Notes on Bernard Lahire’s The Plural Actor

Last summer, I finally managed to read Bernard Lahire’s The Plural Actor (2011, French original from 1998). What follows is a slightly edited version of a Twitter thread I wrote then.

The Plural Actor presents itself as a critical discussion of sociological theories of action, but mostly it’s about Pierre Bourdieu’s «theory of habitus». Generally speaking, even if I don’t agree with everything, I think it’s an exemplary case of critique, for three reasons. 

First, it’s based on what I would see as a reasonable interpretation of Bourdieu, so there’s not the hyper-selective emphasis and straw-man argumentation we’ve come to expect in debates in sociological theory. 

Second, its most important points are developed through reflecting on empirical material and drawing theoretical implications from it, which means there’s less of the usual speculation and arbitrary arguments like there being “too much” determinism or “not enough” reflexivity in the theory. Instead, Lahire tries to show that many observations do not sit easily with some of Bourdieu’s theoretical formulations.

Third, the critique is kept in a mostly constructive tone, not overly polemical (with some exceptions, notably a fierce treatment of Wacquant), which adds to the impression that TPA is a genuine attempt at sociological debate and development, not posturing or positioning. 

Substantively, TPA raises a number of questions about Bourdieu’s views, especially around the concept of habitus. In fact, I read it as so engaged with the Bourdieusian perspective that I wonder how TPA reads for someone not well-versed in Bourdieu’s writings. But if you are rather familiar with Bourdieu, and tend to agree with him, _and_ if you’re open to some fairly intense and detailed questioning, the book is a treat.

There are three main points to Lahire’s “non-antagonistic” critique of habitus: 1) the plurality of dispositions; 2) the overstatement of the prevalence of “practical sense”; 3) the need to study just how the social becomes embodied — how we acquire our dispositions.

Let’s look at them a bit more closely.

First main point: the plurality of dispositions, alluded to in the title. Lahire thinks the concept of habitus presupposes a unified set of dispositions that are rather unproblematically transferred across fields or contexts.  Bourdieu suggests this in Distinction when he speaks of the “synthetic unity of the habitus, the unifying, generative principle of all practices”.  This means that actors’ taste in different symbolic subspaces (furniture, music, etc) are produced by the same principle, “expressing the same expressive intent”.

Lahire says that this is all swell if meant illustratively on the level of classes, but when you move to the level of the individual, things become messier: actors’ dispositions are not that unitary. There’s an ”embodiment by each actor of a multiplicity of schemes of action” involving or relating to different repertoires, contexts, positions, roles, etc. (so that one’s taste in furniture might actually express something else than one’s taste in music, for instance, or one’s expressed taste in music might differ by context). This goes on to become the theme of La culture des individus – The culture of individuals – in which Lahire attempts to substantiate this plurality of dispositions via some creative, and arguably questionable, empirical analysis of the cultural practices of the French.

Dispositions become plural when/where individuals are not subject to one monolithic socialization experience, but have multiple and less than entirely reenforcing experiences of socialization. Lahire does not make this into a general theoretical position, but stresses that the degree of unity or fragmentation of dispositions is an empirical question.

For Lahire, habitus refers to unitary dispositions, making habitus a special case. It’s implied that “habitus” is more appropriate for weakly differentiated societies, where dispositions are not shaped by a plurality of contexts, such as the Kabylia of Bourdieu’’s early ethnography. 

Now, Lahire recognizes (in a footnote) that Bourdieu came to speak of “cleft habitus”, but Lahire seems to suggest that this is misleadingly conceptualized as an exception to the rule of the unitary habitus.  However, for Lahire, it’s the other way around: in highly differentiated societies, a unitary habitus is the exception.

Is Lahire right on this first point? I’d say yes and no. It seems to me that he is right to underline the diversity of socialization in highly differentiated societies, so that it seems reasonable to expect diversified dispositions on the individual level.  (I have unfortunately only read bits of the empirical work underpinning this, but I am tempted to believe it, at least generally speaking). 

However, I am not persuaded that the very concept of habitus only refers to unified and monolithic dispositions, even if Lahire points to specific formulations that clearly suggests so.  Indeed, even if Bourdieu might have empirically underestimated the “plural” nature of habitus in differentiated societies, I think it follows from his more general theoretical formulations that we may speak of individual habitus, not just class habitus, and that habitus is formed through one’s history, so that lives lived in differentiated and multifaceted contexts would lead to a multifaceted and probably dissonant habitus, at least to some extent.  (It should be mentioned that Lahire has also produced a critique of Bourdieu’s analysis of social differentiation in terms of field theory, but this is only sketched out in TPA, so I’ll leave that aside for now).

In other words, I think Lahire makes important substantive points, which cautions against assuming the singularity of dispositions, and provides us with concepts to think and research this with. But I don’t think that necessitates jettisoning the concept of habitus. To my mind, the focus on the dispositions of the individual – with all its potential tensions and contradictions – is compatible with the theory underpinning the concept of habitus. 

However, there are important implications of this point for Bourdieu’s notion of “ontological complicity”, because the collusion of constraints and practices seems to depend on dispositions being formed under conditions rather similar to their conditions of application; and because the plurality of socialising experiences equip actors with plural dispositions, not all of which may be so liable to be complicit with specific (aspects of) constraints of social structures, or how these structures are actualized in specific contexts. 

Moving beyond what is addressed in the book, the plurality of dispositions probably has implications for the empirical scope of the theory of symbolic domination. /33 

This because plural actors may well have dispositions that allow them different perspectives on relations of domination, so that these might appear less than fully naturalized, being perceived more reflexively. Probably something to mull over in the future. 

