacular.9 Thus, in her study of a women‟s
full-contact boxing club in San Francisco, Paradis (2012) mistakes field for “social context” and
confuses the pugilistic field proper --that is, the invisible web of positions occupied by agents
competing for pugilistic authority and value-- with the concrete setting of the gym in which
boxers ply their craft. She conflates the visible interactions between club members with the
objective relations of power between the holders of the different forms of capital operative in
pugilistic space (many of whom are just not present on the gym stage) so that, while the word
“field” appears 76 times in her article, the concept is absent from her analysis. For the same
reason, she confuses hysteresis, which is a constitutive property of every habitus referring to the
built-in lag between the time it is forged and the moment it is activated (a temporal gap between
cause and effect rooted in remanent embodiment) with an empirical “misalignment between
habitus and doxa that makes agents feel out of place and out of sync” (Paradis 2012: 84). So
much to stress that the mention of a concept in a text is not a guarantee that it exerts any effect in
the inquiry. Yet for Bourdieu, as for his teachers in the philosophy of science Gaston Bachelard
Put crudely, capital and field are overlapping and partly redundant; social space is the root category of which field
is but a historical-analytic specification; and at the epicenter of Bourdieu‟s lifework stands symbolic power, of
which one manifestation is habitus.
This problem is especially salient for Bourdieu‟s concept of field, which has spawned numerous derivatives,
knockoffs and ripoffs, from “organizational field” to “strategic action field” to “global field” and a string of related
terms (world, game etc.). To equate field with an “arena of action” or patterned space of mutually focused activities
animated by struggles or interests without further specification is to rob the concept of champ of its power (here is
where keeping the original French term would have been helpful).
and Georges Canguilhem, concepts are not talismans but tools; not terms that close the
discussion by dint of oratorial authority but practical pointers that guide and drive inquiry along
definite empirical pathways.
Paradise‟s (2014: *) second concern is that the differentiation of the cognitive, conative
and emotive layers of habitus entail “an asocial socialization process” where “learning is
multifaceted but solitary.” But a dispositional theory of action cannot by definition be solipsistic
since it integrates (backward) and projects (forward) a sequence of common experiences based
on social ties. As shown in Body and Soul for prizefighters, or by Lehmann (2002) for musicians
in a symphony orchestra, Desmond (2007) for wildland firefighters, and Bourdieu (1984/1988
and 2013) himself for professors and painters, every component involved in the forging of
habitus is quintessentially collective: the categories of perception are discerned and taught
through joint activities; the skills are learned by observing and honed by acting in concert with
members; the desires are aroused and channelled toward their proper objects in repeated
interaction with other participants sharing the illusio specific to the universe studied. And the
welding of the perceptual, kinematic, and cathectic components of habitus into a coherent
working ensemble is also carried out collectively in practice through mimesis and osmosis.
The reactions of Downey (2014) and Mialet (2014) differ from those of Crossley and Paradise in
that they both approach the question of embodiment and its uses as a research tool from
alternative perspectives: the theory of culture and neuroanthropology for the former, Latour‟s
actor-network theory and empirical philosophy for the latter. To respond fully would require a
broader discussion of the merits and limitations of these two paradigms relative to Bourdieu‟s
than can be offered here. So let me flag a few selected points of divergence and convergence.
Like Crossley, Downey exaggerates the gap between Bourdieu‟s and my usage of
habitus. He must do so to uphold the standard reading that has hardened over the years according
to which, for Bourdieu, “habitus is uniform within a group, unchanging, and impervious to
consciousness and explicit discussion” (Downey 2014: *). This view, reiterated in Downey‟s
book Learning Capoiera and recent related publications (Downey 2005 and 2010), must be
revised in light of the many texts in which Bourdieu documents the opposite. Recall that the
French sociologist introduced the notion in his early studies of two disrupted sociohistorical
junctures on the two sides of the Mediterranean:10 the destruction of the peasantry, forced mass
migration, and emergence of an urban working class in late colonial Algeria; and the slow death
of the village society correlative of the rise in bachelorhood in his home region of rural Béarn.
