Beyond Habitus: Researching Gender and Religion through the Ontology of Social Relations

Marta Trzebiatowska

Bourdieu and Gender

Pierre Bourdieu needs no introduction. Since the 1990s his work has influenced social scientists in his native France and internationally (Silva and Warde 2010) and he has become a patron of collective intellectual endeavour 'which disregards borders between disciplines and countries' (Wacquant in Truong and Weill 2012). He is mostly known for his writings on education, class, consumption and art (see Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992) for an excellent overview) but in 1991 he wrote Masculine Domination, an essay later amended and turned into a book (1998), and subsequently translated into English in 2001. The book was largely ignored by feminists and had seemingly little impact on the 'cottage industry' that had grown around Bourdieu's work (King 2000: 417). The overall argument broadly reflects Bourdieu's preoccupation with the role of power relations in maintaining the symbolic order, but in this instance he zooms in on the question of the possibility of permanence and change in the gender order in particular. The central question of Masculine Domination concerns the historical mechanisms behind the relative universality and tenacity of the structures of gender (Bourdieu 2001: viii). Although his analysis is by no means novel in the eyes of feminist scholars, the manner in which he arrives at his conclusions helps to understand the operation of the gender order in greater depth than if we simply stated that gender difference and inequality are socially created and reproduced. In the course of building his argument Bourdieu places particular emphasis on the amount of hard work that goes into presenting the relationship between men and women as natural and ahistorical.[1] Social institutions - the family, the church, the state, the educational system, the media - all contribute to creating the illusion that the gender order is eternal, ahistorical and natural, therefore commonsensical and 'just-so'. Bourdieu terms this commonsensical view of the world 'doxa' (2000: 15). What we think is common sense, however, amounts to the outcome of our particular habitus -the collection of experiences, beliefs and norms internalised throughout our lives, hence both internal and external to us. Our habitus operates to match individual expectations to the objective reality that surrounds us. The two are interconnected and difficult to disentangle. Herein lies the paradox of the commonsensical view of gender too. It is surprising, remarks Bourdieu, that most individuals do not question the order of gender and there are relatively few transgressions and subversions, which is exactly how the order reproduces itself effortlessly. Part of the reason for such a lack of subversion is the operation of symbolic violence in its reproduction.[2] Bourdieu uses the concept of 'symbolic violence' to describe an invisible, subtle coercion exerted over the dominated group. Masculine domination over women operates successfully thanks to the 'paradox of doxa' - the surprising ease with which the order of the world as we know it reproduces itself without any significant difficulty (Bourdieu 1998). The trouble with challenging masculine domination is that even when explicitly trying to do so women end up drawing on the very 'modes of thought that are the product of domination' (Bourdieu 2001: 5). The only way of breaking the cycle of reproduction is to treat masculine domination as 'at once familiar and exotic' (Bourdieu 2001: 5).

Bourdieu uses his early ethnography of the Kabyle society in Algeria to demonstrate the operation of the symbolic gender order (1979). Amongst the Kabyles male and female characteristics are organised as a set of oppositions that define one another (up/down, straight/curved, dry/wet) (2001: 6). The distinction between the sexes is present not only in the bodies and behaviour of men and women but also in the objective social world because mundane everyday objects are accorded masculine or feminine characteristics. For example, every part of the house is labelled as either masculine or feminine. Thus, the masculine, androcentric order is presented as neutral and in no need of justification. As women mobilise these dominant schemes of perception, they also internalise their submission and form a view of feminine sexuality that is negative and inferior to its masculine counterpart. Consequently, the symbolic gender order is constructed and legitimated through both: the objective division and subjective cognitive schemes. But gender does not exist in a vacuum. Femininity and masculinity necessarily operate relationally because the feminine and the masculine cannot be understood without reference to each other. The formative process of gendering bodies, Bourdieu stresses, is not entirely conscious but rather achieved through everyday division of labour and rituals all aimed at encouraging the development of appearance and behaviour deemed appropriate for one's gender. Repetition brings the gender order into being (Butler 1990). And so this gender apprenticeship 'is all the more effective because it remains essentially tacit: femininity is imposed for the most part through an unremitting discipline that concerns every part of the body and is continuously recalled through the constraints of clothing and style' (Bourdieu 2001: 27). As a result of this tacit operation of the gender order, neither men nor women fully realise the degree to which they reproduce the relationship of domination through their everyday actions. Even when women draw on strategies to undermine this relationship, they usually end up further reinforcing the androcentric view. Their own tools of resistance are rooted in the very symbols and myths that they try to undermine and consequently: 'because their dispositions are the product of embodiment of the negative prejudice against the female that is instituted in the order of things, women cannot but constantly confirm this prejudice' (Bourdieu 2001: 32). Bourdieu further illustrates this point through an example of French women's preference with regard to future husbands. Surveys demonstrate that a high percentage of French women express a desire for a man taller and older than they are (two-thirds explicitly reject shorter men) (2001: 36). In this case the objective schemes of perception and the subjective preferences coalesce and become difficult, if not impossible, to disentangle. Love, in this scenario, 'is often partly amorfati, love of one's social destiny' (Bourdieu 2001: 37). Interestingly, the desired age gap between a woman and a man decreases as the woman's independence increases and marriage ceases to be a means of achieving a higher social status, which shows that there is no inevitability about the gender order. Once women have gained access to professional avenues of mobility in the public sphere, 'erotic capital' (Hakim 2011) quickly becomes redundant. Therefore, according to Bourdieu, the only way to understand symbolic violence as exercised by men over women is to move beyond constraint and consent (between mechanical coercion and voluntary submission) and focus on understanding symbolic domination as exerted through the schemes of perception and action that are constitutive of habitus and which operate below the level of conscious decisions and thus 'set up a cognitive relationship that is profoundly obscure to itself' (Bourdieu 2001: 37). The interaction between masculine domination and feminine submissiveness can only be understood by examining the 'durable effects that the social order exerts on women (and men), that is to say, the dispositions spontaneously attuned to that order which it imposes on them' (Bourdieu 2001: 38). In order to operate successfully symbolic violence needs to be met halfway by the individuals involved and this is only possible if they have performed the (embodied) efforts necessary for the production of these 'durable dispositions' (Bourdieu 2001: 38).

