translating habitus from bourdieu to english

The following is a guest post by Steve Vaisey.

Last Friday I was in the airport, coming back from a talk at Emory when I saw this tweet from Paula England.

At one level, I shared her pain. “Structured structures predisposed to serve as structuring structures” is not exactly the clearest phrase ever written. But, that said, I get a lot out of Bourdieu and I think this passage is a pretty good summary of the entire argument of the Logic of Practice.

So, foolishly, publicly, I claimed that, when rendered in plain English, this was actually a pretty good passage. Then, doubling down, I offered to try such a translation. A number of people expressed interest in seeing what I came up with, so here it is.

Bourdieu original:

The structures constitutive of a particular type of environment (e.g., the material conditions of existence characteristic of a class condition) produce habitus, systems of durable, transposable dispositions, structured structures predisposed to serve as structuring structures, that is, as principles of the generation and structuring of practices and representations which can be objectively “regulated” and “regular” without in any way being the product of obedience to rules, objectively adapted to their goals without presupposing a conscious aiming at ends or an express mastery of the operations necessary to attain them and, being all this, collectively orchestrated without being the product of the orchestrating action of a conductor.

Vaisey translation:

The patterns that exist in a social environment (e.g., the surroundings that people live in because of their social class) create habitus. Habitus refers to a hard-to-change, widely applicable set of habits of acting, seeing, and talking that are learned from these patterns in our social environment and, through their repeated use, tend to recreate similar environmental patterns over time. These habits lead people to behave in regular and predictable ways even though they aren’t following conscious rules. People thus seem to be successfully pursuing goals even though they aren’t consciously pursuing them and even though they can’t articulate the steps necessary to achieve them. The end result is that social patterns get recreated over time as if someone were coordinating things even though no one is actually coordinating them at all.

I’m not 100% happy with this. It turns out I actually like “structured structures disposed to serve as structuring structures.” It’s strangely poetic. But it’s not very clear. I hope this rendering of Bourdieu makes one of his key ideas a little more accessible.

Steve Vaisey is Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

28 thoughts on “translating habitus from bourdieu to english”

  1. Nice work, Steve – I see a translation project in your future. That said, I think your translation has, in part, Americanized what is in some ways a very French book. To wit: (1) the use of the passive voice (“predisposed,” “structured,” “structuring,” all as adjectives), as the passive voice is by definition without an agent; and (2) the emphasis on “structures.” The language here evokes the idea that it is the structures doing the acting, and the habitussen that are acted upon. By contrast, your interpretation seems to move the action to the individual level, consuming then reproducing collective phenomena (“patterns”) that are essentially aggregates of those individual consumption/reproduction processes.


      1. I’ll play the grumpy Latourian and say that one other place that structures/habits/habitus/schemas can be located is in the technologies that undergird and sustain human relationships (see, e.g. Strum & Latour, or Latour 2007 on “plug-ins”). But that’s not a complaint about the proper reading of Bourdieu as much as it is about sociology’s understanding of “society.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I’ve been wondering the same thing that Dan Hirschmann has. Is society located only located in the person, or is it also a separate entity. It is sociological dogma that there is no society without person. But is this assumption always useful? Can’t society also be found elsewhere, e.g. located in the technologies, etc,. that “undergird and sustain human relationships” as Dan points out? Then of course it is only a short step to Durkheim’s assumption that “society” itself exists outside the human being as a separate entity.

        I posted an excerpt from our translation of Weber’s Discipline and Charisma in a response to Phil, below. Weber asserts that the demands of the tools/machine create the psycho-biology of the worker. Which in a strange way lines of with Dan’s statement above. Can Bourdieu be read in this fashion as well?


  2. “Structured structures predisposed to serve as structuring structures” is reasonably clear as long as you take it one concept at a time and don’t baulk at the way it looks on the page. The French Wikipedia explains it quite neatly: “L’habitus est structure structurée puisqu’il est produit par socialisation; mais il est également structure structurante car générateur d’une infinité de pratiques nouvelles.” “The structures constituting the habitus are ‘structured’ because they are produced through socialisation, but they are at the same time ‘structuring’ because they generate an infinite range of new practices.” It’s dense and abstract writing but it’s quite precise.

    Perhaps it helps to keep Marx in the background – “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”


    1. Here is Weber’s version of something similar to what Bourdieu wrote:

      “In this process, the psychobiological nature of a human being is
      totally adjusted to the demands of production specifications, which are
      what the tools and machines of the outer world require. In short, the
      human being is adjusted to the functions demanded from him. The
      human being is stripped of his personal biological rhythm, and then is
      reprogrammed into the new rhythm according to the prerequisites of
      the task. This is done by the systematic deconstruction of the functions
      of every muscle, and then reconstructed into an optimal economic
      form of “manpower,” which is put into a new rhythm and shaped to the
      requirements of the work.”

      from Max Weber’s “Discipline and Charisma,” p. 71 in Weber’s Rationalism (2015) translated and edited by Tony Waters and Dagmar Waters, Palgrave Macmillan.