On the Algerian side, Bourdieu tracks down and highlights how variations in peasant social
structure and trajectory, linked to the depth and length of penetration by colonial authorities and
monetary relations, translates into variations in subjective conceptions of time, labor, and value,
i.e., variance in habitus that determine an opposition, within the same group, between
“empeasanted peasants” and “dispeasanted peasants” as well as the emerging split between
proletariat and subproletariat in the city. This split clearly shows that habitus evolve as they
encounter new external conditionings and new social conditions of actualization --here Bourdieu
(1977/1979: 96-114F) puts great stess on the role of housing (its stability, quality, location) as
See Wacquant (2004b) on the foundational status of these twinned cross-Mediterranean field studies and the entire
special issue of Ethnography devoted to “Pierre Bourdieu in the Field” (voume 5, no. 4, December 2004)
documenting their existential mixity and analytical unity.
determinant of the reorganization of the domestic economy and its articulation with the wageearning economy. Imperial domination also fosters the diffusion of hybrid habitus propelling
splintered conducts, expectations, and aspirations, which create an opening for the deliberate
shaping of consciousness by political action, to which Bourdieu sought to contribute through his
research (Bourdieu and Sayad 1964/2005, Bourdieu 1977/1979, Bourdieu 2004).11 On the Béarn
side, Bourdieu (2002/2008, originally 1963) finds that the breakdown of social reproduction in
the rural community in which he grew up stems from the growing disjuncture between the
habitus of the men and the habitus of the women of the same class and locality, due to their
differential sensitivity to and capacity to master the cultural patterns issued from the city.
In both of these foundational studies, then, Bourdieu stresses that habitus are --or, to be
more precise, can be-- heterogeneous, changing, and open to symbolic manipulation --under
historical conditions to be specified. And he returns to those themes at various junctures in his
investigations into education, art, academic power, urban dispossession, gender inequality, and
the state, whenever reality warrants. So what accounts for the staying power of the conventional
view that stresses the opposite? I see two reasons for it. First, most scholars approach habitus in a
theoreticist mode, reading Bourdieu‟s treatment of action through his more abstract and compact
statements --in Outline of Theory of Practice for anthropologists, Distinction for sociologists,
The Rules of Art for humanities scholars, and Reproduction for students of education-- instead of
attending to what Bourdieu does with the notion in his extended and variegated empirical
analyses. This leads to confounding the formal properties of the concept with their concrete
manifestations in a given setting and case. Next, at the more abstract level, Bourdieu does stress
the tendency of habitus to become stable, coherent, congruent with its operant milieu, and
relatively resistant to conscious manipulation, and for good reason: there exist powerful
mechanisms of selection, on the side of the agent as well as the side of the social world, that
work to ensure the minimal coherence, congruence and persistence of dispositions (Wacquant
2014c). Briefly put, institutions weed out agents who do not adopt the requisite categories of
perception, evaluation, and action; individuals drift away from settings that do not gratify their
social libido and gravitate toward settings that do, where they congregate with others more likely
to resemble them in their dispositional makeup and therefore reinforce their propensities.
With this dissent, I have also registered one major point of agreement with Downey
(2014: *): we must take habitus down to the empirical mat and strictly forbid wielding it as “a
theoretical shield to artificially prevent an analytical tangling of materiality and subjectivity.” I
concur with him that puzzling out the practical logics of action will require opening a dialogue
with “emerging fields like cultural neuroscience” and related offshoots of biology. Bourdieu
(1997/2000: 136) himself points us in that direction: in Pascalian Mediations, he notes that the
acquisition of dispositions via learning entails “the selective and durable transformation of the
body that operates via the strengthening or weakening of synapic connections.” At this point, he
refers to the work of leading neurobiologist Jean-Pierre Changeux (2006), his colleague at the
Collège de France, who later picked up that reasoning in an intriguing article on “The Neuronal
Bases of Habitus.”
One quotation is enough to give a sense of how the colonial habitus comes to embody heterogeneity and
instability on the cognitive, conative and affective planes: “In all realms of existence, at all levels of experience, one
finds the same successive or simultaneous contradictions, the same ambiguities. The patterns of behavior and the
economic ethos imported by colonization coexist inside of each subject with the patterns and ethos inherited from
ancestral tradition. It follows that behaviors, attitudes, or opinions appear as fragments of an unknown language, as
incomprehensible to someone who does not know the cultural language of the tradition as to someone who refers
only to the cultural language of colonization” (Bourdieu and Sayad 1964/2004: 464).
