J.P.Roos and Anna Rotkirch


University of Helsinki

Department of Social Policy and Helsinki University Research Collegium

(j.p.roos@helsinki.fi, anna.rotkirch@helsinki.fi)


Habitus, Nature or Nurture? Towards a paradigm of evolutionary sociology




Paper to be presented in the European Sociological Association Conference, Murcia, September 23-28, 2003


The evolutionary perspective



In this paper, we will attempt to develop the concept of habitus of Pierre Bourdieu in the direction of evolutionary sociology. First, however, a short discussion of the type of claims about human nature we think sociology needs to take into account and how it differs from conventional sociological writing about nature today.


Modern sociology is extremely averse to all explanations, which involve genes, instincts etc, especially in relation to social facts: cultural phenomena, human interaction, social activities. Since the great debate on sociobiology in the 70's many sociologists seem to think that the debate is closed and there is no need to reopen it. Biological determinism and reductionism has been proven wrong and dangerous. Pierre Bourdieu seems to have agreed, although he rarely mentioned the nature-culture debate and was against all unnecessary dichotomisations (such as objective-subjective or structure –agency).


Yet there has been a very rapid and extensive development in the whole area of Asociobiology@: human genetics, evolutionary psychology etc. which has been largely ignored by sociology.  The field has completely changed, during the past 25 years since to book of E O Wilson was published. Several new discoveries and theories have been presented, among them the famous Alaws@ of Hamilton (see  for example: Cosmides-Tooby 1997, Pinker 2002,  Ridley, Sarmaja 2003). In fact, only Aevolutionary sociology” is an empty discipline so far. In this article we will, however, use this name to designate the kind of discussion which relates social phenomena and human evolution. It is our view that the developments in evolutionary psychology must be taken into consideration also in sociology and will imply an enormous change in our discipline, so that a special name evolutionary sociology is warranted


We wish to emphasize that it is precisely the interaction of Aculture@ and Anature@, which has led to the fact that human beings are extremely adaptive and many sided - thanks to their aptitudes of action created by evolution. (Ridley 2003) There are several extremely important studies which tend to show that there is an intimate and mutual connection between human evolution and our social nature


Nikolas Rose (2001), a foucaldian theorist of life politics speaks of Apolitics of life itself@ meaning by life itself Anatural@, non-social aspects of life. This concept reveals nicely the basic dilemma of constructionist social science: man is thought to have permanent, non-social characteristics, which are not sociologically relevant because they do not change. Of course it is a sociologically relevant problem to act upon these Abare@ characteristics socially. But if we include nature and culture, body and mind, innate and learned in the same habitus, then we can have a means to develop a dynamic and to all sides open theory of human agency and dispositions.

What would a social science be like which would take into account the innate dispositions, habitudes and activities, i.e. which would accept the evolutionary principles also in the case of human beings?  In our view, there is already a theory, which is potentially suitable for evolutionary thought, namely the sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. One can perhaps say that Pinker=s Amodular innate traits@ (see Pinker 2002,) are roughly the same as a person=s habitus, one of the key concepts in Bourdieu=s theory, defined as the structured structure, which are both dispositions of action and incorporated habits. (To use a short and uncomplicated definition: “habitus, système durable et transposable de schèmes de perception, d’appréciation et d’action qui résultent de l’institution du social dans les corps (ou dans les individus biologiques) …” Bourdieu 1992, 102) In this definition we have in a nutshell Bourdieu’s idea of the relationship of the biological and social:  the biological individual is the shell or framework to be filled by the social content, whereas the biological has no importance here, at least for the sociologist, being a given, unchanging, definitely not involved in the multiple give and take typical for Bourdieu’s conception of society. 

Bourdieu has been often accused of many of the same things as the sociobiologists, especially determinism, and he himself has liked to emphasize the (natural) scientific quality of his work: looking for exact causes, striving for exact determination of cause and effect, etc, speaking of fields and their forces like some kind of laws of nature etc.

