The Symbolic Making of the Habitus (Part I)

Habitus and Embodiment

Bourdieu’s theory of habitus and embodiment (Bourdieu, 1990, 2000; Lizardo, 2004; Wacquant, 2016), represents a promising conceptual starting point for renewed studies of socialization. On the one hand, habitus is a way of specifying what is really at stake with socialization, namely the nature of its product. The idea of a set of systematic and durable dispositions, together with the idea of a generative structure, represents progress compared to vague (and “plastic”) notions inherited from classical cultural and social theory, such as self or personality

The notion of habitus also highlights that socialization fundamentally deals with the formation of an idiosyncratic style, of generic behavioral forms, rather than the accumulation of specific contents, such as cultural knowledge or moral values (see, on this blog, the clarification proposed by Lizardo). On the other hand, describing socialization as embodiment is an invitation to root this social process in the most concrete aspect of human ordinary life, in other words, in practice (as practice theory generally suggests). Whatever our childhood and teenage memories, the person we are now is essentially not the result of explicit, memorable episodes of cultural transmissions. Therefore, effective research on socialization must include a careful exploration of a learning process that literally goes without saying.

For Bourdieu, this implies a strong focus on bodily activities, because the body is seen as the vector par excellence of habitus making (see particularly Wacquant, 2014). The way the body is used, controlled, constrained, habituated, correspond, indeed, to emergent dispositions. When Bourdieu gave detailed examples of actual processes of embodiment (he rarely did so), he favored ethnographic vignettes where social agents learn through their bodies. For example, in The Logic of Practice, Bourdieu elaborates about a ball game played by Kabyle boys in the 1950’s (qochra), which arguably familiarizes the young players to traditional gender relations (according to Bourdieu’s interpretation, the ball in motion is a structural equivalent to a woman, who has to be “fight for, passed and defended”, see Bourdieu, 1990: 293-294). 

Bourdieu’s ethnographic study of the French Bearn also insists on socialization processes involving the use of the body, and more broadly the material construction of dispositions: the peasant’s habitus is forged via his habitual walk on the mud, via the way he traditionally dances, and so on (Bourdieu, 2008). Bourdieusian sociology highlights the bodily or “carnal” (Wacquant, 2014) dimension of the enculturation for a good reason. The principal aim is to break away with a spontaneous intellectualist bias, according to which human learning would lie in explicit education, edifying discourses, the expression of moral principles, and so on.

The Symbolic Making of the Habitus

The focus on the material making of the habitus (including cognitive dispositions) is obviously a heuristic strategy for the social sciences of socialization – also demonstrated, by the way, by non-bourdieusian researchers in other fields, such as Lakoff’s work on the concrete foundations of metaphors (Lakoff, 2009), or the anthropological efforts to link spatial experience of children to the learning of core social classifications (Toren, 1990; Carsten, 1996). But this strategy has its limitations. It tends to minimize the more abstract processes of embodiment, and more precisely what we may call the symbolic making of the habitus.

The phrase “symbolic making of the habitus”, like the corresponding idea that embodiment has a symbolic dimension, is not an oxymoron. If embodiment connotes a process that ends with physical/material outputs (specific gestures, bodily features, including neural organization), that does not necessary means that embodiment always starts with the body. In principle, the input can be a social practice whose central and distinctive characteristic is not physical. 

In passing, specifying distinctive kinds of inputs (material and symbolic) in embodiment processes does not imply that we assume any analytical dualism, for example between “practical” and “discursive” inputs (as suggested by Vaisey and Frye, 2017). We consider here that, as far as embodiment is concerned, inputs are always practical, both at an ontological and analytical level.

So, symbolic practices – linguistic practices, in particular – may also lead to the formation of habitus, as an embodied result. For example, if a child recurrently listens to a pretty specific phrase from his or her mother (say, “you’re giving me a headache…”), they will internalize it in some ways, at least as a memory (“my mother often says she has a headache”), but also as a cultural resource, available for action (at one point, the child will literally bear in mind– in the sense that a neuroscientist may find a trace of that in the brain – that mentioning “headaches” is a way of making people stop what they are doing).

Besides, we must remember that symbols always have a material dimension, even though they cannot be reduced to it. Words are sounds (or signs), heard (or deciphered) in physical contexts (Elias, 1991). Also, language cannot be described “as a disembodied sign system” (Lizardo et al., 2019), since it involves perception, emotion, and action. So, it is not so paradoxical that symbolic inputs, considering their material and physical dimension, can end up in the body, and contribute to the construction of a set of dispositions.

Practical Language

But what kind of symbolic inputs have such a socializing power, exactly? If we don’t want to fall back into the intellectualist trap, we need careful theoretical specifications. I will confine the discussion to language here. In a word, within the frame of practice theory, language has to be practical to constitute an input for embodiment.

