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

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