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  The human capacity for structured improvisation. \'Habitus\' is a term borrowed from classical scholarship by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, as a means of overcoming the opposition between theories that take practice to be solely constituting, as found in individualist approaches like phenomenology, and theories that take practice to be solely constituted, as in most forms of structuralism.

For Bourdieu, social life is best understood as the mutual interaction between structures (or what Bourdieu calls social fields), dispositions or orientations to action, and actions themselves. As a term, habitus is present in each of these moments (though it is concentrated in the middle one) since it is the means by which structure is played out as it is captured in particular orientations to action and, at the same time, it is also the capacity for improvisation in actions which, though they will always be structured, are not reducible to structures. Habitus, then, consists of a set of \'general generative schemas\' which are durable and transposable (that is, able to be used in a variety of structures) but also allow some free play. That these schemes are able to be both structuring and improvisatory is due, in large part, to the capacities of the body, a body that \'believes in what it plays at: it weeps if it mimes grief. It does not represent what it performs, it does not memorise the past, it enacts the past, bringing it back to life\' (Bourdieu, 1991, p. 23).

In using the notion of habitus, Bourdieu is often criticized for being a closet structuralist, even a neo-Marxist (Alexander, 1995). But though this criticism is clearly unfair, it is true to say that Bourdieu sometimes allows the reader to form this impression because in both his theoretical and empirical work he pays relatively little attention to improvisation (see performance; performativity).

In human geography, Bourdieu\'s notion of habitus has been used in three chief ways. In the early 1980s it was an important piece of ammunition in the debate over structure and agency since it seemed to form a bridge between the two poles. In the late 1980s and early 1990s geographers tended to call on Bourdieu to sustain work on class and consumption: his book Distinction (Bourdieu, 1984) seemed to provide an important key, through concepts like habitus, to a number of issues concerning choice and constraint. Then, in the late 1990s, Bourdieu\'s emphasis on the body as the crucial element of the habitus has chimed with geographers\' attempts to trace out the significance of embodied knowledge. (NJT)

References Alexander, J. 1995: Fin-de-siècle social theory. London: Verso. Bourdieu, P. 1984: Distinction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Bourdieu, P. 1990: The logic of practice. Cambridge: Polity Press. Bourdieu, P. 1991: Language and symbolic power. Cambridge: Polity Press. Calhoun, C., Lipuma, E. and Postone, M., eds, 1993: Bourdieu: critical perspectives. Cambridge: Polity Press. Fowler, B. 1997: Pierre Bourdieu and cultural theory. London: Sage. Swartz, D. 1997: Culture and power. The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Suggested Reading Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. 1992: An invitation to reflexive sociology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



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