Habit and the Explanation of Action26 min read


We are at a curious impasse in explaining action in sociology. On the one hand, the limitations of various standard approaches based on teleological or rule-like notions such as norms, goals, and values are now very well-documented, to the point that further commentary on their inadequacies feels like beating the proverbial dead horse (Emirbayer & Mische, 1998; Martin & Lembo, 2020; Whitford, 2002). At the same time, a resurgent string of writings based on American pragmatism, practice theory, and phenomenology suggests a proper replacement for such naive teleological notions in explaining action is also apparent. This is, namely, a refurbished conception of action as habit, ridding this notion of all connotations associated with inflexibility, mindlessness, and mechanical repetition acquired from intellectualist traditions of explaining action while emphasizing its flexible, adaptive, mindful, and thoroughly agentic nature (Crossley, 2001; Dalton, 2004; Joas, 1996; Martin, 2011, p. 258ff; Strand & Lizardo, 2015; Wacquant, 2016). The most ambitious of these proposals see habits as the primary “social mechanisms” serving as the micro-foundations for most macro-phenomena of interest to sociologists, opening the black box left closed by traditional quantitative approaches focusing on correlations and macro-level empirical regularities  (Gross, 2009).

In stark contrast to this seeming theoretical success, on the other hand, one would be hard-pressed to find habit figuring as a central explanatory construct in most recent work in the field done by card-carrying sociologists doing empirical work across various areas of research (e.g., gender and sexuality, immigration, race and ethnicity, social psychology, social stratification, and the like).[1] It seems as if, outside some notable islands, habits have become a purely rhetorical, even decorative tool, a resource with which to vanquish older Parsonian or Rational-action ghosts in social theory, offered as an elegant solution to the conceptual difficulties previously generated by these explanatory traditions but apparently incapable of being put to work by mere sociological mortals.

This raises the question: Is habit bound to remain a purely decorative notion in sociology, useful as theoretical window-dressing and conceptual score-settling but useless for being put to explanatory work in our empirical efforts?  The wager of this paper is that the answer is a resounding no. However, the answer will remain “yes” if sociologists stick to their current conceptualizations of habit. For habit to live up to its potential and become a general (and the first and foremost) tool for explaining action, more conceptual clarification work aimed at systematically linking habits—as a “hinge” concept—to other intra and interdisciplinary notions and traditions is required.

Moreover, the very nature of habit needs to be scrutinized in a positive, non-defensive way; that is, not by contrasting habit to other ways of theorizing action (e.g., reflexive or purposive) while repeating for the umpteenth time that habit can be flexible, generative, and non-mechanical. Instead, different—and seemingly contradictory—aspects of the nature of habit need to be explicitly brought to the fore and analytically distinguished. Subsequently, different variants of the habit concept have to be linked to other notions not traditionally associated with habit so that people can trace the linkages and realize that, in deploying these seemingly “non-habit-like” notions to explain action, indeed, they have been doing action-explanation via habit all along.  Finally, critical ambiguities in current formulations of habit, particularly its use as both a particular kind of action and a form all action and cognition can take, will have to be clarified.

The Double of Law of Habit

One roadblock to habit becoming a useful explanatory notion in sociology has to do with a curious feature of the idea, one that has been noted by analysts who relied on the notion from Aristotle, the scholastics, to early enlightenment thinkers, and onwards. This feature of habit was best formulated, developed, and ultimately baptized as the “double law” of habit in a French philosophically eclectic—sometimes also spookily called “spiritualist”—tradition of theorizing action and habit beginning in the late-eighteenth century and continuing into the nineteenth (de Biran, 1970; Ravaisson, 2008).[2] What is this double law? The basic observation is simple and phenomenologically intuitive. The process of habituation (e.g., acquiring a habit via active repetition, passive repetitive exposure, or “practice” in the colloquial sense) can leave two kinds of “by-products” in people, depending on whether we are talking about passive or covert results or whether we are talking about covert or overt results. Habituation has paradoxically distinct effects on each of these by-products.

Before getting to these effects, we need to deal with the first tricky issue, which is the duality of habit as both process and product. That is, habituation produces habits in beings (like people) who can become habituated to things when they engage in repeated practice (or exposed to repeated patterns in experience). The status of habit as both process and product (and more importantly, a process that is necessarily linked to a product) can create confusion. Typically, sociologists use the word “habit” to refer to products (items held or possessed by a person or community). However, they forget that any such act of typing a given cognitive or action item as a habit or as habitual necessarily puts the item in an iterative historical chain of previous instantiations of the item. Nothing can be a habit unless it is the child of repeated enactments in the past since habits can only be born out of such habituation processes (Lizardo, 2021).

