Bourdieu, Dewey, and Critiques of Dual-Process Models in Sociology9 min read

Sociologists have been interested in cognition at least as far back as Durkheim, who, with his nephew Marcel Mauss, sought to uncover the social origins of mental categories (Durkheim [1912] 1995; Durkheim and Mauss, [1903] 1963). However, it was arguably Pierre Bourdieu who “supercharged” the cognitive turn in contemporary sociology (Cerulo, 2010), providing an invaluable foundation for studying the social and cultural dimensions of cognition. One of the many reasons why Bourdieu has been so useful for sociologists is the clear affinities between his work (particularly his conception of “habitus”) and a variety of influential frameworks and research programs within the cognitive sciences, most notably embodied cognition, cognitive schemas, and dual-process cognition (see DiMaggio, 1997; Lizardo, 2004; Lizardo and Strand, 2010; Vaisey, 2009).

Bourdieu versus Dewey on Reflexivity, Habit, and Deliberation

Bourdieu has been central to what Brekhus (2015) described as the “individual practical actor approach” to culture and cognition, which, he notes, resurrects the pragmatist concern for individual thought and practical action. There is, of course, a lot of common ground between Bourdieu and American pragmatism, and Bourdieu himself noted that he and John Dewey shared an emphasis on dispositional action and a rejection of conceptual dualisms (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 122). However, there are some subtle but consequential differences in the way Bourdieu and Dewey theorized cognition and action that have direct relevance for how sociologists analyze and conceptualize automatic and deliberate processing. I suggest that some of the criticisms aimed at early and influential work on dual-process cognition (specifically the work of DiMaggio (1997) and Vaisey, 2009)) also apply to Bourdieusian practice theory, and reflect a perspective more aligned with the work of Dewey. I focus on three of the major criticisms sociologists have made regarding early dual-process model scholarship – 1) that automatic and deliberate processes are dynamic and interactive rather than separate and independent processes, 2) that deliberation is not rare but commonplace, and 3) that dual-process models are non-exhaustive – all of which go against Bourdieu and are supported by Dewey.

The Integration of Habit and Reflexivity

First, several sociologists have argued that automatic and deliberate processes are not wholly separate or independent (as in DiMaggio (1997) and Vaisey (2009)) but are instead highly dynamic and interactive processes (e.g., Cerulo, 2018; Leschziner and Green, 2013; Winchester, 2016). This speaks directly to the fact that early accounts of dual-process cognition in sociology fit the general structure of Bourdieusian practice theory, which argues that actors generally rely upon the unconscious dispositions of habitus save for times of “crisis” in which they may be “superseded” for “rational and conscious computation” (Bourdieu, 1990: 108; Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992: 131-137). Here, Bourdieu seems to imply that habitus and reflective thought are mutually exclusive, rather than dialogical (Crossley, 2013: 151).

Conversely, in my recent article in Sociological Theory (Brett, 2022), I draw on Dewey’s account of deliberation, which conceives of reflective thought and habits as directly interwoven: “Deliberation is an experiment in finding out what the various lines of possible action are really like. It is an experiment in making various combinations of selected elements of habits and impulses, to see what the resultant action would be like if it were entered upon” (Dewey, [1922]2002: 190). Instead of asking whether an action was the result of either automatic or deliberate thought, this invites us to ask how and to what degree did both automatic and deliberate processing contribute to a given action or decision. I also draw upon Dewey’s account of a “reflective disposition,” a habit which itself encourages more thorough and protracted deliberation. Unlike Bourdieu, Dewey suggested that habit and deliberation were integrated to such a degree that “it is a perilous error to draw a hard and fast line between action into which deliberation and choice enter an activity due to impulse and matter-of-fact habit” (Dewey, [1922]2002:279). Therefore, for those arguing for the interactive nature of automatic and deliberate processes, Dewey provides a much more suitable theoretical foundation.

The Importance of Reflection

A second and related criticism of early dual-process scholarship is that it discounts the role of reflection (e.g., Hitlin and Kirkpatrick-Johnson 2015; Mische 2014; Vila-Henninger 2015), wrongly arguing that deliberate cognition both rarely occurs and is rarely in charge of our action (DiMaggio, 1997; Vaisey, 2009). Again, this fits with Bourdieu’s account, in which crisis-induced deliberation was generally a rare occurrence, resulting from large-scale social or political disruptions. In contrast, such disruptions were both more mundane and more common for Dewey (Crossley, 2013: 151), resulting from the dynamic relationship between flesh-and-blood actors and ever-changing social and material environments. Though Dewey viewed habit as the predominant mode of human conduct, he did not discount reflection, but stressed that the disruption of habit and the emergence of deliberation was a regular and consequential occurrence in our everyday lives.

Beyond Habit and Reflexivity

Lastly, in a more recent critique, Pagis and Summers-Effler (2021) suggest that dual-process models alone do not exhaust the range of human practices and experiences. They argue that aesthetic engagement – “open and purposeful attention to the immediate context that overrides both habitual and reflective/deliberative processing” (2021:1372) – is a cultural practice that does not fit either automatic or deliberate processing. Aesthetic engagements are motivated by curiosity and exploration and require sustained uncertainty through the inhibition or overriding of both automatic and deliberate cognition. They theorize aesthetic engagement through both phenomenology and pragmatism, most notably drawing on Dewey’s distinction between “perception” and “recognition”: aesthetic engagement involves dwelling in (open and curious) perception and bracketing the automatic and deliberate processes involved in recognition (e.g., automatic categorization, deliberate search for meaning). Conversely, it is difficult (perhaps impossible) to locate a mode of cognition and action within Bourdieu’s work that precludes both automatic processes (i.e., habitus) or deliberate processes (e.g., conscious computation).

Taken together, it seems as though some of the major criticisms aimed towards dual-process models in sociology could have just as easily been directed at Bourdieu. Although sociologists have drawn from a variety of empirical work from the cognitive sciences to make claims about the dual-nature of cognition, it is possible that the persistence of assumptions like process-independence is partly the result of thinking about cognition through Bourdieu. Furthermore, one wonders what dual-process scholarship, or even culture and cognition more broadly would look like had Dewey, rather than Bourdieu, served as the primary framework for theorizing cognition.


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Brett, Gordon. 2022. “Dueling with Dual-Process Models: Cognition, Creativity, and Context.” Sociological Theory: 07352751221088919.

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Mische, Ann. 2014. “Measuring Futures in Action: Projective Grammars in the Rio+20 Debates.” Theory and Society 43(3–4):437–64.

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