Habits in a Dynamic(al) System7 min read

In this post I try to show that the theory of action implied in Swidler (2001) is an inherently dynamic theory that is unfortunately couched in terms of comparative statics. Here I unpack Swidler’s action theory by re-translating the relevant terms into the language of dynamical systems theory. I show that properly understood, the distinction between settledness and unsettledness and the description of the different associations between culture and action in those two states actually refer to the differences between social action that occurs within dynamic equilibria and that which occurs when equilibria are broken and there emerges a sharp transition between states.

A key problem in the theory of action concerns the issue of what are the conditions under which we should expect to observe behavioral stability versus those under which we should expect to observe change. Theories departing from a conceptualization of action as practice, tend to presume that there is a tendency towards stability in human action. To put it simply, the basic claim is that most persons tend to work very hard to bring a semblance of order and predictability to their lives. This is what Swidler has referred to as the tendency for persons to fall into settled lives.

While the notion of “settled lives” may bring to mind a tendency towards stasis and lack of change, actually the opposite is the case: persons must work very hard to sustain settledness; as such the attainment of a settled existence is an active accomplishment on the part of persons, who invest a lot of time and energy fighting against entropy-inducing environmental conditions pushing their lives towards unsettledness. In that respect, we may think of the observation that persons are able to (within limits) approach the idea of living a settled life as implying that on the whole, settledness emerges as a dynamic equilibrium or as an attractor state in social behavior.

Swidler notes that under a settled existence, persons are able to draw on their existing “toolkit” of behavioral routines and habits to get by. There is thus an implicit linkage between action and motivation here, a linkage that deserves to be made explicit. We can begin by proposing that persons are motivated to choose those states that allow them to maximize performance given their already existing capacities. People avoid those environments and situations that call for skills that are different from those they already possess and which would thus bring unsettledness to their lives. This active avoidance of environments in which there is a mismatch between existing competences and called-for performances and the active seeking of environments calling for competences that persons already possess, lead to forms of positive feedback increasing the deployment of these same behavioral dispositions in the future.

These forms of positive feedback between persons, situations, and competences are very common. A paradigmatic situation is that which obtains between the fluency and effectiveness of a given skill and the frequency with which that skill is “practiced”: by regularly deploying a given set of competences and skills, persons get better at them, which means they are more likely to deploy them in the future. Conversely, skills that stop being called upon, fall into disrepair and, subsequently, into disuse. Another source of positive feedback is the relationship between current skills and those potentially novel skills not yet acquired. In honing in their existing set of skills, persons miss the opportunity to acquire new ones (this is the standard notion of opportunity costs as applied to skill acquisition). Thus, the more persons enact their competences, the more likely they are to stick to those competences and the less likely they are to abandon those competences in order to acquire new ones.

The existence of positive feedback between use and refinement of dispositions, however, may result in the creation of conditions in which alternative “settled lives” exist for the same set of dispositions. If this is the case, it is possible that gradual changes in external conditions, especially changes that make it harder for persons to deploy their existing competences, may move them closer to a critical regime shift towards “unsettledness” in which the resolution of these unstable unsettled states is achieved not by returning to the old settled life but by moving to a radically different (but also settled) existence.

In the standard approach to action theory, thinking of social action as being governed by habit is usually thought to constitute a sufficient explanation for behavioral stability. The implication is that a theory of action that claims that most action is habitual is ill-equipped to explain sudden or radical transformations in behavior, thought and action. This leads analysts to suppose that habit-based theories of action need to be supplemented with some other way of conceptualizing action (e.g. a “non-habitual,” reflexive, or purposive addendum to the habit-based theory) if we are to explain radical behavioral change.

This stance is misguided. Instead, I would argue that a habit-based theory of action, implies a conceptualization of stable action as (relatively) temporary equilibria or attractors in a dynamical system. This means that it is precisely because action is by its very nature habitual, that the opportunity for radical qualitative transformations exists. These transformations are the result of regime-shifts and stand as evidence that the same set of incorporated habits can be the drivers of action in qualitatively distinct action regimes.

Thus, “conversions” do not necessarily imply retooling; that is distinct behavioral regimes and sudden transitions from one to the other are, as a rule, premised on continuity of the underlying habitual dispositions and competences. When looked at in terms of the switch from one regime of action to another, this phenomenon can be mistaken for a gradual “transposition” of schemes, so that there is continuity in change. Instead, what has happened is a global reorganization of behavior around the same set of underlying capacities productive of action.


Swidler, Ann. 2001. Talk of Love: How Culture Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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