Your habitus

November 14, 2007

Yes you can live, laugh and love in Nigeria, be an educated professional, have read Bourdieu and Weber and yet your cultural predispositions will make you write this: understand in any depth the layers of social dysfunction in Nigeria, perhaps we need to analyse its own specific forms of habitus. We need to understand the expectations that create the need for the Big Man in any organisation beyond simple ethnography; the historical patterns that have generated an all-encompassing master-slave power relationship, such that any marginal economic advantage generates the production of master and slave identities, and such that paying a house-help 4000 naira per month is deemed perfectly acceptable by many; and to use habitus to shed light on the enduring agrarian episteme that mitigates against driving in a straight line in Abuja, or to understand the social positioning of say the police.

First, this is a complete misreading of Bourdieu. Habitus, a concept redefined (and not created) by Bourdieu to reconcile free will and determinism, socialization and the individual is about the individual.
Basically, me, you, everyone develop through socialization over our lifetime certain dispositions, a structure through which we perceive, think and act in the world. That’s habitus. Though it is constantly affected by our experiences and major events (like reading Bourdieu or being the victim of ethnic cleansing) can deeply change it at any point, it tends to be durable: the construct, especially early ones, last much much longer than the experience itself. It also tends to be transposable (i think that’s a french word). Experience in one social setting can influence one’s perception (and therefore behavior) behavior in another. As an example, one can get the habit of thinking in terms of country’s “national soul” through years of watching soccer with his friends and family and apply that same thinking scheme later when discussing Nigeria’s problems. The world view can remain unchanged despite contradictory evidence. One can keep think in terms of nation’s soul when discussing Nigeria even if Bastian Schweinsteiger dribbles, Cris is a solid defender and France won a World Cup.
Groups can actually have a common habitus (or rather individuals can share part of their habitus) because and only because they have common or similar experiences. Basically sets of individuals who socialized the same way, experienced similar things will tend to have their view of the world and of themselves affected in the same way. And social classes, because they tend to define one’s socialization in a lot of ways are the most relevant form of group when discussing habitus. The example here would be two upper class africans who went to french schools in two different countries and who have a deeper common understanding with each other than with their countrymen.

Now it would be interesting to know how Nigeria, a 50 years old country of 150 millions inhabitants and almost a million square kilometers with deep religious, ethnic, historical, social, intellectual and class divisions would have ONE COMMON HABITUS. How did it develop ? Which are the events that influenced every Nigerian in the same way ? The 1996 Gold Medal ? Independance ? The fall of the Naira ? It would also be interesting to know how it would explain things as different as driving patterns, the salary of a house help and the mythical need for a Big Man.

Well, our compassionate observer suggests an “enduring agrarian episteme” for driving patterns. Let’s ignore details like an urban history that started a century after Rome, or the fact that at least a quarter of the population probably never spent more than a few days outside cities and ask how did Calabar excaped its fate at least more than Lagos. And somebody better tell urban planners, traffic managers, transportation analysts, crossing lights designers that they’re loosing their time. It’s all because once upon a time, everybody lived in the bush.
And someone must tell economists that they too have been loosing their time discussing price-setting, supply and demand or incentives. A slave-master power relationship explains why people, in a country with plenty of cheap unemployed labour, pay their house help 4000 naira a month. A slave-master relationship probably explained why the colonists used forced labour or why europeans felt the need to bring millions of slaves to the America or why bosses don’t pay more than the minimum wage in call centers in the civilized world. And nevermind the wage, why doesnt the slave-master relationship explains why there is house help to start with ? I guess that’s ok, no historical ethos when your domestic employees are well paid (by your standards).
And expectations that create a need for a Big Man ? Well, the most fundamental flaw of the Big Man theory is that nobody ever choose them. Or at least, in Africa, nobody ever selected a Big Man in a free and open election. Or no majority ever decided to grant someone more power hoping that he would make things better. Nigeria had had since its independant one free election and it was cancelled. Military dictators, riggers and elected leaders who are quick to behave like dictators weren’t there because of anybody’s expectations. They got there because they could and did use force. And when people bend to their power, it’s simply because they don’t have the choice or think they don’t have the choice. May be I should suggest Weber’s work on the sociology of politics and government which is far more enlightenning and relevant than the protestant ethics.

