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September 05, 2005
5. Theoretical and conceptual frameworks
The methods of analysis I employ throughout the dissertation are linked to the themes I discuss and rely mainly on three theoretical frameworks, using conceptual tools derived from the work of Connell, Bourdieu and Foucault. I chose these frameworks because they appeared to offer the greatest explanatory power for the phenomena I was witnessing. Furthermore, I wanted to build on research conducted by Willott and Griffin (2004), who use concepts from both Connell and Bourdieu as a way of explaining constraints on identity change for groups of men experiencing long-term unemployment. They suggest that it would be interesting to compare the discursive practices presented by the working-class men of their study with those of men from other social groups experiencing long-term unemployment, something that I am able to partially achieve in my own study.
I will now briefly outline the key concepts I employ as a theoretical framework, and explain why these theories are pertinent to my own research as an analysis tool to explain the discourses presented by the men in my study.
5.1 Hegemonic masculinities
As we saw in the literature review, early research into male unemployment tends to construct men as a homogeneous group, ignoring the dimensions of difference and social positionings that influence how men perceive and construct narratives around unemployment. Age, for example, is a dimension that is largely neglected by the burgeoning literature on masculinities, with older men omitted from masculinities literature about unemployment (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003).
Connell’s theory of hegemonic masculinity provides one way in which we may reintroduce age (and other social positionings) as an explanatory variable for the discursive practices employed by the men in my study. Far from viewing masculine identity as a homogeneous and unitary entity, Connell (1987, 1993, 1996) contends that definitions of masculinity are in fact multiple and shifting within any socio-historical context, dependent on the social structures that bind and confine individual experience and actions:
Definitions of masculinity are deeply enmeshed in the history of institutions and of economic structures. Masculinity is not just an idea in the head, or a personal identity. It is also extended in the world, merged in organized social relations. To understand masculinity historically we must study changes in those social relations (Connell 1996: 29).
Despite this discursive plurality, certain versions of masculinity are represented as hegemonic ideals, whilst opposing versions are marginalised or subordinated. According to Connell (1987: 184), ‘hegemony’ refers to ‘a social ascendancy achieved in a play of social forces that extends beyond contests of brute power into the organisation of private life and cultural processes’, with hegemonic definitions constructed in a complex and ever changing relationship to that which the definition excludes. For example, in the present socio-historical context, white, middle-class, heterosexual, employed males are considered to be the culturally ascendant ‘norm’ (Willott and Griffin 1996: 80).
It can be argued that youth is considered another such attribute of hegemonic masculinity, with older male workers being forced away from the ‘centre stage’ of the workplace to make room for upcoming ‘Young Turks’ (Arber, Davidson and Ginn 2003: 5). The ageing process does not merely involve an embodied, physiological process – possible loss of sexual potency, diminishing physical strength or ill health – though these factors do of course represent a challenge to masculine identity. Rather, it also incorporates altered life circumstances such as unemployment or retirement that pose a significant challenge to the traditional discourse of masculinity, which must ‘be realigned to accommodate the changing roles and relationships created by altered life circumstances’ (ibid: 5).
Although the social construction of a particular hegemonic masculine identity is arbitrary in one sense, it nevertheless forms a pervasive discourse that shapes how older men respond to and deal with unemployment, the ‘available’ discourses and structures constraining both issues deemed important to men and defining the way in which they position themselves in relation to those specific issues. However, Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity does not provide any explanation about why individuals select one version of masculinity rather than another, and Bourdieu’s concept of capital and habitus may offer one way of understanding the factors that come into play in the adoption of particular identities.
5.2 Capital and habitus
Willott and Griffin (2004) claim that a Bourdieuian concept of capital may aid our understanding of structural and ideological constraints that impede renegotiation of men’s gender identities following long-term unemployment.