The dominated co-produce their own domination by acting in accordance with the expectations of the dominant. Bourdieu gives examples of embodied emotions and sentiments, such as shame or respect, to illustrate this point (2001: 39). Simply being aware of the expectations and the manner in which they are met does nothing to displace the mechanism of submission because it is so deeply embedded into the individual's consciousness and bodily actions. The body, and the gendered and sexual body, is a container and a vessel for the habitus (internalised dispositions and experiences) (Krais 2006). To put it simply, the excluded exclude themselves naturally and effortlessly as a result of the 'somatization of the relation of power' (Bourdieu 2001: 56).[3]

Bourdieu is very conscious of the dangers inherent in suggesting that women participate in reinforcing their own submission (2001: 114). This not only victimises women further but also can serve as an excuse for men's actions. Of course, Bourdieu does not mean to suggest that women actively choose to be submissive, are their worst enemies, or enjoy the domination. The durability and relative strength of the structures of domination lies in the subtle operation of symbolic power which can only be exercised with the contribution from those at the receiving end, and they are only at the receiving end because they are complicit in the construction of the relationship. In a sense, Bourdieu's analysis of the gender order is a version of the Hegelian master-and-slave dialectic, also famously mobilised by Simone de Beauvoir in her seminal writings on gender relations (1949). The cognitive structures drawn on by both the dominant and the dominated are socially constructed but even the act of construction is the effect of power (Bourdieu 2001: 40). Symbolic efforts to raise consciousness among the dominated is not sufficient because the conditions in place are too strongly inscribed in bodies, so the only way to alter the effects of symbolic violence is to change the conditions of its production (Bourdieu 2001: 41). As Bourdieu describes it: a relation of domination that functions only through the complicity of dispositions depends profoundly, for its perpetuation or transformation, on the perpetuation of transformation of the structures of which those dispositions are the product. (2001: 42)

There is no danger of women defying the collective expectations and thus challenging the gender order because their dispositions are so perfectly attuned to the objective expectations. The very position of the dominant makes it possible to render their view of reality universal and therefore very difficult to challenge (Bourdieu 2001: 62).[4] This explains why in some religions women would not attempt to gain access to the positions of power. The positions in question 'are tailor-made for men' and so the mismatch between dispositions and objective conditions 'naturally' prevents transgression (Bourdieu 2001: 63). The harsh reality of this gender order then is that women are simultaneously tools and assets in the production of symbolic and social capital in male power struggles (Bourdieu 2001: 44). This is evidenced most clearly in social norms with regard to honour and nowhere is this more obvious than in traditionally religious groups where women perform morality on behalf of men and preserve the collective honour of the community through monitoring their behaviour and reputation. Women's honour becomes perceived as 'a fetishized measure of masculine reputation' (Bourdieu 2001: 45). This is achieved partly, if not fully, through the construction, representation and experience of the female body as 'body-for-others' (Bourdieu 2001: 63). Bourdieu points out that being interpellated to partake in the masculine 'games of honour' and to assert masculinity constantly is also a burdensome duty and a 'trap' (2001: 50). He gives the impression that the demands imposed on men by their particular habitus produce their own version of insecurities, especially that manliness is always judged against femininity and has to be legitimated by other men in the community. Femininity, therefore, symbolises a threat to the successful achievement of the masculine status, which necessarily makes the accomplishment of masculinity relational - fashioned in direct opposition to what it is not.

  • [1] This work has been described by gender scholars as 'doing gender' (West and Zimmerman 1987) and 'performativity' (Butler 1990), but Bourdieu's analysis goes beyond interactionism and micro-level explanation because he positions gender scripts in the wider field of objective social relations.
  • [2] Bourdieu has been heavily criticised for presenting gender divisions as fixed and simplistic and ignoring the challenges to the status quo from several generations of feminist activists and academics (see Lovell 2002).
  • [3] Interestingly, women's own contribution to their objective subordination has received a lot of public attention and coverage due to the publication of books such as Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (Sandberg 2013) and Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital (Hakim 2011). While these books are highly controversial in their claims about gender inequalities, they indicate a shift in both, the place of women in public sphere and their perception of it.
  • [4] Some commentators found Bourdieu's argument patronising towards women (see, for example, Wallace 2003).
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