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From Habitus to Habits: The Origin of Lifestyle Practices

January 31, 2019

 

The role of lifestyle in sociological theory dates back to the early 19th century. American sociologist, William Cockerham described the earlier discourse between class and status through the likes of Karl Marx’s differentiation of the classes, to Thorstein Veblen’s theory of the leisure class, and finally Max Weber’s account of lifestyle in relation to socioeconomic status [1].

 

 

The real contribution to the concept of ‘lifestyle’ was in the way Weber used it synonymously with ‘life conduct’-- namely the choices people had in selecting their lifestyles [2]. His discussion of ‘life conduct’ provided context for his explanation of the ‘legal order’ as a “complex of actual determinants of human conduct” [3] and offered keen insight into the habits of the ‘masses.’

 

Weber postulated that “the broad mass of participants act in a way corresponding to legal norms, not out of obedience regarded as legal obligation, but either because the environment approves of the conduct and disapproves of its opposite, or merely as a result of unreflective habituation to a regularity of life that has engraved itself as a custom.”

 

This is of particular interest when thinking about how ‘unreflective’ or often unconscious patterns of behaviors become customs. Weber [4] further contended that custom is “a typically uniform activity which is kept on the beaten track simply because men are ‘accustomed’…it is a collective way of acting.”

 

This is, of course, best delineated when looking at lifestyle through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu. His concept of habitus permitted a focus on the ‘embodiment’ of cultural representations in human habits and routines and offered a possible basis for a cultural approach to structural inequality.

 

Habitus is defined as a set of acquired dispositions of thought, behavior and taste which constitute the link between social structures and social practice (or social action) [5]. It is a product of early childhood experience, and in particular socialization within the family; however, it is continually re-structured by individuals' encounters with the outside world [6].

 

Schooling, in particular, acts to provide a general disposition, a turn towards what Bourdieu termed ‘a cultured habitus’ [7]. His concept of cultural capital, such as education which in turn promotes social mobility, illustrates how schools draw unevenly on the social and cultural resources of members of the society. For instance, children from higher social locations enter schools already familiar with certain social arrangements (cultural capital) and Bourdieu maintained that the cultural experiences in the home facilitate children’s adjustment to school and academic achievement, thereby transforming cultural resources into cultural capital [8]. Thus the social class inequalities of our school system are too evident to be denied [9].

 

 

 

 

Moreover, Bourdieu [10] described ‘school’ as a ‘habit-forming force’ and ‘schooling,’ in particular, as one that acts to provide a general disposition, “generating particular patterns that can be applied in different areas of thought and action,” This is what Bourdieu termed, ‘a cultured habitus’, which illustrates how even though certain lifestyle practices may have originally stemmed from specific classes and statuses, our cultural habitus remains the biggest impetus. As Bourdieu further posits:

 

In a society where the handing on of culture is monopolized by a school, the hidden affinities uniting the works of man (and at the same time, modes of conduct and thought) derive from the institution of the school, whose function is consciously (and also, in part, unconsciously) to transmit the unconscious, or to be more precise to produce individuals equipped with the system of unconscious (or deeply buried) master-patterns that constitute their culture.

 

 

 

 

What Bourdieu described so pertinently still holds true today, as school continues to be the strongest cultural habitus for the behaviors of children all over the world. Children from Western cultures spend the majority of their waking hours in school, and one has to wonder what the most habit-forming behavior that is learned there is. The average school aged child spends about 6-7 hours a day and 5 days a week in school. The majority of the day is spent sitting in a chair. Therefore, the most habit-forming, frequent and prolonged behavior is sedentary behavior, which is practiced in the classroom daily and over the duration of many years.

 

Body Work

 

As technology increasingly pervades every aspect of our lifestyle, the contents and use of our body have been reconstructed. This raises the likelihood that the spatial and functional arrangements of the organic properties of our bodies have been altered in line with the structures of society [11] and personifies how culture essentially constructs the way we perceive and use our bodies, particularly in this age of omnipresent technology.

 

More notably, diminished health is also becoming a trait common to Western lifestyle practices. While technology is presumed to be a form of capital that leads to upward mobility or preserves existing status, its widespread use could lead to lifestyle practices that are destructive to the musculoskeletal system.

 

Professor Chris Shilling at the University of Kent, suggests that human biology is formed by social factors, and is therefore enmeshed within, receptive to, and affected by social relationships and events. In his view, the environment is ‘written on the body’ [12].

 

The reification of these deeply ingrained social factors as inextricable components of the body is underscored in his claim that it “may be easier to reconstruct bones and even re-grow flesh than to change deep-rooted habits." [13]

 

Bourdieu’s explanation of body work through the subconscious helps further clarify body work with regards to what is ‘written within the body’. As Bourdieu deduced, “There are a great many things that we understand only with our bodies, at a sub-conscious level without having the words to say them.” [14]

 

Lifelong habits, which are exemplified in our lifestyle practices, are deeply embedded in our ‘selves’ and manifest from thoughts into our bodies producing desired or undesired tension, which is identified as our posture.