Bourdieu (1986) proposes an understanding of society based on the movement of ‘capital’ through social spaces as it is accumulated or lost by individuals (Skeggs 1997: 8). The most obvious example of this is the Marxist concept of economic capital, a highly rationalised form of capital reified as material exchanges and financial assets. Bourdieu moves beyond this model, however, by proposing other metaphorical forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986: 243). ‘Cultural capital’, for example, exists in three different states: in an embodied state in the form of durable dispositions in the mind and body; in an objectified state existing in the form of cultural goods such as books or paintings; in an institutionalised state such as academic credentials (Bourdieu 1986: 243). ‘Social capital’ refers to ‘the connections and networks an agent may call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal’ (Crossley 2001: 97), while ‘symbolic capital’ signifies ‘the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognised as legitimate’ (Skeggs 1997: 8). Bourdieu develops these other capitals analogously with the structure of the economic variety, demonstrating how capitals may be accumulated, lost, invested, distributed and traded within a particular social field. The value of different capitals is tied to the context in which it is found; for example something that is greatly valued in an academic field may not be so highly revered in the world of theatre, or art, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege.
5.3 Dividing practices
A further concept I employ as a theoretical framework is that of Foucault’s ‘dividing practices’. As discussed in the literature review, unemployed men’s private lives are opened up to official scrutiny through the bureaucratisation surrounding access to receipt of benefits, and through a variety of public discourses surround unemployment that position ‘the unemployed’ in particular ways. For example, unemployment may be constructed as equivalent to ‘scrounging off the state’, with the result that unemployed people may make strenuous efforts to resist this interpretation and reposition themselves within a more positive discourse. For example, unemployed men may attempt to negotiate alternative masculine identities not associated with work e.g. by taking up voluntary work, education or early retirement.
In this way unemployment appears to exemplify a process Foucault (1982: 208) labels ‘dividing practices’, in which ‘the subject is objectified by a process of division either within himself or from others’. Through a process of social objectification and categorisation that imposes preconceptions about the identity of the unemployed man on a more fluid situation, unemployment defines, excludes and stigmatises a distinctive ‘type’ of unemployed man (e.g. that of the ‘scrounger’).
I found that the men of my study were acutely aware of public discourses surrounding unemployment and the way in which they were positioned by others, as well as by institutions such as Job Centre Plus.
July 13, 2005
The place of gender within Bourdieu’s theoretical framework remains understated, yet despite Bourdieu’s relative neglect of gender in much of his work, feminist writers have taken up his theories and adapted them for their own purposes. Moi’s definition of ‘appropriation’ as ‘a critical assessment of a given theory formation with a view to taking it over and using it for feminist purposes’ (Moi 1990: 265) seems an apt description of the work undertaken by feminists who integrate Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus to underpin their own theories and advise empirical research, not merely accepting all aspects of Bourdieu’s theory blindly, but critically examining his concepts and questioning if they can be directly utilised for an exploration of gender issues.
I will critically examine the relevance of habitus and cultural capital for feminism, firstly looking at the ways in which these key concepts have been adopted within a theoretical analysis of gender. I will also consider the ways in which feminist researchers have used Bourdieuian concepts to direct and inform empirical research, and the way in which his emphasis on reflexivity may be relevant for feminist epistemology in constructing a ‘feminist habitus’ (McCall 1992: 852) to direct research.
Bourdieu (1986a) proposes an understanding of society based on the movement of ‘capital’ through social spaces as it is accumulated or lost by individuals (Skeggs 1996: 8). The most obvious example of this is the Marxist concept of economic capital, a highly rationalised form of capital reified as material exchanges and financial assets. Bourdieu moves beyond this model, however, by proposing other metaphorical forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986a: 243). ‘Cultural capital’, for example, exists in three different states: in an embodied state in the form of durable dispositions in the mind and body; in an objectified state existing in the form of cultural goods such as books or paintings; in an institutionalised state such as academic credentials (Bourdieu 1986a: 243). ‘Social capital’ refers to ‘the connections and networks an agent may call upon in their effort to achieve a specified goal’ (Crossley 2001: 97), while ‘symbolic capital’ signifies ‘the form the different types of capital take once they are perceived and recognised as legitimate’ (Skeggs 1997: 8).