Bourdieu is often seen, however, as a pure constructionist whose views are fully in line with modern sociology (see e.g.  Accardo, interview 2003, Corcuff 2000, Rahkonen 1999). When Bourdieu discusses fields and power, he presents the agents as having constructed the field and its fundamental concepts by themselves, but unreflexively. In one of his last books, La domination masculine, the descriptions are explicitly constructionist: femininity and masculinity are socially constructed, there is nothing natural in the original distinctions made by the Algerian kabyls whom Bourdieu studied long ago and who presented a division of north and south, good and bad, strong and weak, dry and wet, male and female. (Bourdieu 1998, see the chapter on Social construction of the body, also Pinto 998, 155-156).

At the same time, Bourdieu is extremely critical against the postmodernist constructionism, especially its French variants. Thus he subjects Latour and Woolgar to a really violent critique in his latest, posthumous book Science de la science et reflexivité. (Bourdieu 2001, see also Bourdieu & Wacquant 2001).  In fact, in this work Bourdieu formulates very clearly his opposition to * idealistic + constructionism: * La science est une construction qui fait emerger une decouverte irreductible à la construction et aux conditions sociales (emphasis mine) qui l=ont rendue possible (Science is a construction which makes possible discoveries which cannot be reduced to the construction or to the social conditions which made it possible)+ In Bourdieu=s view the solution is a * realistic rationalism + which holds that scientific constructions are the condition of arriving at the * real +, a discovery (Bourdieu 2001, 151, Pinto 1998, 146). 

The theoretical setting in Bourdieu=s work could be described by saying that he treats people sociologically essentially from an evolutionary point of view, i.e. as agents who do what they do on the basis of given social modules (habituses) instinctively and according to certain rules ( a good example of how Bourdieu jumps from biological to social without noticing is the following passage in the Reponses, p 102: “l’esprit humain est socialement limité,  socialement structuré qui est toujours enfermé, sauf à en prendre conscience – “dans les limites de son cerveau” comme disait Marx, c’est a dire, dans les limites du système de catégories, qu’il doit a sa formation” In other words, Marx’ limitations of the brain are for Bourdieu only social. Yet the biological limitations of the brain were definitely in Marx’s mind when he used the term). Bourdieu=s terminology can be usefully compared with that of Richard Dawkins (        ) who uses Aconscious@ terminology (strategy, interests, profits) in a context where everything is based on predetermined, largely unconscious activities where profits accrue to those who best are adapted to the rules of the field.


For Bourdieu, social laws were independent, objective forces, which could be subverted only when we know how they work (he could even describe his own tastes as precisely those of his own class and social group, i.e. a highly educated person with a petty bourgeois, rural background) and subverted socially, not trough individual action.

The essential difference to evolution theory is quite simply that Bourdieu keeps all this strictly inside the borders of sociology. No non-sociological influences are, in a sense, included in Bourdieu=s theory (with the exception of philosophy and ethnology, i.e. classical sociology, see e.g. Pinto 1998, 226).

To our knowledge, Bourdieu did not make a reference to evolutionary psychology, except in an indirect and derisive manner (see Bourdieu 2002, 88). Society produces the body, domination and subordination. Thus, in Domination masculine, the male domination is portrayed as purely social. Already the sexual division in a physical sense is understood as an arbitrary, social construction. Male domination structures are arbitrarily created and mythically strengthened. The terminology, male power over women, are all evolved inside society, historically but not biologically (ACe programme social de perception incorporé s=appliqué a toutes les choses du monde, et en premier lieu au corps lui-meme, dans sa réalité biologique@ Bourdieu 1998, 16) In other words, an evolutionary basis of such differences in habits and activity aptitudes that would be expressed as clearly sexual differences is completely out of question.

On the other hand, thematic and symbolic differences are central, so that the origin of concepts and conceptual systems are discussed at length. Words are magic (and even women use a male terminology in speaking of sexually less worthy men as soft, hanging). Even such physical differences as those between sexual organs are a social construction. Linguistic terminology is given great importance. For instance, Bourdieu draws far-reaching conclusions of the French expression Aserrer la ceinture@, although it does not have sexual connotations in all languages (the same expression in Finnish only relates to hunger, and is a male expression).