But I would extend that collaboration further and center it on the variegated currents in
cognitive science that have negotiated a sharp “turn to the body” over the past decade (see
Wilson 2002, Shapiro 2007, Clark 2008, Noë 2009). The empirical work and theoretical
arguments of scholars such as Francisco Varela, George Lakoff, Antonio Damasio, Andy Clark,
Esther Thelen and Alva Noë are of direct and pressing import to students of habitus insofar as
they are displacing the disincarnated philosophy of action that has ruled social inquiry since the
Cartesian revolution and elaborating a monist model of the tangled dance of body, brain, self,
and environment in practice (see Shapiro 2014 for an extended panorama).12 Let me note here, to
reconnect with the tradition of historical rationalism, that this new “embodied cognitive science”
and “enactive psychology” is effectively training its sights and technical tools back onto the
agenda set out by Marcel Mauss (1974) in a series of papers given in the 1930s on the
connections between psychology and sociology. It unpacks and turns into experimental puzzles
Mauss‟s alluring sketch of “total man” as a “live gearing” of a body, an individual mind, and a
collective conscience requiring the active collaboration of biology, psychology, and sociology.13
I am delighted that Hélène Mialet has joined this discussion because her provocative field
study of the workaday production of a prize-winning producer of science, Hawking Incorporated
(Mialet 2012), not only injects a live organism-in-action in a research genre where the body too
often appears in the guise of just another text awaiting its lector. It reaches many of the same
analytic conclusions that I do even as her object, research design, epistemological posture, and
theoretical tools are in many ways diametrically opposed to mine. She followed a charismatic
victor, Stephen Hawking, in a competitive mental endeavor that is culturally prestigious, socially
valued, and materially sheltered; I toiled alongside no-name practitioners of a plebeian avocation
pursued in dire penury and deservingly deemed to be the “red-light district of sport.” She
proceeds from the ground up and from the scientist outward by tracing rings of exchanges along
labile networks connecting the acting parties and their props; I start from the macrostructures of
class inequality, racial subordination and masculine hubris, materialized by the hyperghetto, to
delve into the web of social and material relations constitutive of the gym as secluded
sociomoral forge, and then descend further down into the fleshly subjectivity of boxers. Our joint
conclusions: social competency is embodied and tacit; knowledge accretes as a form of sensuous
action in and upon the world; the body is the crucible that ongoingly welds passion and reason
(as Damasio (2003) demonstrates from the side of neurobiology); membership rests on a bedrock
of collective belief and embedded desire. But then we part at multiple junctures that I signpost
with brief questions expressing my qualms about the mode of analysis hegemonic in today‟s
Science and Technology Studies.14
Sociologists have already advanced with vigor on this front, as attested by Ignatow (2007), Lizardo (2009),
Vaisey (2009), Cerulo (2010), and Martin (2011: chapters 3 and 4), and by the contributions to the symposium on
my reworking of habitus published in Theory & Psychology (December 2009 and forthcoming).
If I diverge from Bourdieu, as Downey would wish me to, it is in the use of habitus as method: I am confident in
the virtues of “observant participation” and sanguine about the promise of “armed apprenticeship” as a pathway to
analytic knowledge of practical knowledge, whereas Bourdieu (2002) was rather skeptical of them.
This is not the place to address the problematic epistemic assumptions of Action-Network Theory. Suffice it to
note that they are similar to those afflicting ethnomethodology, another hypersubjectivist paradigm that Latour
(2005 : 12) and his associates seem keen on reinventing, as they dutifully “„follow the actors themselves‟, that is, try
to catch up with their often wild innovations in order to learn from them what the collective existence has become in
their hands” (a close paraphrasing of Harold Garfinkel‟s agenda, down the use of “methods” and “accounts” in the
next sentence), as if those “actors” were omnipotent and omniscient and lived in a locally determined local world.