Bourdieu develops these other capitals analogously with the structure of the economic variety, demonstrating how capitals may be accumulated, lost, invested, distributed and traded within a particular social field, defined as ‘a competitive system of social relations which functions according to its own specific logic or rules’ (Moi 1990: 269). The value of different capitals is tied to the context in which it is found; for example something that is greatly valued in an academic field may not be so highly revered in the world of theatre, or art, and may not afford the corresponding power and privilege.
Most crucially, perhaps, Bourdieu’s concept of capital offers one way in which the feminist gaze may be refocused on the material, everyday aspects of our lives, such as the ways in which we dress, walk, or decorate our houses (Moi 1990: 253). This return to materiality forms a refreshing contrast to recent feminist theorising which has tended to focus on symbolisation, representation, discourse and text, at the expense of disregarding material issues that impact upon our daily lives (Maynard 1995). It is important to remember that:
Not everything is sign or text, as any rape survivor, homeless person or starving child will testify. Such people experience ‘real’ phenomena with ‘real’ effects, many of which are done to them by individual or institutional ‘others’ and are outside of their control (Maynard 1995: 272–3).
By restoring materiality to feminism, it is possible to understand how inequalities are produced and thus to reclaim social class within feminist theory. In recent years class has been ousted from a whole range of academic disciplines, and depicted as unfashionable and irrelevant (Reay 1997, Skeggs 1997), a ‘cultural dinosaur’ (Skeggs 1997: 7) in the context of what has been deemed a ‘classless society’ by scores of sociologists. In a system supposedly characterised by social mobility, meritocracy, even classlessness, social class has been marginalised as an outmoded structural concept, an irrelevant remnant of modernism which denies the possibility of traversing differences unimpeded by structure or inequality (Skeggs 1997). Yet Reay and Skeggs deplore the disappearance of class from feminist theory, claiming that disguising the privilege afforded to the middle classes draws attention away from exploitation, reinforcing old hierarchies by silently perpetuating them:
Making class invisible represents a historical stage in which the identity of the middle classes is assured. Its recent invisibility suggests that these differences [in power] are now institutionalized, legitimated and well established (Skeggs 1997: 7).
Feminism cannot simply forsake notions of class without ‘fail[ing] to engage adequately with the intricate web of inequalities that constitutes society in the 1990s and into the millennium’ (Reay 1997: 226). We therefore need a new feminist way of writing and understanding class that is more suited to exposing the covert structures and processes that characterise today’s class system, in order to unpick and expose ‘the unacknowledged normality of the middle class’ (Savage 2003: 536–7).
Bourdieu’s identification of multiple forms of capital may provide a more satisfactory model to explain the complexities of the present class system, offering ‘a powerfully elaborate conceptual framework for understanding the role of gender in the social relations of modern capitalist society’ (McCall 1992: 837), one which incorporates the multiplicity of power relations associated with the word ‘class’. Unlike traditional class paradigms, which are founded on linear representations of class mostly defined using quantitative signifiers such as occupation, salary or housing, Bourdieu’s model incorporates metaphors of cultural capital dependent on a variety of both quantitative and qualitative variables such as lifestyle choices, art preferences, clothes, education and tastes (Reay 1998: 24). In this way Bourdieu eliminates the idea that class is founded upon one variable and broadens the scope of traditional class schemas.
Bourdieu perceives class as constructed within a spatial model of society comprising many intersecting dimensions such as class, gender, sexuality, age and race, and accordingly proposes a more complex multidimensional distribution of power that breaks down the stratified vertical continuum of traditional class theories. Within this model, one’s position in a social space is mapped out and defined using multiple variables, not capitals in themselves, but rather ‘provid[ing] the relations in which capitals come to be organised and valued’ in terms of who is able to attain access to resources and achieve legitimation through social positioning (Skeggs 1996: 9). Far from being a homogeneous, singular identity, the category ‘woman’ is lived and intimately experienced ‘as a form of subjectivity inhabited through other categories’, categories which overlap to constitute a ‘nexus of power relations’ (ibid: 166). Adopting Bourdieu’s model of cultural capital thus opens up the possibility of a space for women within class analysis (Reay 1998: 25), by theorising social class as an integral component of gendered identity.