And may be one would realize that serious people wouldn’t propose:

a study of the Nigerian habitus would enable us to formulate explicit responses to the informal patterns of understanding and ways of being and doing that lead to the incessant reproduction of dysfunctional realities across the country, leading to much more powerful self-correcting/authochthonic measures, one might hope. It would definitely lead us away from the over-simplistic idea that if only we could find decent leaders to put in positions of power, everything would change..

So that’s the real use of studying the nigerian habitus. It’s better than the eternal quest for the decent leader who will make everything better. Political scientists, sociologists, economists, philosophers, even health specialists, historians or agronomists have just spend decades discussing institutions, designing policies, forming divergent theories and debating choices, analyzing, fine-tuning their data, experiencing, failling, succeeding, discovering side-effects, finding out what went wrong and yet we need to study Nigeria’s “national soul” to get away from idea that a messiah will come and make things better ?

When asked by a commenter how does one dissect what is the ‘Nigerian habitus’ from what is the ‘Yoruba habitus’ from what is the ‘Hausa habitus’:

I suspect on one level, ethnic/cultural differences do not impinge upon a prevailing pre-modern, pre-industrialised world view. On another level, of course ethnic/cultural differences would condition everything – the Yoruba concept of the Oba differing immensely from anything like an Igbo or Hausa ‘equivalent’ for instance.

Ethnic/Cultural differences, that means different religions, different languages, different philosophy, different environement, different social organizations (in the family, the household, the community, the village, the city, trade), different judicial systems, different histories do not have a bigger influence than a common pre-modern, pre-industrial (that means savage) “worldview”. An Ibo engineer, the Sardauna of Sokoto, a Yoruba market woman, a Tiv farmer, an Ijaw tout in Lagos, an Oron prostitue, an Edo poet, a Fulani nomad mother all have the same pre-modern and pre-industrial worldview that trumps whatever effect their different socialization.

And no, acknowledging that concepts may differ across cultures doesn’t make it better. Do Obafemi Martins, Tunde Adebimpe, Seun Kuti, Wole Soyinka, Olesegun Obasandjo and your random village chief really view authority in the same way ? In the same way as the other 30 millions Yorubas ?

To conclude, what is the process of getting attached to a worldview in which people’s thoughts and actions are deeply and perharps definetly defined by their nationality (or race or ethnicity) ? Well that’s acquiring habitus. And that worldview has a name
and a deep and long history among certain groups. Why don’t we study that habitus ?


2 Responses to “Your habitus”

  1. Loomnie Says:

    Thank you so very much for this! While reading the post you quoted I tried to remember whether Bourdieu ever wrote about a societal habitus, especially as it was supposed to provide a way of understanding human behaviour without neccessarily having to resort to choosing one of agency or structure – the classic sociological debate. I even left a comment to that effect. I think that a more careful reading of Bourdieu would reveal that what is more sociological in Bourdieu is the field. Maybe the blogger was thinking of that, or maybe he was thinking of habit… but even then, can one have a societal habit? Wouldn’t that mean that one is subscribed to the worldview you describe in the closing paragraphs of this post? Really, it was so nice to read this post.

  2. aflakete Says:

    but even the field theory refers to fields.. economic, cultural, religious, artistic fields.. and we could add many more fields when refering to Nigeria..
    as far as having a societal habit.. hmmm.. possibly.. in very very homogenous societies may be or in a very limited way..
    but i’m with Bourdieu on that one, there has to be a reason why an habit is shared by a group and it has to be a good one, based on socialization facts like for instance Korean nationalism explained by Korean school teaching itself a reaction to (and an imitation of) japanese nationalism/colonialism.
    but see, my issue is really the resort to societal habits theories (and insulting ones at that: “enduring agrarian episteme”) when there are better ones. And then in the korean case cited above, it sort of works because 100% of koreans went to school.
    In the case of Nigeria, for an explanation to work across ethnic, class, educationnal, religious, occupational, cultural, rural/urban and many more divides, you have to go back to the mythical “prevailing pre-modern, pre-industrialised world view”. and that is racist.

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