 

Our bodies do not memorize the past, they enact the past, bringing it back to life. “What is ‘learned by the body’ is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished. But something that one is…it is never detached from the body that bears it….” [15]. The body is therefore mingled with all of the knowledge it reproduces. [16]

 

Postural Habitus

 

I introduced the concept of postural habitus in my research and it relies heavily on Bourdieu’s concept of habitus, though somewhat inversely. As noted earlier, habitus permits a focus on the ‘embodiment’ of cultural representations in human habits and routines [17]. Postural habitus can be viewed as the body’s physical manifestation of the habits that we acquire through life. Namely, our habits shape and mold the way we hold our bodies.

 

If I were to apply the principle of ‘cultural capital’ as Bourdieu did, but rather than use it to explain a form of ‘cultural capital’ such as education (which in turn promotes social mobility), I would instead introduce the concept of ‘cultural postural capital,’ and clarify that having more ‘cultural postural capital’ demotes physical mobility.

 

How does one acquire this ‘cultural postural capital?’ Through various lifestyle practices, particularly the ones mentioned thus far: eating habits, exercise levels and technology usage. Overindulging in any one of these practices (even exercise) can have a detrimental effect on posture.

 

For example, a person who is overweight, wears a knee brace from having run excessively over the years, and walks hunched over as a result of spending many hours in front of a screen everyday has more ‘cultural postural capital’ than someone, who is of average weight, walks upright and exhibits fluidity and balance in their bodies.

 

In this sense, having more ‘cultural postural capital’ that is acquired through excessive exposure to stimuli and the body’s reaction to it, works inversely with good postural health. The less ‘cultural postural capital’ one accumulates through life, the more mobile they are, and the freer their bodies are from stress and tension.

 

If we compare the human body with that of any four-legged animal, we can clearly see that animals move with greater ease. This is because as the animal walks forward, the head is in a direct horizontal line with the spine. The movement of the head goes in the same direction as the movement of the body. Infants crawl in the same manner, with their heads leading and their bodies following. They move freely and without undue tension. They sit upright, bend at the knees and lengthen their spine naturally.

 

Both animals and infants have very little ‘cultural postural capital’. As infants grow older much of their ‘freeness’ is destroyed.

 

As we age and are exposed to more stimuli, we respond with tension that interferes with our movement. Children have not yet developed the many habits that we have as adults, therefore it is easier for them to rid themselves of habits and allow their bodies to do what they naturally want to do. As adults this process is more difficult as we have accumulated and held on to many habits that were acquired through various lifestyle practices throughout the years.

 

Socioeconomic Status and Posture

 

“Status honor’ was a notion used by Weber as a distinguishing trait of status that only granted certain groups the prestige associated with particular lifestyles. Cockerham explained that Weber made the astute observation that lifestyles were not based on what a person produced, but on what he or she consumed. According to Weber, the difference between status groups was not in their relationship to the means of production but in their relationship to the means of consumption.

 

This was found in my own research, which examined children from higher socio-economic status (SES) and their lifestyle practices as well as those from lower SES.   The higher SES group lived in affluent areas, attended top rated schools and also owned more electronic devices than the lower SES group.  Yet, the higher SES group spent 3 hours less each week engaging in sports and other exercise.

 

While their status enabled them to consume more, in the study they exhibited less physical mobility and balance than the lower SES group. This in turn, translated into the higher SES group having more ‘cultural postural capital’ which is inversely related to good posture. As Childress discussed Bourdieu, “the intersection of cultural taste and social economic status is well documented. There is a general agreement that social status affects cultural taste and that cultural taste affects social statuses.” [18]

 

 Two hundred years later, and status continues to be marked by consumerism.  While technology has become available across the masses, there is a stark difference in the lifestyle practices and postures between those in developing countries and those of us in Western culture.

 

In the Alexander Technique community, we look on with awe at individuals from communities that consume less and use their bodies more efficiently. Whether it be enjoying a lunch break in a squat, or head-loading as they carry out daily activities.

 

While it is understandable that parents today want the very best for their children, giving them  more things, such as electronic devices, does little, if anything at all, to promote physical health. Perhaps a better way to look for abundance is to view health as a type of capital, for it is essentially the highest form of wealth.

 

 

 

Endnotes

 

1. Cockerham, William C., Thomas Abel, and Günther Lüschen. "Max Weber, formal rationality, and health lifestyles." The Sociological Quarterly 34, no. 3 (1993): 413-425.

 

2. Cockerham, Max Weber.

 

3. Weber, Max. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Bedminster Press, 1968.

 

4. Weber, Max. Economy and society: An outline of interpretive sociology. University of California Press, 1978.

 

5. Bourdieu, Pierre. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Vol. 16. Cambridge university press, 1977.

6. Di Maggio, Paul. “Review Essay on Pierre Bourdieu.” American Journal of Sociology 84 (1979.): 1460-1474.

 

7. Bourdieu, Pierre. “Systems of education and systems of thought.” Social science information 14 (1967): 338-358.

 

8. Lareau, Annette. "Social class differences in family-school relationships: The importance of cultural capital." Sociology of education (1987): 73-85.