Like most feminists, Bourdieu’s position is determinedly anti-essentialist, understanding essentialism to be a major contributory factor to the persistence and reproduction of gender power inequalities by rendering them seemingly natural. Bourdieu contends that hierarchies of status and power within a social system appear to be a natural result of, and are therefore justified by, arbitrary differences that do not in themselves intrinsically signify privilege or disadvantage, so that ‘every established order tends to produce (to very different degrees and with very different means) the naturalisation of its own arbitrariness’ (Bourdieu 1977: 164). Bourdieu undermines the essentialist argument by revealing its ludicrous, circular nature:
Our perceptions of the biology of reproduction are the effects of the thoroughly arbitrary social construction of gender divisions which they are supposed to legitimate and explain (Bourdieu 2001 paraphrased in Moi 1990: 282)
However, he does not underestimate the danger or pervasiveness of such a position, emphasising that it is those in a position of domination that control the process of naturalisation, ‘apply[ing] categories constructed from the point of view of the dominant to the relations of domination’ (Bourdieu 2001: 35). Sexism, for example, is an essentialism adopted within patriarchy to legitimise gender domination, ‘politically nefarious insofar as it is invoked to predict and thus to control the behaviour of every member of a given social group’ (Moi 1990: 281). Bourdieu reacts against this inflexible, essentialist construction of the category of ‘woman’, and consequently opens up the possibility of social change and transformation by representing gender relations as socially constructed, an analysis concurrent with that of numerous socialist and materialist feminists (Moi 1990: 281). Yet if gender is socially constructed, it remains to be seen what form this social construction takes and what its organising principle is, not to mention the specific consequences that such a claim may have (Moi 1990: 268) for understanding how ‘the established order, with its relations of domination, its rights and prerogatives, privileges and injustices, ultimately perpetuates itself so easily’ (Bourdieu 2001: 1).
Bourdieu depicts a struggle for power taking place within a field, where each social agent seeks to accrue symbolic capital, instrumental for achieving dominance of the field (Moi 1990: 270). Those in a position of dominance control legitimacy, which is ‘the power to be heard, believed and obeyed, along with the ability to silence others or allow them to speak’ (Bourdieu 1991). Through acquisition of cultural capital, dominant agents maintain the ability to reproduce their dominance. The dominant group defends the integrity of what Bourdieu labels ‘doxa’, unquestioned beliefs that are embodied in actions and feeling but seldom formulated in words, accepted as beyond the possibility of contestation and resistant to modification (Crossley 2001: 99), as in the case of social-gender relations within a patriarchal system:
While the invocation of biology allows the social construction of sexual difference to appear motivated or ‘natural’, its real function is to mask the true, socially produced power relations between the sexes, to present social gender divisions as doxic, that is to say, as that which cannot be questioned (Moi 1990: 282)
The social field operates as a form of ‘censorship’ (Moi 1990: 270), but the structure of domination is also perpetuated through a process Bourdieu terms ‘symbolic violence’, a violence that is ‘censored, euphemized, that is, misrecognizable, recognized violence’ (Bourdieu 1990: 126). Symbolic violence is ‘recognized’ because everyone within a particular social field tacitly understands the rules and ‘stakes’ of the ‘game’, and the illusion is maintained that these are worth fighting for (Moi 1990: 270). Yet paradoxically symbolic violence is also ‘misrecognizable’ because dominated agents partake in a ‘form of forgetting’ whereby they fail to recognise their own domination and understand their situation to be ‘the natural order of things’ (Bourdieu 1979: 198), unwittingly accepting the illusion that there are in fact no ‘stakes’ and no ‘game’. In other words symbolic violence is ‘the violence exercised upon a social agent with his or her complicity’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 167).