Practical language has at least three main characteristics. First, it has to be a part of a routine, that is repeated multiple times in the course of the ordinary life of the socializees. The hypothesis is that a word, or phrase, or rule, or principle that is only exceptionally uttered by socializing agents will generally have little effect on embodiment, or at least very superficial ones, compared to the most recurrent phrases, injunctions, metaphors, narratives, etc. Only the latter have the training effects that habitual practice conveys. Second, practical language is generally semi-conscious or nonconscious, in the sense that a socializing agent, if asked, will not necessarily recall what he or she has precisely said in the interaction with the socializee. 

This last characteristic is linked to the former: people hardly notice their speech, when it is a part of a routine. What has to be underscored, here, is that exploring the linguistic dimension of embodiment does not equal exploring the reflexive, explicit part of socialization (“education”, according to the Durkheimian distinction, Durkheim, 1956). On the contrary, the hypothesis is that words are not so different from gesture, as far as their degree of reflexivity is concerned. Admittedly, sometimes, we exactly know what we are saying or have said. But most of the time, we don’t. 

A third characteristic would be that practical language, as an embodiment of input, is typically irrepressible: even if they want to (so, despite the possibility of reflexivity), socializing agents will hardly be able to not speak, or to change their habitual way of speaking (because their verbal behavior is also a part of their own habitus – the construction of a habitus indeed involves many already constructed habituses). 

Developmental psychologists who conduct experiments with children and parents are familiar with this. Psychologists habitually ask the parents, for example a mother with her baby on her lap, to stay as quiet and neutral as possible. But, in the course of action, it is extremely difficult for the mother to do so. She can’t help intervening, “scaffolding” the baby in some ways: correcting the child if he or she is losing patience, for example.


Such a theoretical focus on practical language has methodological consequences. First of all, naturalistic observations are required to define what kind of routinized speech can virtually lead to embodiment in a given social context.  Sociologists cannot entirely rely on indirect reports (such as interviews with parents, or questionnaires), because of the tacit, semi-conscious nature of socializing language (most of the time, memories of everyday linguistic interactions are vague). Moreover, sociologists themselves have to collect observed speech in a very detailed manner, so as to apprehend practical language in its most minute details – including, at best, elements of prosody (pitch is an important component of socializing language, notably because it is key in the management of attention, see Bruner, 1983). Having the possibility of quantifying practical language may also be crucial, as long as frequency matters for embodiment.

All of this means that sociological accounts of symbolic embodiment require an intensive, formalized ethnography, that may resemble the empirical studies proposed by ethnomethodologists (for a recent example, see Keel, 2016). With key differences, though.  Ethnomethodologists reject the idea of embodiment, because they consider that social structures emerge “on the spot”, during the interactions themselves (they are not internalized in bodies, neither the bodies of the socializees nor the bodies of the socializers). Another important difference is the presentism of ethnomethodological accounts, in line with the idea that sociality is a matter of immediate social context. By contrast, the study of symbolic embodiment calls for longitudinal observations of speech.

Embodiment is by definition a process that requires time. Analysts who want to understand the role of language in the making of the habitus beyond hermeneutic suppositions have to be in a position to observe the effective flow of signs and sounds from the context to the persons. More precisely, they will have to document and analyze the transformation of a wide range of symbolic inputs into (embodied) outputs – a difficult task, because this transformation modifies the symbols themselves. For example, we have some evidence that children do not just repeat what adults tell them; they often recycle adult speech, i.e. they use their words in an unexpected sense, in a different context, and sometimes in hardly recognizable aspects (Lignier and Pagis, 2017; Lignier, 2019).

In a follow-up post, I will give some illustration of existing empirical studies that, although not articulated in the Bourdieusian idiom, could partly be used as a model for the type of study I have sketched here.


Bourdieu, P. 1990. The Logic of Practice. Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. 2000. Pascalian Meditations. Stanford University Press.

Bourdieu, P. 2008. The Bachelor’s Ball. The Crisis of Peasant Society in Bearn. University of Chicago Press.

Bruner, J. 1983. Child’s Talk. Learning to Use a Language. Norton.

Carsten, J. 1997. The Heat of the Hearth. The Process of Kinship in a Malay Fishing Community. Oxford UP.

Durkheim, E. 1956. Education and Sociology. Free Press.

Elias, N. 1991. The Symbol Theory. Sage.

Keel, S. 2016. Sozialization : Parent-Child Interaction in Everyday Life. Routledge.

Lakoff, G. 2009. “The Neural Theory of Metaphor.”

