Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Getting out of the Habitus: An Alternative Model of Dynamically Embodied Social Action

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Getting out of the Habitus: An Alternative Model of Dynamically Embodied Social Action

Article excerpt

Although Bourdieu's theory of practice has drawn widespread attention to the role of the body and space in social life, the concept of habitus is problematic as an explanatory account of dynamic embodiment because it lacks an adequate conception of the nature and location of human agency. An alternative model is presented which locates agency in the causal powers and capacities of embodied persons to engage in dialogic, signifying acts. Grounded in a non-Cartesian concept of person and 'new realist', post-positivist philosophy of science, vocal signs and action signs, not the dispositions of a habitus, become the means by which humans exercise agency in dynamically embodied practices. Ethnographic data from the communicative practices of the Nakota (Assiniboine) people of northern Montana (USA) support and illustrate the theoretical argument.

one has to situate oneself within 'real activity as such' (Pierre Bourdieu 1990 (1980): 52).

it is our acting that lies at the bottom of our practices (Ludwig Wittgenstein 1977: #204).

The concept of [causal] force is richer than that of disposition. The array of forces that act on a system uniquely determine the disposition of that system to change but not conversely (Sober & Lewontin 1993: 586).

Driving west across rolling grasslands in northern Montana, I arrived at Fort Belknap Reservation on a hot summer afternoon. A cluster of administrative buildings at the Reservation Agency included a community recreation hail, which provided shade and welcome relief from driving. Wandering through the building, I asked a young woman for directions to the nearby town of Harlem.

'You go out of here this way, turn this way again and you'll come to the highway. Go this way again, over the river, and you're gonna go that way into town.'

Pointing gestures made sense of her instructions and I later realized that her gestures were orientated to the cardinal directions even though she had no visual landmarks to guide them (see figure 1). [1]

Field research taught me that her response was typical. Nakota people use gesture and geographical space extensively in everyday discourse. North, south, east, and west, plus 'earth' and 'sky', constitute an indexical form intrinsic to many social situations and events. This form structures integrated speech and gesture in social spaces, whether someone gives directions, tells stories or engages in political discourse. It is the spatial form for religious and ceremonial events and it influences visual artwork and ceremonial regalia (see Farnell 1995a; 1995c).

The Nakota concept of the four cardinal directions differs in important ways from the Euro-American tradition in that each direction comprises an area of a circle sectioned into four quarters instead of four directional lines (see figure 2). Moreover, in the Nakota language, the cardinal directions are collectively known as t'ate topa (the four winds) or t'ate oye topa (tracks of the four winds). In spiritual practices it is from the four winds that various kinds of spiritual assistance ('powers') come. Instead of the four directions as lines moving outward from a given point, the Nakota terms denote a general direction from which certain things come towards a person. These important connections to spiritual beliefs confirm Williams's observation that the spaces in which human acts occur are simultaneously physical, conceptual, moral, and ethical (Williams 1995: 52; cf. de Certeau 1984; Clifford 1997: 52-91; Gupta & Ferguson 1997).

In Bourdieu's theory of practice, this semantic structuring would be explained as part of a Nakota habitus, an 'unconscious practical logic' by means of which Nakota people are 'disposed' to use this symbolic form as a 'generative schema' when they give route directions, tell stories, or dance. I find this explanation inadequate because, despite Bourdieu's claims to the contrary, its residual Durkheimianism and Cartesianism mislocates human agency and so provides no satisfactory explanation of the means by which the habitus can be linked to what people do and say. …

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