The notion that dominated groups in fact collude with their own oppression is, of course, problematic for feminism, which appeals to women to be the agents of their own emancipation. However, Bourdieu’s concept of habitus plays a key role in explaining how this might occur. It is habitus that mediates between the binaries of structure and agency, the structures of society that bind us and our own experience and actions within the confines of these structures, acting both as a structured structure and a structuring structure (Bourdieu 1979: 191). Habitus is acquired unconsciously through lived experience of a position within the social world, taking on the properties of the ‘conditions of existence’ in which it is formed and formed in a ‘durable’ way so that:
the body is literally moulded into certain forms, so that the habitus is reflected in the whole way that one carries oneself in the world, the way that one walks, speaks, acts, eats (Thompson 1984: 102)
This residual ‘sediment’ of past experience also actively functions within the agent’s present, moulding perceptions, thoughts and actions, and shaping social practice in a regular and highly pervasive way. Individuals are predisposed to act in particular ways as a result of the habitus acquired through past experience, and this acts as an ‘internalized set of tacit rules governing strategies and practices in the field’ (Moi 1990: 271).
Although it may thus be the case that ‘les dominés contribuent toujours à leur propre domination’ (the dominated always contributeto their own domination), the choices and actions available to dominated groups (in the form of habitus) are in turn shaped by the limiting framework of power structures in which they are formed, so that ‘les dispositions qui les inclinent à cette complicité sont aussi un effet incorporé de la domination’ (the dispositions that predispose them to comply are also an embodied effect of domination) (Wacquant 1992: 28). Habitus mirrors the inequalities and injustices present in the social world in which it is shaped, but acting as an unconscious influence embedded deep within the social agent, it succeeds in achieving compliance with social norms with little need for heavy-handed tactics.
Habitus functions as a hinge between past and present, agency and structure, not only unconsciously influencing an agent's likelihood of success through interaction in the field, but simultaneously ensuring the field’s survival by conforming to its hidden, unspoken criteria (Crossley 2001: 94). Deeply embodied, it is the organising principle that explains the ways in which gender and class inequalities are constructed and established within society at every level, showing the interconnectedness of an agent’s ‘everyday negotiations of the mundane’ (Skeggs 1997: 167) and large-scale power relations within a social system.
Bourdieu’s originality lies in the importance that he accords to this minutiae of daily life, showing that gender and class inequalities can be analysed and understood by considering the ‘silent curriculum’ of the everyday (Moi 1990: 271). Bourdieu’s flagrant disregard for conventional boundaries dictating what is valuable for cultural research means that anything and everything is potentially worthy of analysis:
Bourdieu makes sociological theory out of everything. Refusing to accept the distinction between ‘high’ or ‘significant’ and ‘low’ or ‘insignificant’ matters, Bourdieu will analyse various ways of chewing one’s food, different forms of dressing, musical tastes ranging from a predilection for ‘Home on the Range’ to a liking for John Cage, home decoration, the kind of friends one has and the films one likes to see, and the way a student may feel when talking to her professor (Moi 1990: 268)
Whereas patriarchy dismisses these ‘most mundane details of everyday life’ as banal, insignificant ‘women’s gossip’, they in fact offer a specific form of social analysis leading to an understanding of the ‘micro-politics of power’ which allows complex and specific linkages to be made across age-old dualisms such as individual and social, and private and public spheres (Skeggs 1997: 167). It is through interpretation of seemingly banal actions and positioning in the everyday that it is possible to discern the overarching framework of structural organisation including the systematic inequalities it incorporates on a larger scale.
In developing the concept of habitus Bourdieu allows feminists to ‘reconceptualise gender as a social category in a way that undercuts the traditional essentialist / non-essentialist divide’ (Moi 1990: 267). As we have seen, Bourdieu certainly eschews an essentialist position, refusing to accept a biologically determinist account of sexual differences as ‘essences’ and insisting upon real, lived experience where social construction of sexual identity has real implications that cannot merely be ‘deconstructed away’ in metaphysical terms (Moi 1990: 287).