The other confusing thing is that habituation processes generally lead to at least three analytically distinct types of habit-like traces or by-products in people. One of these by-products refers to dispositions to perceive the world in specific ways (e.g., perceptual habits). Another results in inclinations to engage in certain acts of conceptual linkage (e.g., “associative” cognition) that, when allowed to run unimpeded, furnish people with conclusions regarding the presumed properties of people, events, and objects in the form of beliefs, intuitions, explanations, attributions, and the like. These intuitions seem “right” or applicable even though the person lacks phenomenal access to the process generating them and without the person having to go through anything that looks like “thinking” in the deductive sense, like deriving conclusions from a chain of premises via a logical calculus (see Sloman (2014) for a consideration of these issues from the perspective of contemporary cognitive psychology). We can thus say that, on the one hand, we have perceptual habits; namely, inclinations or dispositions to see (or, more generally, experience) the world in particular ways, while on the other hand, we have cognitive habits manifested as tendencies to believe that certain things are true about particular objects or settings. The third set of via-products of habituation processes is the generation of inclinations or tendencies to act in specific ways in particular settings toward particular people and objects. These inclinations, tendencies, or dispositions are typically, but not necessarily—as they can be subverted by other causal chains in the world—manifested as overt actions. These are what most people (including sociologists) mean when they use the word habit.[3]

The notion of habit unifies capacities usually seen as distinct (perception, cognition, overt-action) as variations of a common genus; what they have in common is that they are all types of acts. Thus, in seeing the world thus and so, we engage in specifiable perceptual acts (see Noë, 2004), and in drawing conclusions that go beyond the information given via associative cognition, we engage in cognitive acts (see Bruner, 1990). Overt actions have always been recognized as acts, but the beauty of the habit concept is bringing the same “active” element to mental capacities that are typically seen as removed from action.[4] Habit theorists always tend to announce that the point of the concept is to transcend the dualism between mind (e.g., thinking/perceiving) and body (acting in the world) but are seldom clear as to how the notion of habit accomplishes this. One way to clarify this transcendence is by noting that, ultimately, when conceptualizing perception, cognition, and action as all the products of the same habituation process, we are also saying that we are ultimately talking about the same kind of act-like capacities people end up having. Nevertheless, regardless of their common ancestry as of acts, it is essential to keep distinct these three forms of habit-as-product-of-habituation can take in people since they “hinge” on, and point toward, distinct sets of constructs, concerns, and empirical referents. We take up each one in turn.

Perceptual Habits, Cognitive Habits, and Fluency

This first side of the double law of habit is that repeated experiences leave covert traces in persons related to perception and how we respond to the world’s offerings (more generally, the sensibility).[5] Here the idea is that the more we are exposed to a given experiential pattern, the easiest it is to take in and perceptually process the next time around. This is the aspect of repetition that contemporary psychologists see it as leading to perceptual fluency. The “feeling of fluency” resulting from perceptual habituation (e.g., the ease that comes from perceiving things we have perceived before) itself has many downstream consequences, the most consequential of which, from the perspective of sociological action theory, is the tendency of experiencing aesthetic pleasure when exposed to experiential patterns that have become easy to grasp as a result of repeated previous encounters.

Repeated exposure to patterns and regularities in experience leads to the formation of cognitive habits. These experiential regularities may take the form of configurational co-occurrences of object properties or temporal contiguities among events we are exposed to. Here the result is the creation of an inclination toward linkage and association. That is, via cognitive habituation, we learn the expected associations between properties in objects experienced as synchronic wholes or gestalts or between events experienced successively in time. In the configurational case, repeated exposure to objects featuring correlated properties leads to the cognitive habits allowing people to infer the presence of unseen (but previously encountered) properties just from exposure to others with which they are associated; categorization, therefore, is made possible via associative cognitive habits (Rosch, 1978). Thus, upon hearing barking nearby, we expect to see a slobbery, perhaps friendly quadruped with a wagging tail in short order. In the successive event case, cognitive habits linking successive happenings were those enlightenment empiricists saw as leading, such as the tendency for people to experience sequentially repeated events as united by an unseen causal relation. For instance, as Hume argued, the experience of willing to move my arm and seeing my arm subsequently move comes, via a cognitive habit, to be seen as united in a hidden causal essence responsible for the connection (“the self”).

