Teaching Bourdieu: Observing the Habitus in Sites of Consumption

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Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by William Hayes, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2001

Problematic: How to teach Bourdieu, or more specifically, how to develop a student’s understanding of Bourdieu’s theoretical concepts (habitus, capital, field)? For social science teaching, it is often difficult to make concrete the notoriously abstract conceptions of the French social theorist, Pierre Bourdieu. While sociology of culture courses regularly assign selections from his text, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, US students usually encounter these readings without the necessary theoretical knowledge (symbolic capital) or cultural knowledge (cultural capital) for understanding the main arguments or referents in his survey analysis of 1960s Paris. Hence, the teaching problem emerges of how to “materialize” these Parisian abstractions within our Berkeley students.

Teaching Strategy: While most instructors struggle through a section or two rehearsing the definitional abstractions of these concepts, I chose to tackle the problem in a different manner. The sociology of culture course had assigned three chapters from Distinction, along with a comparative study (Lamont, Money, Morals and Manners). Given two weeks/four sections to work through these readings, I tried to design a participatory activity (practicum) to materialize our abstract discussions from section.

In the practicum, I wanted students to move beyond the university and apply Bourdieu to their observations in consumption sites, and I also wanted students to gain a tacit understanding of their “habitus” (a class disposition, a structuring structure, a structure of structuring, a life-style, a practice-unifying and practice-generating principle). To materialize this concept, I tried to position our mainly middle class students outside of their normal consumption sites in order for them to “touch” their own habitus-in-action. So, I sent them to sites where their habitus would emerge in the differentiations between their own “tastes” and that of the observed consumer. While I provided sites for eating, drinking, leisure, shopping and lodging, students could and did select their own sites. However, to put students in differentiated sites, I required them to visit a “working class and dominant class” site. These sites ranged from the Ritz Carlton in San Francisco to residential hotels in Oakland, from the www.com bar in SF to the Hotsy-Totsy bar in Albany, from the BMW dealership in Walnut Creek to a used car lot in San Leandro, from Chez Panisse to the $1.11 Chinese Food Express in Berkeley.

While several students resisted the exercise by visiting “familiar” sites, most students took up the challenge and “dressed up/ down” for their sites of consumption, often running off to the bathroom to write down their observations about customers, organizational cultures, consumption practices and their own personal “taste.” Students turned their observations into 2-page reports and used them for the basis of a class discussion.

Means of Assessment: Most students wrote up compare/ contrast ethnographies and, with humorous affect, noted the distinctions of consumption, ranging from symbolic representations to spatial organizations to class representations of and by consumers. For a number of students, the practicum resulted in an awareness of their habitus. I assessed this outcome in their reports and discussions, as they wrote/spoke of their own “comfort/ discomfort” and their “ability/inability” to see the distinctive class “tastes” practiced in these consumption sites.