 Bourdieu liked to use the term Asymbolic violence@, with which he means a continuous process of reproduction where domination is reproduced through physical and symbolic violence. Just this kind of conception would fit quite well to evolution, although this obviously was outside Bourdieu=s horizon. He is a good example of the situation, where it in a sense is a question of honour for sociology not to bring anything in outside one=s own discipline, but to think that sociology should be able to explain everything. This is unfortunate in Bourdieu=s case, because his system is “made” for an analytical inclusion of elements from evolutionary theory. And even more unfortunate is that Bourdieu, like many other sociologists, refers freely to psychoanalysis as a basis for some of his sociological interpretations concerning identity, while the much more plausible and scientific explanations from evolution theory remain completely foreign for him. The numerous references of Bourdieu to Nancy Chodorow for instance do not prevent him to place all his interpretations inside sociology.  For example, virility is a relational concept, the function of which is to show off to other men and subordinate women because men are afraid of women and themselves (Bourdieu 1998, 59). This is not very convincing but quite typical for sociologists: anything goes when we explain social behaviour by social “facts”.


In terms of evolution theory, this explanation can be thought of as a possible proximate cause (but not very probable or universal). But there is also an ultimate cause for the fact that males have developed such a psychic structure. This ultimate cause is that it has been in the interest of a male to produce as many offspring with such women whose survival potential is greatest. In addition, it is important to make sure that the offspring is really that man=s and nobody else=s.

However, these two explanations are not necessarily exclusive, or even in contradiction with each other. Together, they would make many strange qualities of the Kabyl society understandable, whereas Bourdieu now has to resort to truly metaphysical explanations (the distribution of labour between sexes determines biological differences, e.g. the penis) or to question-begging or circular explanations (men are controlling women because they are afraid of them (Bourdieu 1999, 59) Afor legitimate behaviour, there are only circular definitions@, cited in Kaufmann 2001, 138)).


In the recent Aautobiography@ published only in German (Bourdieu 2002) it is fascinating to note that Bourdieu ignores almost completely his mother, except by noting derisively that his mother was a conformist (2002, 98-99) Yet it is quite obvious that his bitterness towards the socially powerful has its origin in the fact that his mother come from a well-off peasant family which opposed the marriage and treated Bourdieu=s father rather badly. This tension which was very strong actually between the mother and the father (mother trying to make little Pierre conform, father railing against the village notables) is clearly visible in Bourdieu=s own life and his reminiscences about the privileged colleagues for whom all those very hard-earned achievements of his own career came much too easily (Latour or Merton, whom Bourdieu first thought to be an aristocrat and only later realised that he was not, but actually had had a very difficult start, see Bourdieu 2001, 31-32!). And these relationships are certainly not only social, but have very clear biological elements (see Hrdy!)




Habitus I and Habitus II



Jean-Claude Kaufmann has in his book Ego (2001) presented and interesting critical evaluation of Bourdieu=s habitus. He points out the attempt of Bourdieu to get rid of the ordinary habit, the French habitude, and select the concept of habitus, which represented a sort of clean slate. In the case of both >habit= and >habitude= it is a question of a Aquasi-nature@, in the centre of the theatre of reproduction (Kaufmann 2001, 138)? In this sense habitus is also the opposite of life politics, where people are supposed to make freely strategic policy choices concerning their own lives.

Kaufmann distinguishes between two habitus theories, one general and one particular. The general theory, AHabitus I@, presents habitus as a generative principle of practices. Here the habitus has an independent autonomous status, which comes close to metaphysics. In this perception of the habitus, Kaufmann notes that Bourdieu sometimes even uses the habitus in the third person, as >he= who is or is not. Habitus I can be found mainly in Sens pratique (Bourdieu 1980) and other early Kabyl studies.

A second theory of habitus, habitus II presents several, layered habituses, a sort of Calder mobile in which every specific field has its own habitus. Habitus II does not generate practices in the manner of habitus I. Instead, the field determines the habituses. The emphasis is therefore on how social structures influence individual bodies and habits.