The cases of perceptual and cognitive habituation have many common threads.  First, with repetition, we tend to create unities in experience from what were initially separate experienced events or features. Second, the direct uptake of these unities becomes more accessible and easier each time, which means that cognitive and perceptual habituation is always experienced as a form of facilitation for creating and experiencing such unities. Finally, with the fluent creation of unities in experience, there comes an inevitable diminution of sensibility concerning the lower-order features (synchronic or temporal) brought together under the unity. This is a paradoxical “desensitizing” effect of habituation mentioned by double-law habit theorists; however, this so-called desensitization (also mentioned by Simmel (2020) in his famous essay on the Metropolis) can itself become a platform for increased perceptual discrimination concerning the unity so created, we stop perceiving parts so that we may more easily grasp the whole. That is, while lower-order sensations or reactions to incoming stimuli decrease with habituation, capacities to identify and discriminate between higher-order perceptual gestalts become swifter and more refined—captured in the dictum that, with habit, sensations fade while perceptions become more acute. As Sinclair puts it, with habitual repetition, “active perceptions, although they become more indifferent insofar as they involve less effort, become clearer, more assured, and more distinct” (2011, p. 67). This is why discrimination among distinct qualitative properties of objects (e.g., among expert wine tasters) can increase with habituated repetition even as sensibility to other properties of the experience (ones that would overwhelm the novice) decreases; attenuation is the condition of possibility for enhanced discrimination at a more encompassing level of experience. Aesthetic appreciation of what becomes easy to perceive via perceptual habituation is thus central to any attempt to build a “social aesthetics” (Merriman & Martin, 2015).

Repetition, fluency, and skilled action

The other side of the double law is more familiar to sociologists as it deals with the generations of “habits” taking the form of overt action. More accurately, this is action in the form of habit, with habituality being a quality of action (rather than a hidden essence behind action). Action is habitual to the extent that it tends to acquire a set of specifiable signatures. One of these is the formation of dispositions or inclinations to act when encountering settings where we have performed similar actions.[6]  The other, similar to the increased facility or fluency referred to earlier concerning cognitive habits, has to do with the fact that habitual actions become easier to perform with repetition, with the various micro-actions constitutive of larger action units coming to be united into a more articulated smoothly flowing sequence. Concerning the first (increased habitual “automaticity” as leading to less “initiation control”) Ravaisson (2008, p. 51) notes that with repetition, there emerges “a tendency, an inclination that no longer awaits the commandments of the will but rather anticipates them, and which even escapes entirely and irremediably both will and consciousness.” Thus, there is an indelible link between action and motivation, as repeated actions “the facility in an action gained through its repetition can become a pre-reflective desire, tendency or   carry out the act” (Sinclair, 2011, pp. 73–74). Bourdieu (1984), for instance, proposed that “taste” is such a habitual form, such that we tend to enjoy or like the things that we are used to consuming, with this taste becoming a motivation to engage in further acts of consumption when encountering similar objects, experiences, and settings affording the actualization of the habit (Lizardo, 2014).

Note that in the case of overt action habits, we also have increased facilitation, just like in the perceptual and cognitive act case. Thus, habituation in the form of repetition leads to the creation of more fluid activity units, just like in the perceptual habit case. Repeated action thus tend to form unified gestalts, in which the initial micro-actions come to fit together into a more practically fluent whole. “Enskilment” is thus tied to the creation of inclinations to act in contexts in which the habitual skill can be performed (e.g., a piano “calls out” to be played but only in the skilled piano player).

Note here we run into another ambiguity in the use of “habit.” One refers to the fluid and assured performance of actions acquired via practice and repetition. The other refers to a synchronic action sequence such that an action is habitual only if it is regularly repeated at specified intervals. Double-law theorists make this distinction by pointing to fluency, facility, disposition, and inclination to act given context. If the aim is to forestall confusion, it is better to use “skill” to refer to the fluent quality of habitual actions as distinct from the dispositional component. To explain why someone  performs an action in the here-and-now by pointing to a disposition or inclination necessarily places the current action in a historical series of actions performed in the past by the same person (Lizardo, 2021). Pointing to the skillfulness, fluidity, gracefulness, or aesthetically pleasing nature of the activity does no such thing. The reason is that logically, these two qualities of action, namely, the skillful and the dispositional, need not be connected. A skilled (fluency-habit) piano player may not necessarily be “in the habit” (inclination) of playing the piano on regular occasions. In the same way, one can be less than skilled as a driver and still be “in the habit” of driving to work every day. It is only habit as inclination that enters into explaining occurrent actions (see Lizardo, 2021 for further argument), and as such, the privileged sense when using the notion of habit to make sense of people’s activities.[7]


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Bruner, J. S. (1990). Acts of Meaning. Harvard University Press.

Camic, C. (1986). The Matter of Habit. The American Journal of Sociology, 91(5), 1039–1087.

Crossley, N. (2001). The phenomenological habitus and its construction. Theory and Society, 30(1), 81–120.

Dalton, B. (2004). Creativity, Habit, and the Social Products of Creative Action: Revising Joas, Incorporating Bourdieu. Sociological Theory, 22(4), 603–622.

de Biran, P. M. (1970). The Influence of Habit on the Faculty of Thinking. Greenwood.