We cannot always reduce practical knowledge to theoretical knowledge (Reay 1998: 31), but at the same time we do need ‘concepts that can encapsulate experiences otherwise unnamed’ (Skeggs 1997: 166). Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus provide this connection between theory and practice, and his focus on lived practice means they are easily applied to the feminist research process and epistemologies (McCall 1992, Lovell 2000).
Like ‘academic feminism’, Bourdieu’s ‘sociology of sociology’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992) is intent on revealing the gender, class and racial bias (symbolic violence) perceived as inherent within the academic intellectual field, whilst simultaneously positioning itself as a serious player within that very field (Lovell 2000: 26). Bourdieu’s emphasis on reflexivity in the research process mirrors that of feminist epistemology, reacting against the positivist research tradition instituted within the social sciences that fails to recognise ‘the fact that it is the product of a theoretical gaze, a “contemplative eye” (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 34). Bourdieu argues that his task entails:
not simply telling the truth of this world, as can be uncovered by objectivist methods of observation, but also showing that this world is the site of an ongoing struggle to tell the truth of this world (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 35)
McCall takes the concerns shared by Bourdieu and feminism further by suggesting that it might even be possible to organise key ideas from feminist politics, methodologies and epistemologies into a ‘feminist habitus’ (McCall 1992: 852), by which she implies a ‘certain type of disposition’ that guides feminist research, a ‘character of feminist research’ acquired through a process of training and development that seeks ‘a new form of critical social science’ whose practice is not based upon symbolic violence and exclusionary practices. Yet Lovell echoes the concerns of feminist sceptics outside the academy, in questioning if it is indeed possible in reality to establish such a strategy or if, in doing so, we in fact ‘establish our own forms of symbolic violence, to reproduce class and ‘race’ hierarchies’ (Lovell 2000: 26).
Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus have indeed been used within the academy as an analytical framework to direct and inform feminist empirical research. Reay (1998), for example, utilises cultural capital and habitus as ‘conceptual tools’ to direct empirical research into working and middle class mothers’ involvement in their children’s primary schooling, suggesting that cultural capital plays a key role in understanding the ways in which access to resources affects the support women are able to provide for their children’s schooling, whilst habitus is used ‘as a way of looking at what women are doing; a way that conceptualises the present in terms of the influences of the past’ (Reay 1998: 32).
Emphasising the role of ‘habitus as history’, Reay shows that the women’s experiences of education in the past have a profound effect upon maternal actions in the present, the influence of habitus shaping, restricting or enhancing the women’s trajectory through social space from past to present (Reay 1998: 47). Reay found that there was indeed strong continuity between past and present in the accounts of both working and middle class women, and that personal history and experiences, whether positive or negative, ‘impact on their involvement in their children’s schooling in a powerful process which infuses all aspects of their mothering work’ (Reay 1998: 55), from choice of school to communication with the teacher.
For example, many middle class mothers believed that it was important to teach one’s child outside the school environment. Their current belief system displayed continuity with past experiences, resulting in a process Reay terms ‘replication of the habitus’ (ibid: 56). Although this link between past and present was sometimes undermined by changing social values (for example demands of the labour market resulting in reduced time available for teaching in the home), the fact they were able to access superior forms of capital often meant that they were able to override such constraints by employing specialists such as a personal tutor to take on this responsibility within the home.
Some of the working class women were also involved in this ‘replication of habitus’, which often manifested itself in a more negative way, such as fear of the school environment, feeling silenced within an educational context, or failing to comprehend the educational system just as they had in their own schooldays. However, some of them also attempted a ‘transformation of the habitus’ (Bourdieu 1993 quoted in Reay 1998: 56) by trying to do things differently from their own parents. For example, mothers who had described their own school experiences as a ‘horror movie’ tended to give priority to their own children’s happiness, whilst many mothers who had experienced a lack of parental involvement in their own education attempted to adopt an active role in their children’s education (Reay 1998: 57).
