The Hegemony of Habitus: Locating the Role of Domination and Agency in the Works of Gramsci and Bourdieu

By Mario Hernandez

Traditional theories of political order that focus on the expression of power through means of direct rule, such as through systems of law or force, fail to account for the importance of culture in maintaining systems of political domination. This paper seeks to engage with concepts of power operating through culture and the possibility of social change. By using a comparative analysis of the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Antonio Gramsci and their specific conceptualizations of how social order is maintained, not only can we begin to formulate a critical perspective from which to view this debate, but also we can better analyze several of the central ideas of each theorist. This analysis will focus on the parallels and differences of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony on the one hand and Bourdieu’s conceptualization of symbolic violence as a means of maintaining social inequalities on the other. Emphasis will be placed on the work of Bourdieu, as his work allows for a more nuanced view of how people become vested in particular roles that emerge out of specific sets of social relations, and which in turn shape, constitute, and form the basis of individual identities. While Gramsci initiates greater complexity in the Marxian notion of class structure in capitalist societies, I will argue that he still falls short of explaining exactly how we know and understand the social order of society and reproduce it in our everyday lives. On the contrary, through Bourdieu, it will be shown that it is only with this basis of knowledge that we can begin to conceptualize the possibility of social change.

To begin, Gramsci and Bourdieu each wrote at length about the question of domination and reproduction.1 It is important to note from the outset that both scholars emerge from a post-Marxist line of thought. While Gramsci’s theoretical allegiances to Marxism are quite explicit, Bourdieu’s work implicitly retains the spirit of Marx’s materialist analysis by continuing to endorse the capitalist market as the underlying force of social relations. By abandoning the deterministic nature of materialist arguments, both Bourdieu and Gramsci avoid the pitfalls of their “vulgar Marxist” counterparts. In this way, these theorists’ works do not present a radical break from Marx, so much as they are critical extensions of post-Marxist thought. The sociologist Michael Burawoy writes that “both developed sophisticated notions of class struggle and… focused on what Gramsci called the superstructure of capitalism, what Bourdieu called the field of cultural domination, and both thereby lost sight of the economy, dealing only with its effects.”2 For Burawoy, the importance of their analysis is that they both emphasize social action’s operation within constraints and challenge the false oppositions of subjectivism and objectivism, further arguing that the two theorists returned to Marx’s Theory of Feurerbach in order to do so.3

Gramsci’s ideas about these issues are captured by the concept of hegemony, or rule by willing consent, while Bourdieu uses the term “symbolic violence” to denote the “subtle imposition of systems of meaning that legitimize and thus solidify structures of inequality.”4 Developing Bourdieu’s work, sociologist Loic Wacquant’s articulation of symbolic violence bears close resemblance to Gramsci’s definition of hegemony, as he describes it further as “an explanatory account of the manifold processes whereby the social order masks its arbitrariness and perpetuates itself by extorting from the subordinate practical acceptance of, if not willed consent to, its existing hierarchies.”5 But as both Bourdieu and Gramsci had fundamentally different conceptions of how social order operates, so too did they have very different implications of how these terms were applied.6

In his work, From Ideology To Symbolic Violence, Wacquant states that it cannot be denied that Bourdieu in fact presents a ‘second rupture’ with objectivism (the original being Marx’s tracing of the mystifying character of ideology and origins of fetishism in the production process) by “locating the native experience of the social world within a structural model,” where cultural production functions as an autonomous sphere in the struggle over symbolic power through the molding of everyday experiences.7 Bourdieu acknowledges capitalism as a social space regulated by the overall volume of capital and the relations that dictate its distribution (composition), but he admits to the influence of important cultural elements in the spirit of Max Weber’s interpretations of status groups and political parties. Taking the form of social and cultural capital, these types of value take on particular (and independent) meaning in analyzing how and why an individual’s or group’s ‘interests’ are not realized within pure market relations. While these forms can be inherently rooted in the development of the material bases, they are irreducible to the material forces of production. By situating this alternative axis, Bourdieu takes this crucial cultural dimension into account.

In seeking to analyze how the proletariat fails to recognize their immediate class interests in the absence of overt force, Gramsci also devises an alternative to a purely materialist argument through the notion of hegemony. Defined as rule by consent, the insight of this concept suggests a psychological dimension, as force is internalized as inequalities are preserved under a false semblance of peace, if not order. And yet, as Burawoy explains, for Gramsci, this form of domination does not reside in any psychological or unconscious realm at all, but is instead an explicit and overt phenomenon to be struggled over in the political realm.8 I contend that this logic of reasoning does not make adequate use of the large body of social science research that has uncovered how social norms, such as habits, beliefs, and customs, operate within culture and are influenced and shaped, as well as influence, shape and/or reject, macro-institutional structures of power. It is only by applying this body of knowledge that we can come to a meaningful understanding of domination and its reproduction as well as the capacity for social change.

