A cognitive interpretation of bourdieu's notion of habitus: towards a better understanding of its production

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London School of Economics and Political Science

Department of Anthropology

A cognitive interpretation of Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’: towards a better understanding of its production.


MSc in Anthropology of Learning and Cognition

September 2007

Candidate number: 40317


Bourdieu takes it for granted that the habitus (“system ofdispositions”) is the product of a specific process of cultural learning that involves, as its primary feature, ‘simple familiarization’ and that, as such, it not only implies the existence of a particular cognitive facet but that this aspect is the most important one in his overall endeavour. According to Lizardo (2004) a cognitive ‘reconstruction’ of the habitus concept will take us to back to JeanPiaget. However, it is my contention that such an analysis is misleading, and that perhaps a better way to gain a satisfactory reading of Bourdieu’s’ beliefs about how the habitus is acquired and sustained is to reflect on the double relationship between ‘objects of knowledge’ and ‘system of dispositions’, that is, ‘the objectivation of dispositions’ that he, himself, stressed. Starting from thisstandpoint I argue for the need for a more satisfactory description of the cognitive processes involved in the acquirement and transmission of such ‘dispositions’. I will, therefore, draw on Csibra’s and Gergely’s account of social learning and cognition in order to make a critical assessment of Bourdieu’s work on habitus. Finally, I will test their own theory in the light of ethnographic evidencerelating to observations of ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ practices when assessing ‘new objects episodes’.

A cognitive interpretation of Bourdieu’s notion of ‘habitus’: towards a better understanding of its production.

There is reason to suspect that what we call cognition is in fact a complex social phenomenon.
Jean Lave
Anthropologists’ concerns placethem right in the middle of the cognitive sciences, whether they like it or not, since it is cognitive scientists who have something to say about learning, memory and retrieval. Anthropologists cannot, therefore, avoid the attempt to make their theories about social life compatible with what other cognitive scientists have to say about the processes of learning and storage.Maurice Bloch


A general interest in learning, particularly as it relates to cultural transmission, has been central to the anthropological venture. One of the basic questions that has often been raised is the question of what conditions allow for the social acquisition and transmission of culture. This concern about how culture is learnedcan be clearly identified in the work of Pierre Bourdieu and particularly in his influential books Outline of a theory of practice (1977) and The logic of practice (1990 [1980]). Here, Bourdieu declares that his ‘theory of practice’ embraces two basic tenets which define its general proposition. On the one hand, he says ‘that the objects of knowledge are constructed, not passively recorded’, and onthe other, ‘that the

principle of this construction is the system of structured, structuring dispositions, the habitus’ (1990: 52). The habitus, then, stands for the principle by which culture is acquired and structured within a society. But what exactly is the habitus? How these dispositions ‘internalized’ and what makes the construction of such knowledge possible? One possible explanation isthat such processes require the evolved adaptation of some specific cognitive abilities to cope with the acquisition and transmission of cultural knowledge. The question that I want to raise thus has to do with the practicability of interpreting Bourdieu’s habitus in terms of one current cognitive approach to social learning.

The particular approach I want to examine is that adopted by Csibra...
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