Habituses may therefore be very different and variable. The schemes relative to habitus may vary, so that the generic habitus and the specific habitus may get into conflict. The essential difference between these two is that in the general theory of habitus (I), habitus organize structures, which generate practices, while in the specific theory of habitus (II), habitus itself is generated by the structures. To avoid this, Bourdieu often speaks about habitus as a structuring structure, but in Kaufmann=s view he still has to choose between either position, depending on the situation and research object. In Domination masculine Kaufmann sees a total combination of both theories at work, but so that in the end habitus I wins, simply because Bourdieu uses the Kabyl material (Kaufmann 2001, 138-140).

In fact, habitus is a good example of a sociological concept, which is not very reasonable/workable, if we are content with simply social science explanations.  We can speak of a Ablack box@, in which the unity and permanence of a person are contained (Corcuff 1999, 110). It tries to solve the dilemma between structure and agency by the classic Munchausen’s method, but this simply cannot work. Instead, in practice, it emphasizes either structure or agency depending of the situation. The end result is tautological; because no new elements are brought into the equation (it is underdetermined, as econometricians say).

As an alternative, we could treat habitus as something between nature and culture, as a meeting point of the two in the sense that habitus contains both extremely permanent elements of human nature and the variability brought about by cultural and social adaptation. In this view, the habitus I, or the general habitus would consist of those structuring principles which are largely innate dispositions. For instance, men and women have somewhat different habituses from birth. The more specific habitus, habitus II, would include the predominantly cultural and social influence, in the form of class, education, taste, i.e., the classical sociological concepts, which we can never dispense with.

This kind of combination of the theory of evolution and Bourdieu would, in our view, constitute an important step forward in the process of regaining the lost unity of explanation of human life sciences.  (An aside: in the recent Finnish translation of Thomas Aquinas= Summa theologiae, habitus is described as - quoting Aristotle B Adispositions organized according to nature@ (see 2002, 519), i.e. exactly this kind of conception!)

Habitus I, the general theory would be evolutionary in nature whereas habits II, the specific theory, would cover the mechanisms according to which the general dispositions are transformed into field-specific dispositions. I.e., it deals with the eternal problem of seeing the relevance of the 100 000 prehistory of human beings with all the qualities o modern human beings. Crucially, the habitus of every individual is really one whole habitus, with habituses I and II mingled in unique and manifold ways.

After this, if would be easy to say that the general habitus generates structures and is historically antecedent to any kinds of modern social structures. Thus habitus is at the origin of any specific constellation of fields. There are thus general properties that every field will have to take into account, such as shame, loyalty, friendship, competition etc. But if the field has to do with cultural modernisation, we can predict which kinds of habituses and habitus dispositions are better adapted to modern field structures on the basis of the knowledge we have of the Auniversal@ habitus propensities. As always, habitus is not completely malleable.


A metaphor which has been used by Bourdieu himself (see Pinto 1998) is Calder’s mobile, i.e. series of delicately balanced pieces which all depend on each other so that the whole system stays in balance. The connection to Habitus II is obvious.


A counterexample often presented by critics of evolution theory is that there is no universal family form but immense variation (e.g. Rose & Rose 2001). We agree, but nevertheless the variation can often be better explained starting from the basic habitus dispositions. For instance, there is a logic which predicts a correlation between democratic forms of decision making and family forms. (The more democratic the society, the more probable is that every man can get a woman, while hierarchical, undemocratic societies tend to have males who have access to many women, and males with no women at all, Ridley 1993).


Thus it is no longer as contradictory to say that social structures define specific habituses in interaction with the general habitus. Social structures have their own autonomy, history and internal logic (although not as complete as sociologists prefer to think). There ARE (mostly) non-evolutionary spheres of life, for instance in law, politics, taxation and the development of the European Union (even though one can analyse the development of the European union as a process of evolution in which social actors have no say at all).