Lignier, W. and Pagis, J. 2017. L’enfance de l’ordre. Comment les enfants perçoivent le monde social. Seuil.

Lignier, W. 2019. Prendre. Naissance d’une pratique sociale élémentaire. Seuil.

Lizardo, O. 2004. “The Cognitive Origins of Bourdieu’s Habitus.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 34 (4): 375–401.

Lizardo, O., Sepulvado, B., Stoltz, D.S., and Taylor, M.A. 2019. “What Can Cognitive Neuroscience Do for Cultural Sociology.” American Journal of Cultural Sociology. Online First.

Toren, C. 1990. Making Sense of Hierarchies. Cognition as Social Process in Fiji. The Athlone Press.

Vaisey, S. and Frye, M. 2017. “The Old One-Two: Preserving Analytical Dualism in Psychological Sociology.” SocArXiv paper,

Wacquant, L. 2014. “Homines in Extremis: What Fighting Scholars Teach Us about Habitus.” Body and Society 20(2): 3-17.

Wacquant, L. 2016. “A Concise Genealogy and Anatomy of Habitus.” Sociolological Review 64(1): 64-72

From “types of culture” to “poles of cultural phenomena”

Recent sociological theorizing on culture has made a distinction between “personal culture” and “public culture”
(Cerulo 2018; Lizardo 2017; Patterson 2014; Wood et al. 2018). Precise usage of the concepts varies somewhat, but generally speaking, personal culture refers to culture stored in declarative and nondeclarative memory, and public culture refers to everything else “out there.” What is allowed to exist “out there” varies; stricter approaches restrict public culture to material objects and assemblages (Wood et al. 2018), while more open approaches refer to things like “institutions” or “public codes” as forms of public culture as well (Cerulo 2018; Lizardo 2017).  

Theoretical distinctions about “personal” and “public” culture can take different forms. The common approach is to refer to distinct “types” of culture, such that the “personal” and “public” labels are used to refer to discrete things. An alternative is to distinguish “poles” of a given cultural phenomenon. Here, an observed phenomenon—such as symbolic meaning, a practice, or an institution—is understood as emerging from the relation between a person and the world. This latter approach, which I advocate here, opens up fruitful avenues of empirical research and gives new insight to theoretical dilemmas, such as the old “individual-vs-situation” chestnut.

Personal and public poles of symbolic meaning

Symbolic meaning emerges from a bipolar structure, pairing an external vehicle with semantic content to produce meaning (Lizardo 2016). Symbols have a “public” pole—the external vehicle— and a “personal” pole—the semantic content, stored in declarative memory. Because the meaning of the symbol relies on this bipolar structure, change in either pole affects the meaning produced. On the personal pole, this can be caused by routine human experiences, such as forgetting or gaining new experiences. On the public pole, this can be caused by changes in the material qualities of an object, such as plain old decay (McDonnell 2016)

Personal and public poles of practices

Though often overlooked, this same bipolar structure exists for practices as well. The “personal” pole consists of nondeclarative memory, such as procedural know-how, and the “public” pole consists of material “handles” that afford and/or activate the execution of know-how (Foster 2018:148). When a person is able to go about their world unproblematically, it is because of this “ontological complicity” (Fogle and Theiner 2018) between the personal and public poles of practice.

“The relationship to the social world is not the mechanical causality that is often assumed between a “milieu” and a consciousness, but rather a sort of ontological complicity. When the same history inhabits both habitus and habitat, both dispositions and position, the king and his court, the employer and his form, the bishop and his see, history in a sense communicates with itself, is reflected in its own image.” (Bourdieu 1981, p. 306)

To give an example, if you are like me, you think you know how to ride a bike. However, more precisely, you and I know how to ride bikes that respond to our bodies in particular ways. We can probably ride mountain bikes and road bikes and beach cruisers all the same, because these are all roughly equivalent. Pedal to go forward, and if you want to go right, turn the handlebars to the right. There might be small differences (single gears vs geared bikes, for instance), but the basic concept is the same for nearly all bikes. However, what if we encountered a bike that behaved inversely to our training? Some welders created a bike that did just that, and you can watch the results in this video:

The bike in the video has inverted steering, such that turning the handlebars to the right turns the front tire to the right, and vice versa. The result is that, despite all your experience riding bicycles, as the narrator boldly declares, “you cannot ride this bike.” It’s a fascinating video and worth watching. The point is that the successful execution of a practice relies on stability between personal and public poles—procedural memory and the material world.