Second main point in The Plural Actor: Lahire questions the emphasis put on pre-reflexive action. Again, his approach is empirical, in that he does not seek a general answer to how reflexive or habitual/subconscious human practice “really is”.  Bourdieu famously positioned himself against both voluntarist and structuralist accounts, arguing that action is neither unambiguously free nor fully scripted or determined by norms or structures. Instead, Bourdieu emphasized how actors are both creative and knowledgeable, but the knowledge is principally tacit and much/most of our practice is guided by the practical sense of habitus, as opposed to deliberation or rational calculations. 

In making these points, Bourdieu drew on sporting metaphors that stressed the urgency of action: we’re often caught up in the heat of the moment, not in a position to think things through before acting. Lahire warns against accepting this as some general truth about practice.  Making good use of his earlier research on everyday practices of writing, Lahire details how, even if we are indeed often caught up in the action, there are also plenty of instances where we can plan ahead (take notes, make lists, plans, schedules etc)  and also where we may look back and reflect on what we’ve done (as with diaries or written letters). 

There is a very accomplished section devoted to questioning Bourdieu’s use of the sporting metaphor, as when Bourdieu compares much/most of social action to sportsmen/-women who manage to move in the right ways, without these moves being deliberated or calculated. Lahire points out, though, that sports is not just about the action of the game, but also training, planning and critical evaluations of performance, with clear relevance to social action more generally.

In extension of this, there is an intense attack on Wacquant’s study of boxers, the ferocity of which took me by surprise. Lahire mobilizes a lot of Wacquant’s own material against W’s claims to the effect that discourse and language are marginal to embodiment.

Lahire argues that this unlikely in general terms, and then by quoting numerous examples from Wacquant’s book of how discourse and language seems to play a central part in the very embodiment Wacquant seeks to analyse.  The part on Wacquant is probably the harshest I’ve seen from Lahire thus far, save for his treatment of journalists and politicians in Pour la sociologie).

So, Lahire argues that while it is correct that we’re often acting in the semi-conscious practical manner emphasized by Bourdieu, there are also plenty of instances in which deliberation and reflection comes into play.  In other words, the claim here is that Bourdieu overemphasized “practical consciousness” and downplayed “discursive consciousness”, to borrow Giddens’ terms. 

Lahire turns this into a more general critique of sociological theories of action, arguing that how reflective or pre-reflective we “are” will vary by context, implying that different theories fit different contexts. (This theme returns towards the end of the book, where Lahire calls for a sort of pragmatic pluralism in sociology and expresses serious doubts about the possibility of theoretical synthesis.)

Third major point in TPA: Towards the end, TPA introduces what has become a major element in Lahire’s work, namely the study of how we come to acquire our dispositions/habitus.  To borrow a formulation from my friend Dieter Vandebroeck: if class is in our heads and bodies, how did it get there?

In TPA, this is branded as “psychological sociology”, a term Lahire has later dropped (rightly, in my view), in favour of “sociology at the level of the individual”. The point of this sociology at the individual level is to advance an analysis of how social forces shape people, thereby sketching what a renewed study of socialization might look like. 

Lahire claims that socialization and the socialized actor is often assumed or posited in sociological explanations, but that socialization as such is not frequently studied. Here, Lahire attempts to dispel the distinction between the objective and the subjective, between social and mental structures, saying that these are not, in fact, two aspects of social reality, but just different perspectives on the same reality, and that there is only really a matter of difference of degree of objectification (This brings him quite close to the standpoint of the “duality of structure (and agency)”, although Lahire obviously doesn’t discuss Giddens). 

This claim is not strongly developed here (and we know from Anglophone debates how controversial it has proven to be).My guess is that the point of making it is probably to suggest that there are not radical differences between studying social and mental structures — they both involve studying practices (again very structurationist). There are interesting reflections on how “unobservables” like dispositions are actually studied — essentially via their manifestations in practices across contexts — although what’s said about this in TPA is just an outline. 

Lahire draws out methodological implications of his arguments about plurality: we should focus on socialization at the individual level and seek to scrutinize dispositions by observing individuals in different contexts, to see how their dispositions are realized. However, he recognizes the practical and ethical problems with this, and he (more or less) concludes that what a sociology at the level of individuals would actually amount to, would be interviewing the same individuals repeatedly about different themes. This is the method he pursued in the ensuing empirical application of the ideas presented in TPA, Portraits Sociologique. 

In this context, Lahire introduces the metaphor of the social in a folded state, a metaphor that will reappear numerous times in his later works, even in the title of the summary of his theoretical views, published some 16 years later (Dans les plis singuliers du social — In the singular folds of the social). The idea here is that what we customarily think of as social structure refers to the social in an unfolded state, and that through socialization, the social becomes folded into us (dispositions). If the social space can be represented on a flat sheet of paper, actors have a folded or crumbled version of this in their minds and bodies. In each individual, the social is folded or crumbled a little differently. 

Does this make sense? I have no idea. Even after having read multiple presentations of it, I’m still not sure the metaphor of the social in a folded state is very apt, or I might just not get it. One reservation I would have is that it might be seen as implying that what is internalised is the current state of the social structure, but it seems clear that one’s dispositions is rather strongly shaped by earlier states of that structure – habitus being the product of history and all.

Having finished the book, I went back and reread the preface to the English edition. Lahire presents the book as an attempt to clarify and sum up questions he had been mulling over during his earlier work. That made a lot of sense to me; that’s very much how the book reads.

The Plural Actor may be Lahire’s most programmatic book (according to Frédéric Vandenberghe), but for the most part, it doesn’t really feel like a program. I mean, he does advance one, but the book doesn’t read like a manifesto. One thing I enjoyed about The Plural Actor is that it kinda feels like he’s just sharing his reflections and critical observations on a body of work that influenced him greatly. If it influenced you too, it’s likely that you can learn a fair bit from Lahire. 

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