A thorough investigation would seek to analyze how power is infused within the values and logics of meaning within a given society and the subsequent processes by which it is conveyed, communicated, and internalized on a purely cognitive, as well as societal, level. It is only then that a proper understanding of political or economic domination can be properly analyzed within a specific context by delineating exactly how these institutions of power identify with, appropriate, and embed themselves within society. Gramsci’s great contribution was to shift the notion of power from a top-down model to one of “rule from below” through the notion of hegemony. His shortcoming was to assume that this power was an entity or a yoke that could be shrugged off primarily at the level of ideology through consciousness and overt political action. Indeed, he was hostile to the notion of locating this struggle anywhere else.9 Bourdieu, on the other hand, dismissed this kind of analysis as mere surface reasoning and deemed it “inadequate to grasp the bodily inscription of social structure as a habitus that is so at home with domination that it does not recognize it as such.”10 I will clarify this statement below as I explain in more detail the notion of habitus, fields, and symbolic violence, but here I would like to indicate that the problem with this line of reasoning is that it cannot be assumed that actors can ever “recognize” their immediate interests (or that any single or set of interests constitute an ‘immediate’ interest for that matter). Social actors are motivated by all sorts of factors, and even seemingly obvious forces can become shrouded by the unrecognizable logic of others.

By integrating Pierre Bourdieu’s notions of habitus, field analysis and symbolic violence, we can draw out a much more critical perspective of social relations and domination. The notion of habitus is simultaneously a micro- as well as macro-interpretation of how individuals produce, and are produced, by their social milieus. Being structural without being overly deterministic, habitus incorporates the structured reality one is born into that in turn structures perception. The key is that it is also malleable, as one’s perception is inevitably adjusted by social interaction and experience. A ‘conductor-less conductor,’ or ‘regulated improvisation’, habitus seems to structure life chances without determining them.11 Some important implications emerge as a result of this conceptualization in terms of power and the prospect of change. It is significant to note that Bourdieu mediates simultaneously between subjective/objective and micro/macro conceptions of reality in this formulation. It is with his notion of habitus that we should situate the individual within various “fields” of social life in order to come to a critical understanding of the reproduction of inequality and the social system as a whole.

With his articulation of field theory, Bourdieu shows how differentiation characterizes the social space through a process of distinction rooted in consumption. Fields operate within the broader social structure but with their own sets of rules and values that form the habits and norms which create the vested interests of individual members (illusio). In this way, habitus results in the development of distinct dispositions that shape both individual and collective identities. This runs counter to the logic that assumes that individuals are subjected to false consciousness. Indeed, Burawoy notes that, “Submission is not a matter of consciousness but of habitus, those deeply embedded perceptions and appreciations, inaccessible to consciousness.”12 Further, in their purest and strongest form, fields can provide a shelter from ‘naked market transactions’ and thus produce their own rationale for mobility. Once established, fields seek to operate within their own internal logic as much as possible, though out of necessity they will draw on external forces. In this conflict to balance the maintenance of autonomy with the need to draw on external resources ‘poles’ emerge. These ‘poles’ try to preserve the purity of the field by keeping as far a distance from external pressures or concerns as possible. At the opposite extreme, however, are those who seek to build external links, be it for capital, or simply for broader support. For new members within a field, this is particularly the case, since it is in their interest to destabilize (through a heterodox ideology) the status quo (orthodox), which is typically defended by those who have higher positions and thus an investment in the current system. With reference to Gramsci’s “organic Intellectuals,” though, Bourdieu was deeply cynical of this latter possibility, as he notes that whenever a minority is empowered to speak in the name of a group, they will seek to consolidate and institutionalize that power to their own ends.13

Finally, Max Weber noted that the judicial system of laws, as with the customs of a society, “are never more then a secondary principle of the determination of practices, intervening when the primary principle, interest, fails.”14 Thus we must look below Gramsci’s conception of hegemony, that is, at the level of rules or of conscious action for the primary source. The notion of ‘symbolic violence’ is extremely important in understanding how systems of inequality are reproduced in the ideological realm and maintained through habitus. With its much greater implications than Gramsci’s notion of hegemony, this legitimation of a system of inequality works to make the relations of the status quo seem universal and natural. Articulated through the orthodox ideology, it serves the interests of the dominant class, whose members seek to maintain the systems of relations as they are. What is important in Bourdieu’s work is that this system of relations operates within the logic of the cultural field, in consumption patterns, symbolic meaning, and thus in the habitus of a given individual or group. “Disguised behind the mask of moral ties, cultural prowess, and meritocratic symbolism…status groups are classes that manage to hide themselves behind the veil of culture — they are misrecognized classes.”15 Indeed Wacquant goes on to stipulate how culture becomes the ‘opiate’ of the masses as much as religion was for Marx, as it serves to mystify social relations.16