To formulate then, an evolutionary theory of habitus implies and idea in which the habitus 1 and habitus 2 become a series of habituses, from a most generic “human habitus” to very specific adapted and contextualized habituses. The essential thing is that a habitus is always a joint product of biological adaptation and cultural contextualisation.  Thus, everything that Bourdieu gives as properties of a habitus is valid, but additionally we must take into account


1. The fact that lots of our bodily functions and emotions are based on evolved characteristics

2. The fact that the ways in which habitus-based actions (instincts) function and work back in the society are to some extent biologically bounded and determined



Evolutionary theory teaches us that human beings do not have many generic, non-social characteristics but that also the innate characteristics have been developed in specific social situations and that their functioning is impossible to understand when abstracted from this context. Learning is not general learning but always situation specific, drawing conclusions is also situation specific (cf the Wason test, in which abstract and contextualized learning are shown to be very different indeed, see ) and humans have learned under evolution to use their capacities in specific contexts. These contexts had originally to do with surviving, mating and partner selection, and parenting. We have tended to overestimate in primitive partner selection such capacities as force, ability to hunt etc. whereas the properly social and interactive capacities, talking, intelligent communication, self-representation and revealing of the other=s real nature (i.e. seeing through deceptive representations), have been much underestimated. (For instance, it is possible that the extraordinary evolution of human brain is connected mainly with mating behaviour and competition, Ridley 1993; Miller 2002.) This means that there is no Abare@ and Apure@ life but even the society is in our genes, in our nature. On the other hand we can never treat nature as something permanent, fixed, but only as changing, both generally (evolution) and specifically (in situational adaptation). The human ability to adapt and to reflect is an evolutionary adaptation, without which we would not exist.

Arto Noro (2002, 59) recently tried to scare Finnish sociologists that the alternative to Aeye-patch sociology@ (i.e. sociology which ignores the @non-social@) is only economics without society or the savannah stage of  biologism. This is in our view misleading. If we abstract from economism, the possibilities vary between a constructionist, restricted and narrow sociology of the social sealed hermetically from other explanations and a  broader, more realistic conception of society, which emphasizes the interconnections of nature and society.

Still, one of the more fascinating things in evolution is the extreme timelessness of the change and its unbelievable delays. Our general “socio-biologigal” habitus dates from at least 100 000 years ago, and the changes that have taken place during the past 200 years (i.e. modernisation and postmodernity) have only started to influence this fundamental habitus B although of course the strategies and means  are open for us. To develop these strategies it helps to understand the basic logic of how we function. The savannah stage is and will be the starting point for the reality of being human, even though our present reality cannot be reduced to the savannah people.


Childhood as an example


To take an example of the use of habitus in an evolutionary perspective, we shall discuss childhood.  This is not directly connected to habitus, but is a good example of a parallel development. Childhood, as habitus, has been seen in sociology and history during the past thirty years as almost exclusively social. Somewhere around 1600-1700 children became understood as different from adults, claimed Philippe Aries in a soon to be famous book published in 1960. This thesis made a complete breakthrough in sociology so that all sociologists have been habitually referring to childhood as a social and historical construction.  Recently, historians have demolished Aries’ thesis quite conclusively and been able to show that the decisive turn claimed by Aries did not actually take place. On the other hand, if we bring in evolutionary theory, it should be obvious with little reflection that the thesis just cannot be true. If parents had not treated their children as children, we would not be here to discuss this thesis.  (See Eamon Duffy: The cradle will rock. New York Review Books December 19, 2002). If the “invention” of childhood can be said to have taken place it must only have happened in a very cultural sense, comparable to the “invention” of perspective. It is clear that we have “always” seen with perspective, but we have been able to represent perspective only much later (it is debatable when perspective was “first” used in representations). For those who believe that there is no non-linguistic consciousness, this is anathema, but for those of us who make a distinction between consciousness and its representation by speech or in writing, this should not come as a big surprise. In any case habitus is a concept which is worthless if we think that our consciousness can only be expressed in language. 

Thus the “new” view on childhood is that we have few doubts that child-mother relationship has existed for several million years and the position of children in a “family” context has extremely ancient roots. There is very little that is truly constructed or cultural in this position, compared to what is biological or innate.





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