First, Mialet was an observer of the scene, and not a full-fledged participant in it: what
additional layers of action did she miss by not diving into its brook? What roles could she have
assumed on the scene (scribe, personal assistant, lab attendant, janitor) that would have gotten
her closer to one of the manifold points of production of the master scientist and enabled her to
shed the spectatorial viewpoint that sporadically resurges in her narration? Second, it appears
that her “distributed-centered subject” (Mialet 2012: 9), the nodal carnal materialization of
Latour‟s “actant,” can be recombined at a moment‟s notice and is in a state of perpetual flux, as
if networks of persons, objects, and symbols had few hard boundaries, little structure, and no
vectors of subordination --remarkably, the word power appears not once in her book. By
contrast, habitus stipulates a clear initial analytic distinction between agent and world, so that we
may study their empirical formation, encounter, and interpenetration; and it injects a strong sense
of structure and domination at the epicenter of social analysis. It does so, and this is my third
point of divergence, by avoiding the drift toward an instantaneist vision of action, where
everything is determined here and now, and all the relevant factors are right at hand out in the
open. As history made body, habitus not only introduces temporality; it also insists that the world
is not transparent to social agents; that they have followed a trajectory and occupy a location in a
resilient distribution of efficient resources independent of their will and consciousness. Whereas
in the world of “actor-networks composed of humans and non-humans,” everything flows in an
endless Brownian movement devoid of social gravity, opacity, and asymmetry, habitus begs for
location in social time and social space --or in the series of nested microcosms pertinent to
manufacturing the practice studied: in the case of Hawking, the scientific field inside the
academic field inside the bureaucratic field inside the field of power (Bourdieu 2001/2004), all
of which are beyond the analytic reach of actor-network theory.
This is why, to flag one last difference, I am not “trapped by the classical definition of
science,” as Mialet (2014: *) seems to worry; I am committed to it, wide awake, and fully aware
of the promise, limitations, and even perversions of science as a historical endeavor and
collective ideal. Ernst Cassirer (1944) shows, in his classic Essay on Man recapitulating twentyfive centuries of knowledge production, that science remains the most potent of all the symbolic
systems yet invented by humans to make sense of their world and possibly shape it. I see no
reason to throw out the baby of historical social science with the bathwater of positivism and to
follow Latour in jettisoning the goal of social explanation for the mere description of
associations --least of all under the specious motive that we would have entered a world where
“things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied” (Latour 2005: 12).15 I do
subscribe to scientificity as a benchmark set by the joint deployment of reason and empirical
observation, and so must every scholar in Science and Technology Studies who wishes that their
work be read as something more than poetry.
Does the aspiration to objectivity imply that a carnal social scientist “refuse[s] to be
entirely affected, moved, or changed by the fieldwork she has undertaken” (Mialet 2014: *)? On
the contrary, the very purpose of enactive ethnography is to submit oneself to the special social
gravity and sensual magnetism of the phenomenon, precisely, to provoke those changes and use
them as crucial data points recorded with one‟s own flesh and blood.16 The carnal sociologist
“What is called „social explanation‟ has become a counter-productive way to interrupt the movement of
associations instead of resuming it” (Latour 2005: 8).
Here we rejoin with the concerns and teachings of George Devereux (1968) in From Anxiety to Method in the
Behavioral Sciences, especially his recommendation to consider the disturbances caused by the overlap between
subject and object as vital information and not as noise.
knows full well that she will not emerge the same at the other end of the experiment and she
intuits that this coming self-transformation is not without risks and costs. But such is the
wondrous potency of libido scientifica --for those who possess it or are possessed by it-- that she
will throw herself body and soul into the work.
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BIO: Loïc WACQUANT is professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and
researcher at the Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique, Paris. His interests
include urban marginality, penality, carnality, and social theory. His books have been translated
in two dozen languages and include Body and Soul: Notebooks of An Apprentice Boxer (2004,
new expanded edition, 2014), The Two Faces of the Ghetto (2014), and Tracking the Penal State
(2014). For more information, see loicwacquant.net.
* Forthcoming in Body & Society, response to the Symposium on “Homines in extremis,”
Summer 2014

putting habitus in its place: rejoinder to the