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Ngo, H. (2016). Racist habits: A phenomenological analysis of racism and the habitual body. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 42(9), 847–872.

Ngo, H. (2017). The Habits of Racism: A Phenomenology of Racism and Racialized Embodiment. Lexington Books.

Noë, A. (2004). Action in Perception. Bradford book.

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Simmel, G. (2020). The metropolis and the life of spirit. Journal of Classical Sociology, 1468795X20980638.

Sinclair. (2015). Is there a“ dispositional modality”? Maine de Biran and Ravaisson on agency and inclination. History of Philosophy Quarterly, 32 (2), 161–179.

Sinclair, M. (2011). Ravaisson and the Force of Habit. Journal of the History of Philosophy, 49(1), 65–85.

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  1. Note that the claim here is not that no sociologists currently use habit and related notions (e.g., habitus) as explanatory resources. Of course, there are many such people. The claim is that if one were to peruse run-of-the-mill research published in the usual places, the prevalence of habit as a tool for explaining action would be much lower (in fact, almost infinitesimal), especially when compared to expectations one gets from reading the aforementioned theoretical literature, according to which they should be the primary explanatory go-to notion, and not a once in a while exception tied to particular theorists or approaches (e.g., Bourdieusian and pragmatist sociologies). Admittedly, “disconnects” between lofty theoretical discourse and empirical work done in the sociological trenches are neither rare nor new. What is new is that the current absence of habit as a prominent explanatory resource in empirical work is happening in the context of a relatively peaceful consensus, (almost extreme given the history of theoretical debate in the discipline) that they should be indeed front and center. 
  2. Oddly, the most famous habit theorist in modern social theory, Pierre Bourdieu, seemed to have been entirely unaware of this French (!) tradition, as far as I can tell, given published works, interviews, and lectures. Instead, Bourdieu teleported straight from Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas to the twentieth century, defaulting to Chomskyan talk of “generative schemes” or Husserlian allusions to habitude when pointing to the active, creative aspect of habitual activity. This is quite a shame because Ravaissson’s (and before him De Biran’s) habit theories contain potent formulations, sometimes superior to much better touted twentieth-century figures like Bergson or Merleau-Ponty could have helped Bourdieu more effectively sidestep a variety of misunderstandings. In more recent work, Martin (2011, p. 259, fn. 34) considers de Biran but skips over Ravaisson, even though the latter builds on and transcends many of the limitations of Biran’s treatment while anticipating formulations of later thinkers like Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur. 
  3. For instance, Camic (1986, p. 1044) defines habit as “a more or less self-actuating tendency or disposition to engage in a previously adopted or acquired form of action.”
  4. Note that a key implication of the habitualization of perception and cognition is that, just like we are (ethically, morally) responsible for our overt actions, we are also responsible for our perceptual and cognitive acts, especially when these end up harming the objects of our perceptions and cognitions, as in the case of so-called implicit biases (Ngo, 2017, p. 35ff; Toribio, 2021). Note that the question of responsibility becomes orthogonal to whether you meant to get the repetitive habituation process started in the first place since most of the habitual perceptual and cognitive acts we engage in daily were probably acquired by more passive forms of exposure to repetitive experiences in the world.
  1. The idea that we have perceptual habits is usually traced to sociologists to Merleau-Ponty (1945/1962) or the American pragmatists, and later Bourdieu (see in particular 1992/1996, p. 313ff). However, it emerged first in the philosophical enlightenment tradition leading to empiricism (it was the basis of Hume’s skeptical arguments against causation and the self) and figured prominently among French double-law theorists of the 19th century. The distinction between habits in action and perception survives today in critical-phenomenological attempts to identify the habitual dimension of oppressive regimes. For instance, in considering “racist habits,” Ngo (2016, p. 860) distinguishes between “bodily gesture or response, and racialized perception” as two primary registers (italics added).
  2. That habits have their own “dispositional” modality, standing between necessity (what always occurs) and contingency (what may occur, but we cannot predict) is something that is lost in some discussions, especially those that depart from Kant’s equation of a (specific form of) habit with mechanical “necessitation.” Habits are what may occur somewhat predictably, but only if everything in the world is right. Dispositionality is thus the modality of all habits (Sinclair, 2015), in that they are potential tendencies that may or may not be manifested. This is why talking about “dispositions” (like Bourdieu sometimes did) as if referring to yet another by-product of habituation (separately from habits) is redundant; all habits are technically dispositions. 
  3. Ascriptions of fluidity and grace in action performance (e.g., “skill”) are more likely to be normative than they are explanatory, although they can serve as the basis of identity and relationship-formation when people create “communities of skill.”



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