  3. Phil: to be clear — I like the original. But I like communicating with people more. If they are turned off for whatever reason, might as well try to make it clearer, right?

    Agreed about Marx.


  4. The problem with Bourdieu’s passage is its circularity: structures structure structures because structure (or rather in the rest of LoP because power but it’s not clear why we should assume people are power hungry). Good on Bourdieu for recognizing that people have an autonomic nervous system and relegate most of their behaviors to unconscious routines, but those routines are built in the first place on conscious, purposive decisions people make cognitively, and only relegated to lower order cognitive processes after a lot of repetition that renders cognitive decisions computationally inefficient.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s interesting that you see the circularity as a problem – Bourdieu is theorizing the problem of order here (and in much of his work – Reproduction!), so it shouldn’t be terribly surprising that the structured structures are also structuring structures. I see the “without… a conscious aiming at ends” condition as a prescient insight into the nature of dual-process cognition, essentially allowing for the existence of a rational actor who maximizes ends in a nonconscious (or “system one”) way.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yep you took the words right out of my mouth with your second point. I think that’s the majority of the way social action takes place at any time, and is really helpful toward understanding why people seem to be behaving “as if” maximizing a *stable* (<– b/c of reproduction) set of preferences. But reproduction, or positive feedback loops, can't explain social change, and there's a lot of that, especially in modernity.

        Bourdieu deals with change, upward and downward mobility for individuals, etc. with a series of really weak disclaimers that go something like, "of course it's not always this way," and then continues to emphasize his argument about how power reproduces itself. His defenders get real prickly about this part too; they'll point out for instance that he himself experienced a lot of upward mobility.

        My view, drawing on Hayek's distributed knowledge argument and the division of labor, is that we're all distributed across a social network and have only very limited computational capacities to deal with our little corner of the social universe in a conscious and purposive way, deliberating rather just imitating a couple few rules that pertain to our division of social labor.

        Sometimes, agents will argue for a change in the rules in their little corner of the universe, which other agents around them become persuaded of, and eventually some threshold of adoption gets met and a much larger portion of the network adopts the new rule through simple diffusion/adoption via rational imitation.

        That's my intuition at least. I think it gives us a nice compromise between hyper structuralism and hyper rationalism, and accounts for both neocortical cognition and lower order, evolutionarily older nervous functions in the lower brain, spinal cord, and of course sociology and anthropology's favorite (paging Mary Douglas, Jon Haidt, etc. re: disgust, purity and the sacred) the gut.


    2. Some routines are built on conscious decisions, while others are not. And this is challenging for social scientists who want to find a single abstractions that covers everything. We’ll eventually make some progress on figuring out how to predict whether the path is conscious or unconscious in a particular case.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think Swidler’s probably onto something with her “unsettled times” argument (it’s a little flowery but that’s how lots of great intuitions start). Unsettled times are rare, because we simply couldn’t coordinate behavior if we had to openly negotiate every little rule and decision all the time, but I think the moments when we are engaged in conscious decisions are identifiable.

        I get that the majority of talk is “small” and routine, therefore unconscious, but I think a good start to identifying unsettled times is looking at when people are debating something discursively. The more “settled” a time is, probably, the more tacit it is (because everyone agrees on the convention and it doesn’t need discussing).


  5. When I teach Bourdieu to undergrads this is one of the passages that I assign. It makes them want to pull their hair out. :) However, after we take time to “unpack” what he is saying, he ends up being one of their favorite theorists of the semester. Thank you for providing an excellent resource that I will provide to students in the future. After we have had our detailed discussions on the reading(s).

    Liked by 2 people

  6. When I was a kid, we had various King James Bibles and Revised Standard Version Bibles, but then we also had this paperback thing called “The Living Bible” that was an effort to translate the Bible into ordinary, plainspoken English, and also cutting out the boring “Blahab begat Blahlahjah” stuff. Point being, why hasn’t anyone written The Living Bourdieu?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The easy analogy to religion implies an answer. French social theory is a religion, replete with claims on omniscient and omnipotent forces that are by definition unobservable (the opposite of science).

      Textual exegesis, faith, institutional authority, and endless Talmudic debate are the whole point of the enterprise.

      But the translation is already happening. BuzzFeed and Vox explainers are to social media what the protestant revolution was to the printing press. Social Justice Ology is going mainstream, baby!


  7. Steve — Nice. Reminds me of Mills translating Parsons. You should do a whole volume as Jeremy suggests. But, speaking of Parsons, it might turn out that a plain-speaking version of Bourdieu ends up not that different from 1950s sociology once the mystification is removed, maybe?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Claude: I think that’s just about what would happen. PB puts a greater emphasis on material interests and strat than Parsons but posits an eerily similar socialization and motivational mechanism. Especially if we use the Parsons of the early 1950s.


  8. Or, as Marx said, people make their own history, but not in circumstances of their own choosing. Just as advantage perpetuates itself, so to do disadvantage tend to limit (but not entirely enclose) fields of action.


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