Bourdieu’s body of work then can be said to extend the capacity of understanding the domination of hegemony from below to within individual subjects. Bourdieu understood that social relations (paying particular emphasis on class exploitation and inequality in this case) are internalized and shape individual dispositions, which in turn shape the individual’s sense of “reality”. This is a process that seems to happen below the level of consciousness. Indeed, Bourdieu had a strong disdain for normative theories that advocated “conscious” manipulation of anything because of their shared assumption that an individual could have the distance from his or her social milieu or habitus to affect any sort of “revolutionary” dissonance.17 Instead, he encouraged theorists to seek to describe the full extent of how identities and institutions of power are mutually reinforcing (a process outlined through the notions of habitus, field analysis, and symbolic violence), attempting to construct a general theory of practice from this foundation.

In this discussion I have attempted to outline some of the major themes of Pierre Bourdieu’s work by comparing them to those of Antonio Gramsci’s and to show how power operates in and through culture in various ways. My goal was to show why the study of culture comprises a crucial sphere of analysis in its own right in order to gain a critical understanding of how social order is produced, maintained and/or subverted. While, Antonio Gramsci’s work initiates this process by recognizing the importance of understanding this social sphere as a place of contention where issues related to ideology and consciousness are accentuated through the notion of hegemony, it is the work of Pierre Bourdieu that refines this analysis by integrating a range of intellectual disciplines related to both social psychological factors on an individual level and disciplines related to macro-institutions of power and the process of legitimation and reproduction on another. By integrating these large bodies of thought, Bourdieu’s work adds and invigorates ongoing discussions related to power, domination, societal reproduction, and change.

11 Michael Burawoy, “II: Durable Domination: Gramsci Meets Bourdieu,” in Hegemony and Symbolic Domination: Gramsci Meets Bourdieu (2008); available at: burawoy.berkeley.edu/Bourdieu/Lecture%202.pdf, 2.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Loic Wacquant, “Bourdieu,” in Key Contemporary Thinkers, ed. Rob Stones (New York University Press, New York, 2008), 264.

5 Ibid.

6 Burawoy emphasizes the personal life and social position of two men in understanding their radically divergent platforms, agendas, and implications of their work. I will not do so here but for a more detailed discussion in this matter, please see Burawoy’s article and audio lecture of the same title as the written work at: http://www.havenscenter.org/audio/michael_burawoy_durable_domination_gramsci_meets_bourdieu

7 Loic Wacquant, “From Ideology To Symbolic Violence: Culture, Class and Consciousness in Marx And Bourdieu,” International Journal of Contemporary Sociology, 30 (1993): 125-142.

8 Burawoy, “Durable Domination,” 21.

9 “If political science means science of the State, and the State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules, then it is obvious that all the questions of sociology are nothing other than questions of political science. If there is a residue, this can only be made up of false problems, i.e. frivolous problems.” Gramsci, as quoted in Burawoy, “Durable Domination,” 21.

10 Ibid., 20.

11 Wacquant, “Bourdieu,” 268.

12 Burawoy, “Durable Domination,” 21.

13 Ibid., 16. For an extended list of Bourdieu’s commentary on Gramsci see Burawoy’s footnote on this page.

14 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 76.

15 Waquant, “Ideology,” 133.

16 Ibid., 133.

17 Burawoy, “Durable Domination,” 19.

Looking North

Library of Congress, 1985.

Library of Congress, 1985.

general theory of practice from this foundation.

In this discussion, I have attempted to outline some of the major themes of Pierre Bourdieu’s work by comparing them to those of Antonio Gramsci’s and to show how power operates in and through culture in various ways. My goal was to show why the study of culture comprises a crucial sphere of analysis in its own right in order to gain a critical understanding of how social order is produced, maintained and/or subverted. While, Antonio Gramsci’s work initiates this process by recognizing the importance of understanding this social sphere as a place of contention where issues related to ideology and consciousness are accentuated through the notion of hegemony, it is the work of Pierre Bourdieu that refines this analysis by integrating a range of intellectual disciplines related to both social psychological factors on an individual level and disciplines related to macro-institutions of power and the process of legitimation and reproduction on another. By integrating these large bodies of thought, Bourdieu’s work adds and invigorates ongoing discussions related to power, domination, societal reproduction, and change.