Working class mothers were seen to experience ‘powerful barriers’ that restricted their involvement, and so attempts to overcome the habitus and generate profits of cultural capital in a situation of little prior investment involved a greater degree of exertion than that required of their middle class counterparts (Reay 1998: 58). In this way the micro details of mothering practices mirror the large-scale macro relations between education and inequality, showing how positioning within structures of inequality circumscribes movement through social space at a multitude of levels.
Likewise, for Skeggs (1997), adopting the cultural capital model as a theoretical framework shows how social structure impedes the ability to trade and capitalise upon already meagre forms of capital, but at the same time does not deny the way in which power and agency may play a role in attempts to escape restricted social roles. Although the working class women of her study were born into structures of inequality with access to limited amounts of capital, they nevertheless attempted to ‘put a floor’ under their economic and cultural circumstances by using and trading the scanty amounts of capital to which they had access to stop things getting worse (Skeggs 1997: 161).
Although the women had little educational capital to trade, they did possess what Skeggs identifies as ‘feminine cultural capital’ in the form of existing ‘caring’ dispositions accrued through lived experience. Caring offered these women ‘the means to value, trade and invest in themselves, an opportunity to ‘make something of themselves’ (Skeggs 1996: 57). Feminine cultural capital was only convertible on a ‘diminishing labour market’ or as unpaid labour through caring within the family, and even conversion on the marriage market did not help these women to gain access to wider institutional power, since ‘the ability to capitalize on femininity is restricted. It provides only restricted access to potential forms of power’ (ibid: 10).
The women in the study revealed an awareness of the body as a ‘carrier of class signals’ in their discourses of improving their class position and attempting to ‘pass’ as middle class (Skeggs 1997: 83), showing that their very bodies provide important clues about social position, the ‘indisputable imprint of an individual’s social class’ as it develops over time (Shilling 1992: 127 – 129). Bodies and their dispositions form the ‘physical sites where the relations of class, gender, race, sexuality and age come together and are em-bodied and practised’ (Skeggs 1997: 82).
Skeggs suggests that class inequalities and privilege are embodied in the everyday, permeating every aspect of the women’s lived experiences from the clothes they wear to the way they decorate their houses, and combined with limited forms of capital, contribute to the structuring of inequality which results in limited movement through social space (Skeggs 1997: 7). Although the women tried to escape class identifications through discourses of improving or passing, this attempt ultimately failed because they lacked the power to convert cultural capital into symbolic capital (ibid: 87). Thus while the women retained an illusion of coherence and agency, ultimately social positioning delimited their ability to convert or trade different forms of capital effectively, as negative representations of the working class condemned the meagre cultural capital they accumulated as illegitimate or worthless (ibid: 11).
Although useful for feminism both theoretically, analytically and empirically, Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus have also been criticised, not least for the suggestion that dominated groups exhibit implicit complicity in their own domination. As I have suggested, the collusion is unconscious, a result of habitus shaped by the structures of a patriarchal society, apparent at every level of social interaction, and difficult if not impossible to transform or eradicate through willpower alone. This leads us to the second problematic aspect of Bourdieu’s theory, closely linked with the first, which is that it offers an over-determined view of subjectivity with limited potential for social change (McCall 1992, Lovell 2000).
Although Skeggs, for example, makes extensive use of the Bourdieuian framework of capital, suggesting this concept ‘shifts power and agency back into the hands of those who have restricted access to it’ (Skeggs 1997: 166), she never mentions habitus by name, possibly understanding it to be ‘an over-restrictive concept’ (Lovell 2000: 23). Bourdieu’s concept of habitus is criticised for denying the possibility of innovation or agency, linking subjectivity too tightly with the social conditions in which it is forged:
Bourdieu reads at times like a structuralist with an ‘oversocialized’ concept of the individual. A mere bearer of social positions, one who comes to love and want his/her fate: amor fati (Lovell 2000: 15).