Creating and maintaining stability between poles

Drawing out the bipolar continuities between symbolic meaning and practice, while acknowledging their grounding in distinct memory systems, allows for theoretical continuity in the way we think about how meanings and practices are formed, maintained, or updated. In a recent paper, Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell (2019) propose that whenever people encounter a new cultural object, the brain responds either by “indexicalizing” the object as an instantiation of a known type, or by “innovating” a new type. This process is known as neural binding, or “binding significance to form.” Taylor, Stoltz, and McDonnell limit their analysis to the bipolar structure of symbolic meaning, but the same process could be extended to understand how practices are maintained. When people encounter a new instrument, it either makes use of existing procedural memory, or instigates the development of new procedural memory. While the actual cognitive processes of neural binding would vary according to whether it is a matter of Type I or Type II learning (Lizardo et al. 2016:293–295), there is a homology when considering cognitive updating more generally as a result of the interplay between public and personal “poles” of cultural phenomena. 

On the other end, people can also stabilize pairing between personal and public poles of meanings and practices by “making the world in their own image,” so to speak, for example, via sophisticated conservation practices in the case of meaning (Domínguez Rubio 2014), or changing our environment to better suit our abilities (or lack of abilities [1]), in the case of practice.

Rethinking individuals and situations

The “two poles” framework offers a new way of thinking about whether an observed practice is explained by an individual’s entrenched dispositions or the situation in which they are presently located [2]. Within the current framework, because a practice is understood as emerging from enculturated dispositions and a corresponding material arrangement (e.g. knowing how to ride a bike, and a “normal” bike), the question about situations becomes a question of the flexibility of the person-world relation. While certain practices may depend on very specific handles, others may be executed unproblematically with a wide range of material configurations [3]. Figuring out the limits of a given handle for a practice (e.g. “when does a bike become unrideable?”) is a productive empirical exercise [4].

Final thoughts

This conceptual move from “types” to “poles” has implications for the way we think about and study cultural phenomena. It suggests that any analysis of one pole in isolation is necessarily incomplete, or at least myopic. Institutions, practices, public codes, symbolic meaning—all of these emergent cultural phenomena emerge via a bipolar pairing between one or more forms of memory and the material world. They are neither “public culture” nor “personal culture,” but they do all have personal and public components. Thorough understanding demands attention to both. 

[1] “I don’t know which fork you use for what, and I can’t tell a salad fork from a dessert fork, but I do know that one is supposed to start with the implements farthest from the plate and work inward. The environment is set up so that I can follow the arbitrary norms without actually knowing them” (Martin 2015:242)

[2] See Dustin’s blog post for more on this topic

[3] For example, see Martin (2015:236–242) on how people unproblematically figure out door-opening, no matter the situation.

[4] See Aliza Luft (2015) on an especially important application of this idea.


Cerulo, Karen A. 2018. “Scents and Sensibility: Olfaction, Sense-Making, and Meaning Attribution.” American Sociological Review 83(2):361–89.

Domínguez Rubio, Fernando. 2014. “Preserving the Unpreservable: Docile and Unruly Objects at MoMA.” Theory and Society 43(6):617–45.

Fogle, Nikolaus and Georg Theiner. 2018. “The ‘Ontological Complicity’ of Habitus and Field: Bourdieu as an Externalist.” in Socially Extended Epistemology, edited by J. Adam Carter, Andy Clark, Jesper Kallestrup, S. Orestis Palermos, and Duncan Pritchard.

Foster, Jacob G. 2018. “Culture and Computation: Steps to a Probably Approximately Correct Theory of Culture.” Poetics  68:144–54.

Lizardo, O. 2017. “Improving Cultural Analysis: Considering Personal Culture in Its Declarative and Nondeclarative Modes.” American Sociological Review.

Lizardo, Omar. 2016. “Cultural Symbols and Cultural Power.” Qualitative Sociology 39(2):199–204.

Lizardo, O., R. Mowry, B. Sepulvado, M. Taylor, D. Stoltz, and M. Wood. 2016. “What Are Dual Process Models? Implications for Cultural Analysis in Sociology.” Sociological.

Luft, Aliza. 2015. “Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda.” Sociological Theory 33(2):148–72.

Martin, John Levi. 2015. Thinking through Theory. WW Norton, Incorporated.

McDonnell, Terence E. 2016. Best Laid Plans: Cultural Entropy and the Unraveling of AIDS Media Campaigns. University of Chicago Press.

Patterson, Orlando. 2014. “Making Sense of Culture.” Annual Review of Sociology 40(1):1–30.

Taylor, Marshall A., Dustin S. Stoltz, and Terence E. McDonnell. 2019. “Binding Significance to Form: Cultural Objects, Neural Binding, and Cultural Change.” Poetics .

Wood, Michael Lee, Dustin S. Stoltz, Justin Van Ness, and Marshall A. Taylor. 2018. “Schemas and Frames.” Sociological Theory 36(3):244–61.

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