Bourdieu vehemently denies this reading of his theory, arguing that far from reducing social agents to ‘cultural dopes’ or limiting their tactical capabilities (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992: 132), the habitus schema in fact acts ‘like an underlying grammar, which allows for a multitude of innovative forms of expression, facilitating action as much as shaping it’ (Crossley 2001: 94). Yet Bourdieu’s account of the way in which symbolic violence pervades our daily existence and understanding of the world means it is difficult to understand how habitus leaves room for conceptualising, let alone implementing, a politics of transformation (Chambers 2004).
Feminists therefore need to find a way to critique the apparent determinism inherent in Bourdieu’s theory, not denying the possibility of the usefulness of his concepts, but seeking a way to appropriate them in order to achieve a transformatory politics in the form of emancipation. One solution to this seemingly no-win situation is to combine a Bourdieuian approach with other feminist theories.
In a recent draft paper Chambers, for example, suggests the possibility of a fruitful marriage between the theories of MacKinnon (1989) and Bourdieu. Mackinnon’s notion of consciousness-raising complements the notion of habitus, providing ‘the means by which women come to understand both their oppression and the possible remedies for it’ as a crucial first step towards prompting wider institutional change with women as agents of that change (Chambers 2004: 30).
Lovell (2000) also suggests a successful combinatory approach could be achieved by uniting Bourdieu’s concept of habitus with Butler’s account of performativity. Lovell suggests that Skeggs’ analysis of the women in her study interprets Bourdieu in this way (Lovell 2000: 23–25), that rather than viewing the women as passively accepting a predetermined fate, she understands them to take an active role by ‘construct[ing] their subjectivities through class-informed performances’ (Skeggs 1997: 74) in their attempt to dissociate from their class position. As well as helping us to move beyond the ‘sense of political paralysis’ Bourdieu’s theory may induce (Lovell 2000: 17), a Bourdieuian approach may also have positive implications for moderating Butler’s understanding of gender as a performance, providing ‘a powerful conceptual antidote to post-modern voluntaristic politics, insofar as it permits us to focus on the social conditions of existence of resistance’ (Lovell 2000: 18).
Although we may question the limitations of Bourdieu’s concepts, they are still potentially valuable to feminism, not least because habitus and cultural capital offer a way of refocusing the feminist gaze on material inequalities, integrating aspects of everyday lived experience to explain the ways in which disadvantage and privilege are structured within a larger social system. Rather than understanding class inequalities and privilege ‘in the male, Marxist mode’, Bourdieu’s model suggests that these are embodied in the everyday ‘as intricate daily practices which, interwined with race and gender, are inscribed on women’s bodies and played out in their social interactions’ (Reay 1997: 231), changing the conception of social identity so that it incorporates various dimensions, raced, classed and gendered, embodied and enacted in the seeming banality of everyday lived practice.
Bourdieu’s concepts recall the structures that pervade and influence daily existence, providing the means by which unquestioned concepts and habits may be restored to the conscious mind so they can be queried and, it is to be hoped, negated:
We need concepts that do have explanatory value for those to whom they are meant to apply so that experiences cannot be dismissed as illegitimate just because they are not known by those who have the power to effect judgements on others (Skeggs 1997: 166).
Although it could be argued that this account leaves little room for individual agency, this does not necessarily imply that women should embrace their fate willingly. Rather than ‘amor fati’, recognising the pervasive nature of the structures that capture women at least enables them to attempt resistance, despite the fact that instigating and achieving change may be difficult. One of the crucial advantages of habitus may well be that it does not ‘underestimate the difficulties of breaking loose of patriarchal shackles’ (Moi 1990: 285), but this does not in itself deny the possibility of change altogether, and adopting Bourdieu’s concepts in conjunction with feminists who theorise change may well provide a powerful challenge to the injustices and inequalities inherent in the world today.
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